I was at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate almost 3 weeks’ ago now and I just wanted to share some of the ideas that came out of the conference, things that particularly struck me.
I was surprised that Michael Lewis’ book The Lexical Approach is now 20 years old. The idea of students learning vocabulary in context and becoming aware of fixed expressions in speech is still very much part of my teaching philosophy. Michael Hoey, in his plenary, talked about the importance of lexis, about how, if you store words as part of a combination (like black and white or get married to), being able to recall one part of this combination will help you recall the other. Language, as he said, is not about having grammatical frames into which we slot words but about having a bank of expressions into which we slot grammar.
However, I wonder if this idea has been translated into syllabi around the world. Many of the teachers who come on our teacher training courses complain of very fixed grammar-led syllabi, stating that they often ‘don’t have enough time for’ vocabulary or at least to look at vocabulary within the context of a text.
Michael Hoey also talked about the fact that there is no single language, just languages with a number of variables. Kathleen Graves, in her plenary the previous day, had shown a clip of a class in which the children were transferring phrases from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) into the standard English required for schooling. Therefore ‘he funny’ (accurate in AAVE) was transferred to ‘he was funny’. Kathleen Graves talked about how AAVE is considered substandard – but is it? Or is it just a variety of English? And who decides what the standard is anyway?
This AAVE class was a perfect example of a teacher using their students as a resource and also of that teacher effectively preparing the students for a standardised test. Very inspiring.
Later in the day, I attended the Cambridge Signature Event about LOA (Learning Oriented Assessment) in which the message was about putting learning and learners back at the heart of assessment through individualised goals and purposeful language activities. LOA is a combination of formal exams and class-based tasks which are assessed and then provide the teacher with evidence of strengths and weaknesses which can then be fed into the next stage of the planning / learning process. Learners also give feedback on their own learning.
The idea here is that the end-of-course test is not the ‘be all and end all’, which seems logical to me. Assessment also provides future learning targets. However, as the speakers pointed out, LOA relies on the expertise of teachers (who are not necessarily assessment specialists) and also formalises a process which most teachers currently do intuitively (we all know who the stronger / less able students in our classes are). This will lead to a heavier workload in terms of paperwork.
Jane Spiro also raised an interesting point. She commented that what teachers believe is a good lesson might not correspond to what students believe. I think most teachers know this but it was good to think about it again. Jane also asked who should decide how students learn: the students or the teachers? Here at Anglolang we have a negotiated syllabus, which means that the students have an important input into what goes on in the classroom. This is important: if students are engaged in their class, they will be more motivated to learn and participate.
This brings me back once again to Michael Hoey’s plenary. He talked about what students expect in a class and what the role of the teacher should be. The term ‘manager of learning opportunities’ is slightly long-winded but today’s teacher is not expected to know everything. They are supposed to facilitate learning. For me, this also means making students aware of where they can go for more information or practice (self-study) and also helping them to develop better learning skills (learner training).
Michael Hoey also stated that ‘classrooms reflect the societies they come from’. Some cultures are less communicative than others and therefore some classrooms will also be less communicative. Food for thought. Especially when I am trying to get my xxx (substitute as appropriate) to be quiet and my xxxxx (again substitute!) to say anything at all!
Many of the sessions I attended were fairly theoretical so it was good to attend a couple of practical training sessions. Sandy Millin’s session focussing on how we can help students develop real-life listening skills and how we can help them ‘transition’ to real-life listening texts was excellent. I was reminded of Mark Hancock’s excellent website (and the word blender – have a look!) and the micro-dictations activity (in which the teacher reads one sentence at a time and asks the students to write it down). I was also encouraged to try different websites (www.elllo.org, where there is a HUGE range of listening material divided by topic, level and country; and www.ted.com, which I had heard of but have never used. There are a variety of talks on different topics. Some of them are fairly long so they would need to be adapted. Alternatively, students could listen to the talks at home.
Jamie Keddie’s workshop based around a sneezing baby panda video was also excellent. He was looking at using videos to tell stories, getting participants to guess what the story was about (and initially giving no indication that the video would be about pandas!) and then to predict what happened next before retelling. It was good to come away with some practical low preparation classroom material.
I really enjoyed the conference and it gave me a lot of things to think about. Do you have any thoughts about what I thought?(!)