Speaking your mind?

Speaking in an exam

[image from playbill.com)

“I don’t mind talking to you or my classmates in English; in fact, I quite enjoy it. But it’s different when I have to have a conversation with a stranger whose job is to look for mistakes in what I say and how I say it – the examiner is not there to support me, but to judge me. And they’re not interested in talking to me,  they just want to do their job, pass or fail me, and then go home!”

This is how a learner preparing for a public exam described his attitude to the speaking test. And he’s actually quite right. His words capture two salient characteristics of speaking tests, which both teachers and learners need to remember:

  • A speaking test is not a normal communicative interaction. The main purpose is neither to exchange information, nor to exchange opinions, nor to express feelings. The main purpose is for the learner to demonstrate what they know and what they can do in English and for the examiner to judge the learner’s performance.
  • The examiner’s job is, indeed, to make decisions about the learner’s level based on the evidence the learner provides. In most EFL examination contexts, the examiner is actually discouraged from speaking naturally and participating naturally in a conversation with the learner; instead, they are asked to follow a script in the interests of standardization and fairness.

An unnatural situation

The ensuing unnaturalness of the situation is not an accident, but rather an inherent necessity, one of the necessary evils, it seems, of exams. Speaking examiners, who are mostly teachers themselves, learn to check their teaching personality at the examination room door and put on the hat of the impartial, but occasionally robotic, examiner. In a similar way, learners may also have to learn that it is in their best interest to adopt a speaking style for the examination room which may be very different from what is the norm in natural conversation.

Research into natural conversation (for example, Leech 2000, Quaglio and Biber 2006, Miller 2006) has shown that it displays characteristics like the following:

  • at least half of the utterances are fragments, incomplete clauses and parenthetics
  • more than 60% of the complete clauses used have a very simple subject – verb – object structure
  • more than 70% of the verbs are in the present tense
  • there are quite a few structures (including non-defining relative clauses, participial clauses and infinitive clauses) which are extremely rare
  • lexical density and  lexical diversity are both very low, which means that a limited number of words are used, rare words are avoided and many of the words are repeated again and again
  • cohesive devices are limited to very simple conjunctions like and and but, with only occasional use of conjuncts.

And yet, to prove that they have reached an advanced level, learners taking a speaking exam are expected to demonstrate that they can construct full, grammatical sentences, that they can use a broad range of grammatical structures, that they have an appropriate range of vocabulary at their disposal and that they can employ a variety of cohesive devices to help them connect their ideas and signal what logical relationships obtain between different ideas. In other words, the kind of speaking performance that will earn learners good marks in a speaking test seems to display none of the characteristics of natural conversation; worse still, speaking tests seem to require that learners should use a register that is more typical of written than of spoken English. 

What should we teach them, then?

That doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers should be teaching learners how to speak unnaturally. In my view, we should instead make sure that learners understand what the requirements of the exam are and make clear when we are practising  exam skills rather than practising the language. Rather than pretending that what learners have to do in the exam is simply “be themselves” and interact the way they would in “real life” (which, unsurprisingly, is a shorthand term in the ELT world for “life outside the classroom”), I think we should clarify that an exam is most certainly not a normal communicative context, that it has its own rules and its own conventions, that it is, at the end of the day, a spoken genre different  from almost all the others, which learners can master, given the right guidance.

Sheldon or Penny?

Such guidance would include explicit references to the assessment criteria used in the exam and activities focusing on evaluating spoken performance in relation to those criteria. This, however, could be introduced as a game: listening to normal conversations and deciding whether they would be  good enough for an exam as well as listening to less normal conversations and deciding whether those would be good enough for an exam. Which of the two characters, for example, in the video below would you say interacts normally? And which one demonstrates a good range of structures and vocabulary that examiners would appreciate?

Learners in the know

Once learners realise that they need to play a role in the examination room, for which they need to develop a different manner of speaking, one that shows off their language knowledge and skills, it will be possible to continue teaching them real English as well as preparing them for the exam without feeling as though we were all taking part in an absurd performance of an absurd play.  All we have to do is keep the two separated: this is real life, that is exam survival!

References

Leech, G. 2000. Grammars of spoken English: new outcomes of corpus‐oriented research. Language Learning 50 (4):675‐724
Quagluio P. and D. Biber 2006. The Grammar of Conversation. In B.Aarts and A. McMahon (Eds.) The Handbook of English Linguistics. Oxford:  Blackwell.

A, B, C, DELTA

What is the DELTA?

The DELTA is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, so it’s what follows ABC. It’s also the name of the modular Cambridge Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which makes sense, as that’s a qualification that defintely goes beyond the ABC of language teaching methodology! However, the name of the Cambridge DELTA has nothing to do with the Greek alphabet – not everything was invented by the Greeks! DELTA used to be an acronym for Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults, but as the scheme evolved over the years, it naturally became more context-sensitive and is no longer limited to teaching adults; the brand name, though, was retained, so the names of the two popular Cambridge qualifications for English language teachers, CELTA and DELTA, continue to rhyme!

Who is the DELTA for?

As an advanced, Level 7 qualification, the DELTA is not intended for those with little or no previous experience or training in ELT methodology. It is, indeed, a qualification for experienced teachers, who are already familiar with the principles of ELT methodology and have a high level of language awareness.

The DELTA is, therefore, in many cases a requirement for more senior (and better paid!) ELT-related positions internationally, such as EAP Tutor or Director of Studies. It can also be an important step to becoming a teacher trainer – in fact, a DELTA (or an equivalent qualification) is a Cambridge requirement  for those who wish to train as a CELTA tutor.

What does the DELTA consist of?

For the majority of teachers who decide to begin their DELTA journey to professional development, the first step is DELTA Module 1. Module 1 is assessed by external examination and the syllabus covers all of the background knowledge an experiences teacher should have: a detailed knowledge of grammar, phonology, lexis and discourse, a very good understanding of the four skills, familiarity with language acquisition theories and language teaching approaches and methods, a good grasp of assessment and testing principles and practice, as well as the ability to analyse and evaluate teaching materials, techniques and resources. Module 1 then provides the background that you need to design and teach different kinds of lessons as well as plan and implement a professional development plan as a teacher, which is what Module 2 is about. Finally, Module 3 gives you the chance to focus on an area of specialism, such as teaching exam classes or teaching academic English, and design a whole course, thus extending your knowledge of teaching and learning principles and putting everything you’ve learnt in Modules 1 and 2 into practice.

How can I start my DELTA journey?

Module 1 is, as I explained above, an exam-based qualification. You don’t actually have to attend a preparation course – theoretically, anyone can take the exam, whether they have attended a course or not, and if they pass it they will be awarded the DELTA Module 1 certificate. In practice, though, most people choose to follow a course to prepare for their DELTA exam and personally I think it’s necessary, not only because you need to ensure that you have covered the exam syllabus, but also because you need to understand how the exam works and what kind of information you are expected to provide in answer to each of the exam questions.

The problem, however, is that anyone and everyone can claim to offer a Module 1 preparation course, whether or not they have the background, knowledge and experience required. So if you’re thinking of doing a Module 1 course, I would suggest that you spend some time researching and evaluating the options you have.

What should I consider before choosing a course?

Having designed and taught DELTA Module 1 courses ever since the modular DELTA was first offered, more than ten years ago, and having heard from a lot of colleagues with both positive and negative experience of DELTA Module 1 courses, I would suggest that you consider the following before you make a decision about which course to enrol on:

  • How many hours is the course and how many of those are contact hours between tutors and participants?
    Check exactly what the course provider means when they say, for example, that the course is 100 hours; do they mean 100 hours of contact or of self-study? I have found that 50 contact hours and another 50 directed study hours is the absolute minimum,
  • What is the course schedule? Does it clearly cover all areas of the DELTA syllabus? Does it contain an exam taking skills component?
    Ask to see a sample course schedule or timetable before you enrol. Make sure that the syllabus is covered comprehensively and that input is included on areas such as language acquisition theories, error analysis, approaches and methods, assessment, materials evaluation, skills development. Check also that the course includes a heavy language analysis component covering all areas of grammar, phonology, lexis and discourse. And finally, check that exam taking skills are also covered and that at least one DELTA mock exam is included.
  • Who are the tutors? Are they qualified? How familiar are they with the DELTA? 
    These are obvious questions, but often we assume that because someone has the nerve to offer a DELTA course, they must be qualified; unfortunately, that is not always the case. So do check that the tutors are Cambridge-approved DELTA tutors and that they have experience of teaching Module 1.
  • What materials and resources does the course use?
    Most DELTA Module 1 courses are offered online these days. But ‘online’ can mean very different things: from a Moodle-based course with limited contact between participants and tutors to a live online course taught on a platform like Zoom or Blackboard, where you can interact with other participants and with the tutors on a regular basis.
  • How much does the course cost?
    A DELTA Module 1 course doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. There are courses out there with a very limited number of contact hours that cost 1000 Euro or more! The question to ask yourself here is “does that look like good value for money?” But don’t forget to do your research before you make a decision!

Shall we throw grammar out with the bath water?

Do we need grammar?

My first thought when somebody asks the question do we need grammar? is “of course we do, what are you talking about?” Still, bitter experience has taught me that easy answers are not necessarily, or even usually, correct, especially when the question itself is ambiguous, so I then go on to consider the question more carefully. 

If the question is taken to mean “do we need to teach grammar explicitly,” then the jury seems to have been out for at least a few decades; far from coming up with a simple, direct answer, psycholinguistic research seems to be simultaneously supporting both that we need grammar and that we don’t need it (see, for example, Ellis 2015). Nevertheless, there will always be those for whom, in the words of Henry Widdowson (1985, p. 161) “the delusion of simple answers will always be available as an attractive alternative to thought.” Thus, the dogmatic certainty of some, even today, that we should (at last!) do away with grammar can only compare to the certainty of others, more than a hundred years ago, that explicit study of grammar rules is the only way in which we can learn a foreign language. It seems to me that they are both wrong, not (just) because the truth is usually in the “middle ground” between two extremes, but because the question itself is problematic.

Reframing the question

A question like “do we need grammar?” is actually not just problematic, but quite meaningless if we haven’t defined what we mean by grammar, who ‘we’ refers to and what “we” might need grammar for. Thus, the answers I might give to the question would be very different in each of the following cases:

  • whether  ‘we’ refers to language learners or language teachers
  • whether by ‘grammar’ we mean explicit, declarative knowledge or implicit, procedural knowledge of the grammar rules
  • whether we ‘need’ grammar for interaction in basic everyday communication contexts or in order to write an article, a short story or a poem or in order to teach the language

Do teachers need grammar?

As a language teacher educator, I think I can understand why I am inclined to defend grammar: I am thinking of language teachers rather than learners, and the need for them to possess declarative, not just procedural, knowledge of grammar, so that they can compose fully accurate models of language for their students and so that  they can make informed decisions about how much (or how little!) grammar instruction their students need and what form this grammar instruction should take depending on the type of learners, their level and their learning purpose. In other words, what I am inclined to claim is that foreign language teachers need detailed, explicit knowledge of grammar even if they choose not to teach grammar explicitly in all cases. 

Why do teachers need grammar?

In fact, knowledge of grammar (and yes, I mean declarative knowledge of the grammar rules) is a prerequisite for teaching the language even if the teacher has chosen not to teach grammar explicitly. To be precise, if they have chosen not to teach grammar explicitly, it may be even more imperative that the teacher should know their grammar. Here is why:

  • They can select what kind of language to include in the models they provide, so that the models do not confuse the learners and make clear and obvious the meaning and use of the structures they exemplify.
  • They can select appropriate contexts for the structures in focus, that is contexts which naturally invite the use of the structure and which make the meaning and use very clear without the need to resort to explanation.
  • They can devise appropriate, i.e. clear and simple, checking questions to ensure  that the learners have understood the forms and meanings in focus even if no explicit presentation of the rules is provided.
  • They can anticipate what problems the learners might have and devise appropriate tasks and activities to help learners overcome these problems.
  • They can plan what to say if learners should ask the question most teachers dread: “why do we say it like that?”

Dismissing grammar and grammar teaching altogether on the grounds that explicit study of the grammar rules is not useful or not appropriate in a particular context makes little sense. At best, it’s based on a logical leap: explicit grammar teaching can be ineffective, therefore let’s not teach grammar at all; or worse, let’s not even bother to find out what grammar and grammar teaching involves. Beheading  the patient may be a radical cure for headache, but let’s not forget it inevitably results in the patient’s death. 

References
Ellis, N. (2015). Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning .Their dynamic interface and complexity. In P. Rebuschat (ed.), Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (pp. 3- 23). Michigan: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Widdowson, H. G. (1985). Against dogma: a reply to Michael Swan. ELT Journal 39, 1985, pp. 158-161

Respect and Inquiry in Teacher Education

‘I see myself as a transmitter of knowledge,’ a teacher trainer told me a few years ago. Her job, as she saw it, was to convey to her trainees what she herself had learnt mainly by reading about language and language teaching methodology and by attending courses, seminars and conferences. Intuitively, I’m sure many trainers would agree, to a certain extent at least. There does seem to be a body of knowledge that is relevant to our profession and that can be transmitted to teachers-in-training. One might mention, for example, the following areas of “received” or public knowledge that is theoretically transmittable and arguably useful to foreign language teachers:

  • knowledge of the subject matter to be taught, i.e. language
  • knowledge of second language acquisition research
  • knowledge of methods and techniques that have been developed specifically for teaching foreign languages

However, even though it seems intuitively obvious that a language teacher should know about such things, the type and amount of knowledge they require has been a matter of debate for at least the last twenty years. Bartels (2005, p. 411), for example, concludes after reviewing relevant research that “well-formed KAL [Knowledge About Language] does not seem to be necessary to be a superior language teacher”. Freeman and Johnson (1998, p. 412), similarly warn that knowledge of second language acquisition research may be “of limited use and applicability to  practicing teachers”. In addition, Freeman (2016, p. 161) points out that a reliance on knowledge of methods and techniques in teacher education represents a simplistic view of teacher education, while Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 29) emphasizes the need for practitioners themselves to “generate location-specific, classroom-oriented innovative practices” in the post-method condition.

In fact, whatever “received knowledge” there is to transmit could only form part of the content of a teacher education programme. In Jourdenais’s (2009, p.652) view, this would represent the  “public theories” component, i.e. the “theories articulated in published literature and research”. However, a more important dimension of teacher education is teachers’ private theories, which are not necessarily based on received wisdom, but rather on the teachers’ own beliefs, experiences and actions. The divide between what teachers learn on teacher training courses and what they actually do in the classroom may actually have everything to do with the fact that the received (and transmitted) knowledge of “public theories” remains disconnected from teachers’ private theories, formed through practice and developed through reflection on practice.

As a trainer, then, my job is not (merely) to transmit such received knowledge, but rather, as Hedgcock (2002, p. 309) puts it, to enable teachers to question, critique and challenge public theories so that they can “construct their own operational theories of classroom practice”. Far from being a linear process of knowledge transmission, teacher learning seems to be a process of internalisation in the Vygotskian sense, whereby the focus of attention is “on the character and quality of the activities they [teachers and learners] are engaged in together, the resources they are using to engage in those activities, and what is being accomplished by engaging in those activities” (Johnson 2009, p. 62).

This is quite a humbling realisation for a teacher trainer. Privileged access to a body of received knowledge which you can use to design teacher training programmes and sessions seems a relatively easy and secure route to becoming a teacher trainer; acknowledging, however, that your work actually involves helping teachers reshape and transform their thinking in ways that cannot be predicted and in contexts which you may not be fully familiar with forces you to realise that collaborative critical enquiry is the basis of teacher education (indeed, it seems to be the basis of all educational activity): there can be no superior, privileged positions in this collaborative endeavour; there can only be mutual respect and a willingness to question public theories in the light of your own and your trainees’ situated practice.

This is not to say that there aren’t things that the trainer “knows” and the trainees do not yet “know” or that there is no room for “received knowledge” in a teacher education programme. What I am suggesting is that neither the nature nor the usefulness and applicability of such knowledge is ever a given: the body of received knowledge itself is constantly growing and, perhaps more importantly, both the trainers’ and the trainee teachers’ personal theories should also be constantly developing, based on reflection and critical inquiry, i.e. the persistent questioning and critique of the  experiences, behaviours and actions of both trainers and trainees. What there is no room for is the kind of trainers who see themselves as sages in possession of all knowledge. Because knowledge is a process, not an object to be acquired; and it cannot be possessed, it can only be questioned!

References
Bartels, N. (2005) Applied linguistics and language teacher education: what we know. In Bartels, N (ed) Applied Linguistics and Language Teacher Education. Boston: Springer.
Freeman, D (2016). Educating Second Language Teachers. The Same Things Done Differently. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Freeman, D. & Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly 32, 397–417.
Hedgcock, J. (2002). Toward a socioliterate approach to second language teacher education. Modern Language Journal 86, 299–317.
Johnson, K. E. (2009). Second Language Teacher Education. A Sociocultural Perspective. New York: Routledge
Jourdenais, R. (2009). Language teacher education. In M. H. Long, & C. J. Doughty (Eds.), The handbook of language teaching. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The postmethod condition: (e)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 27–48.