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Let’s Get Physical!

Back to normal?

As coronavirus lockdown eases in many countries, restrictions are lifted and once more teaching in a physical class is becoming a reality. It is still, though, far from a return to normal, if there ever was a normal. The imposed physical distancing and health protocols that we need to adhere to are sources of additional stress in our already demanding and stressful professional lives as teachers. Adding the very real and justified fear of possible exposure to Covid-19 certainly does not make things easier for us. 

Last year, when I got back for the first time to face-to-face, I remember feeling exhausted after the first interactions. I had to tackle so many things at the same time: I had to manage my own feelings of anxiety while not distressing students and trainees and adjusting to the new reality in the classroom. This new reality meant that well-established classroom routines of practice had to be adapted in accordance with health safety protocols. 

After a year or so since that first comeback, here are a few things I’ve learned. Some might seem obvious or minor, but the devil is in the details.

We are not alone in this. 

Exchanging experiences and brainstorming with colleagues, talking to students and trainees, evaluating, reflecting, and adapting are always ways forward. Asking for help through our networks even for what might seem insignificant at the time does not mean that we lose face. We simply evolve through participating in a community by sharing. Collective experience and hive mind can provide more answers and invaluable emotional support.

Safety comes first

It really does. Protocols set by health experts should not be ignored or adapted to our own way of doing things. Some rules are not meant to be broken or even bent. The health risks are simply too high for that.

Be clear and succinct.  

I am not talking about giving efficient instructions during a lesson here although the same applies to it as well. I am referring to how implementation of guidelines is best achieved. Engaging in endless debates regarding the distance between desks, or the carrying capacity of people in the classroom each time different teachers enter a class can create confusion amongst students and friction between colleagues. It’s best that everyone is on the same page and guidelines are discussed and agreed upon beforehand with colleagues and administration. It is always easier to communicate to others what we already have a clear understanding of ourselves.

Plan ahead 

Under the circumstances, there are simply too many things to consider for a successful outcome. From time management and how that may cause more people to be in the waiting area at a specific time to handling material and managing appropriately distanced interactions while students engage in group/pair work and teachers monitor. Going into a class thinking I’ve done it so many times, or how hard can it be simply won’t cut it. Careful lesson planning rises once again as an invaluable tool to successful lessons.

Classroom setting

Have just the allowed number of seats / desks. Often when there is extra seating, people tend to occupy the extra space by putting their personal belongings or stretching to more than one seat or even moving closer to others. If you are responsible for sanitising surfaces between groups as is often the case for teachers, you definitely do not need the extra work. If possible, have a window open at all times, even if the air conditioning is on. Ventilation is important but outside noises can disrupt lessons. Consider the length and volume of listening tasks. Extra Wi-Fi speakers placed around the class work wonders. Sharing audio files on students’ mobile phones, provided there are no copyright issues involved, works well for short texts as well. 

Handling equipment and materials in classroom 

Does anyone have a pen? Can you give me your unicorn eraser? Can we share books? This sort of questions is now almost obsolete since everyone is used to not sharing anymore. However, that is not always the case for both children and adults. A packet of wipes can be an indispensable accessory in any class, especially those with very young learners. 

Cleaning and sanitising expensive electronic equipment needs attention. Make sure you know what is recommended before you splash sanitiser all over an interactive whiteboard or a laptop. Conventional whiteboards are cleaned and sanitised more easily but anyhow it is a good idea to avoid having more than two people on the board at the same time. 

Going paperless is not wishful thinking anymore. However, it requires access to equipment, a certain familiarisation with computers and applications from both teacher and students. In most contexts nowadays personal tablets or smartphones could be used in class. Handouts could be sent before class electronically and so can any piece of homework. In class, applications such as learning apps, or Mentimeter and Kahoot can be used for tasks, questions and games. There are plenty of applications to explore and choose the one that best fit your purposes. 

Physical proximity in class

Any pair or group work activity in class involves physical proximity. Because this cannot be the case anymore that does not mean that group or pair work should be abandoned altogether. On the contrary, collaboration, besides promoting positive learning outcomes, also promotes positive emotions and a sense of optimism, all very much needed in classrooms today. In my experience, raised voices are not as loud as you might expect and do not distract students from other pairs. Other activities, such as collaborative writing in class through instant messaging, though, may work for some groups of students but not for others.

Some of the most common questions from trainees and less experienced teachers regard monitoring. It is an acquired skill and does take practice to develop that unobtrusive way of being there for students and knowing how things are progressing for everyone in class without encroaching on students’ personal space and being overbearing. In fact, physical distancing in class forces teachers to practice what most experienced teachers do anyway: monitor effectively from a distance. Find a spot in class that you can be and observe from there. Arrange seating so that there is a clear view of everyone from your spot and so that you can move around easily if needed.  

The elephant in the room wears a mask under its trunk

It is understandable that people may complain about wearing faces masks, especially during warm or rainy days. The amount of time spent on asking students to adjust their masks has been considerable according to some teachers. A way around this may be discussing with the class, even with young learners, commonly accepted rules, and using gestures to remind each other to stay safe. By providing space for students to exercise their own agency and become actively involved in class management, staying safe can become a non-issue. 

What remains an issue, though, is the raised voices and the repetitions. There seems to be a consensus amongst teachers, students, trainees and tutors that communication is impeded because of the masks. But is this really the case? What about medical staff? Surely, they have always been communicating more vital information than what is shared in an ELT class quite successfully wearing masks for longer hours than we have to. And what about communicating in places and classes where there are people wearing face coverings for religious reasons? 

Shakespeare said the eyes are the windows to the soul. Although I am not convinced about the soul part, eyes do tell more than we think. Research has shown that we identify emotions just from looking at the eyes. What research has also shown us is that we can still be understood if we’re speaking through any sort of facewear as sound and articulation are not really influenced. What I have noticed is that the incidents of people complaining about masks and comprehensibility have reduced over time, even during oral exams. Masks can be an issue for some but only if we keep thinking about them. As the most memorable line from Donnie Brasco goes “Forget about it”.

Touching, but not 

The no touching of people in class is a rule that for some coming from cultures where physical contact even amongst strangers is accepted, is often hard to follow. Perhaps because touching is demonstrative of acceptance and support, and proximity provides a sense of understated commandry. Whatever the reason, unlike other contexts in which physical touching has always been a definite no-no, students talk about a feeling of “being deprived” or the “sense that something is missing”. So, there’s a negative space for us teachers to occupy with meaning. I found myself more preoccupied than usual with students’ interests and needs. I think that many teachers and trainees unconsciously go the extra mile to have lessons that are more interesting and interactive for students. And I think that the reason for that might be the need to compensate and to keep making our lessons fun in spite of everything, as demonstrated in the comment one of the students made to a trainee: “Thank you for the lesson. I had a really great time!”. Both teacher and student left the class with a smile.

Pedagogy before technology.

The last year or so has been particularly straining for teachers: online, blended, face-to-face and, depending on which part of the world you are located in, having to be able to move from one to the other at any given time. Technology has been for most the beast to tackle. Don’t get me wrong, technology can be an ally to what teaching will turn into next but, in my book, it can never substitute for critically reflecting on the pedagogical value of our practice. 

Self-care is class well-being

Getting back to face-to-face is not a reason for panic attacks. It takes some planning, effort, and time on our part to ultimately transform it into a very satisfying experience. In difficult times, we need not to forget ourselves. After all, we play a vital part in the well-being of others. Social support and engaging in pleasurable activities are prescribed as good self-care strategies. For me teaching is included in these self-care strategies and is perhaps the most creative way to reclaim our lives during a pandemic.

Some further reading 

Clement, M. (2017). Why combatting teachers’ stress is everyone’s job. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas90(4), 135-138. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2017.1323519

Glanz, J. (2005). What every principal should know about collaborative leadership. Corwin Press.

Hansson, A., Hillerås, P., & Forsell, Y. (2005). What kind of self-care strategies do people report using and is there an association with well-being? Social Indicators Research73(1), 133–139. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-004-0995-3

Lee, D. H., & Anderson, A. K. (2017). Reading What the Mind Thinks From How the Eye Sees. Psychological Science28(4), 494–503. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616687364

A couple of videos to watch 

Smiles. You cannot miss them even with the masks.

Forget about it. Some good advice. 

Elisavet Kostaki - Psoma
Elisavet Kostaki – Psoma

Elisavet has been involved in various aspects of TESOL for more than two decades: as a teacher, an examiner, a mentor and a teacher trainer. For the last two years she has also worked on various CELTA courses as an approved tutor.

Correct me if I’m wrong…

Recently I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with some unknown to me Vietnamese teachers. I was reading a case study (Ha & Murray, 2021) investigating how training can affect teachers’ beliefs and their practices regarding oral corrective feedback (OCF). It was comforting to realise that I was not alone: the questions I have had about OCF for years are also being investigated by others across contexts, cultures, and time. To date, research has, admittedly, provided some answers but there are still quite a few questions that have not been resolved. As OCF is, in most cases, an integral part of classroom practice, I thought I would share some of these questions, starting with the most obvious one: 

What is OCF?  

Lightbown and Spada, (2013) define oral corrective feedback as an “indication to a learner that his or her use of the target language is incorrect” (p.216). OCF can target a broad range of errors in learners’ production, can be immediate or delayed, and it can stem from different sources: the students themselves, their peers or their teacher (Loewen, 2013). It is also known as error correction or negative feedback. The latter can be contrasted to positive feedback, which is “an affirmation of the content or correctness of a learner utterance” (Nassaji, 2015, p. 11) intended to provide the learner with affective support.

Can we do without OCF in class? 

Well, OCF naturally occurs in class to varying degrees, whether intended or not, especially when meaning is negotiated (Loewen, 2013). Whether OCF should be provided or not depends on our beliefs (actual or stated) regarding language learning. From the nativist perspective, for which naturalistic exposure or modified input is the sole condition for learning, OCF is irrelevant; it hardly plays a role in the language acquisition process (Li, 2018). On the other hand, theoretical perspectives such as sociocultural theory, social constructivism and interactionist approaches claim OCF has an important role to play. For interactionists, especially, providing opportunities for learners to produce output and to receive feedback are core components (Mackey et. al., 2013). Experimental studies to date, mostly from the interactionist perspective, demonstrate beyond contention that OCF can facilitate L2 development (Li & Vuono, 2019).

From the pedagogical perspective, OCF was not considered significant in a range of different teaching methods, from humanistic approaches to the Natural Approach and to early versions of Communicative Language Teaching . In later versions of Communicative Language Teaching and in Task-Based Language Teaching, though, OCF was reinstated, as it was considered important for both accuracy and fluency (Ellis, 2017). Teacher guides (e.g., Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005) argue in favour of a “preventive pedagogy” (Lightbown, 1998, p. 189) that leaves little room for errors, but do advise in favour of OCF and even prescribe how and when OCF should be provided, so as not to interfere with communication and negatively impact affective factors.

Do all the errors that occur need to be addressed?

Research advocates focused OCF, i.e. addressing only some of the errors made (Ellis, 2009). Finding out about this research was a great relief for me, because growing up in a red-pen culture I felt overwhelmed with the number of errors corrected. It is not just that it was demotivating, it was also that after a while one simply does not pay attention anymore. A less-is-more approach is also what my experience as a teacher has taught me: As a novice teacher I was pressured into correcting everything explicitly to satisfy a demand for total accuracy that often equated teaching with testing. Learners, of course, due to cognitive and affective reasons, were not able to notice all the corrections in a process that was, it turns out, not conducive to learning. 

So, the subsequent question is if not all, then which errors need to be addressed. This, in theory at least, is an easy question to answer according to teacher guides (Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005): Teachers should prioritise those errors that can lead to communication breakdown or affect larger stretches of discourse (impeding, global errors) and those due to lack of knowledge over the ones that do not affect comprehensibility of whole utterances (local) and those that are not systematic (known as performance errors or mistakes). However, research does not fully support this convenient recipe: there is evidence in favour of correcting local errors as well as non-systematic mistakes in addition to impeding, global errors. In any case, it can be difficult for teachers, especially less experienced ones, to make distinctions between global and local errors or errors and mistakes in the short time afforded to OCF (Ellis, 2009; 2017).

When is the best time to provide OCF? 

Both immediate OCF, provided immediately after an error occurs, and delayed OCF, provided at a later point in time, have been found to be beneficial (Ellis, 2017). Immediate correction can have the benefit of incorporating the correct form into learners’ attempts to communicate and, thus, not compromising form over meaning in communicative tasks (Li, 2018). There are valid theoretical arguments in favour of delayed OCF, too. Quinn and Nakata (2017), besides affective reasons, note from the theoretical perspective of cognitive psychology that longer intervals between error and OCF lead to better long-term retention (p.37). Empirical research has not been conclusive as to when is the best timing for OCF (Quinn & Nakata, 2017). Teacher guides (e.g., Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005) suggest immediate correction in accuracy work and recommend delaying it in fluency work. Research, though, does not support the avoidance of OCF in fluency work, as it has been found to assist acquisition (Ellis 2017). 

Who should be the one to provide OCF? 

According to teacher guides, correction should be attempted in a very specific order; self, peer, and finally teacher (Ur, 1996; Scrivener, 2005). However, this suggested good practice regarding OCF is inconsistent with learners’ beliefs and expectations: learners generally have positive attitudes towards OCF, prefer more explicit correction of all errors if possible, and expect to be corrected by the teacher rather than their peers (Li & Vuono, 2019). My own experience of observing teachers in various contexts also indicates that most teachers don’t seem to follow the suggested practice anyway.

How should OCF be provided? 

This is a difficult question to answer since the contextual, individual, and linguistic features affecting the delivery of OCF are intertwined (Yu et al, 2018). Teachers are often expected to make an on-the-spot decision about how to correct, which will inevitably be influenced by their own beliefs. Teachers’ beliefs regarding the provision of OCF, shaped by education, training, and experience both as learners and as teachers, are often rigid and can even contrast with research evidence (Junqueira & Kim, 2013). For many years, I advocated in my practice as a teacher providing focused (i.e., selective) OCF in an implicit way, so as to have minimal impact on fluency, taking into account affective factors as well. I believed it was best not to spoon-feed corrections and that self-discovery was both cognitively and affectively the optimal choice. I consciously avoided using any explicit OCF strategy, although I was aware of empirical evidence attributing merit to explicit correction, including those corrections which make use of metalinguistic clues (Ellis, 2017). By following closely pedagogical suggestions, I was in fact being dismissive of research and effectively limiting the range of my OCF repertoire. 

I remember once I employed an elicitation strategy for a grammatical error that occurred during a short dialogue (I not like dogs in parks) in an adult elementary class. After all learners finished their contributions, I initiated an elicitation process as I had done successfully before. This time however, it ended up being a tiresome, awkward, ambiguous, and ultimately ineffective elicitation process. It would have been best to address this error with an explicit correction after the contribution was concluded. It would have been concise, closer to the occurrence, and since the omission of the auxiliary is a common error with low level learners, it could have provided others with an accurate example of the form to use in their contributions. Apparently, even in the most accommodating of contexts, even well-informed teachers’ beliefs do not always lead to efficient OCF practices. 

How can a teacher decide on a recipe for OCF that works? 

Unfortunately, as is true with many things in life, there is no such thing as a single foolproof recipe for OCF across contexts. I have found this to be the case in many of my previous learning experiences as a learner and as a teacher, as my example above illustrates. In fact, there are no definite answers provided either by research or by teacher guides (Ellis, 2017). Perhaps the search for a single recipe is misguided as “the constellation of moderating variables” (Russell & Spada, 2006, p.156) cannot always be simultaneously satisfied even in the same context.

What are teachers supposed to do? 

As Ellis (2017, p.14) notes “the best advice that can be given to teachers is to deploy a variety of strategies”. This is good advice, but it presupposes that teachers are knowledgeable, have a good grasp of classroom complexities, and are willing to challenge their beliefs. For those less experienced and/or less knowledgeable what emerges as an invaluable step towards more efficient delivery of OCF, is teacher education and training (Borg, 2011). Delivery of OCF in the L2 classroom is demanding and difficult for all teachers, even those with a lot of experience and knowledge. In my experience, it is not always easy to adapt successfully to the challenges posed by the dynamic process of OCF. Consideration of the profile of your class and a comprehensive language analysis in lesson planning help to identify potential problems and subsequently elect OCF strategies more appropriate to the context. Voice, posture, gestures, choice of words are important elements to consider especially since these can enhance saliency of the OCF provided.

The way teachers provide OCF can also serve as a model for peer correction. Learners need to be trained how to provide peer correction and, as with teachers, this is a process that requires time, effort, and opportunity. Planning, acting, reflecting, observing, sharing experiences of practice, are key towards a more reflective practice.

The journey of reflective practice does not only help manage even unplanned OCF more efficiently but certainly improves all aspects of our teaching (Borg, 2011). The necessary condition, though, for all the above is that the teacher should challenge their beliefs, be ready to try new recipes. A well-guided, experiential training course does exactly that: it provides the tools to challenge the ways we do things in class including the way we deliver OCF. At least, this is what training offered me: a bold new perspective on practice and a re-evaluation of my beliefs. 

References

Borg, S. (2011). The impact of in-service teacher education on language teachers’ beliefs. System39(3), 370-380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2011.07.009

Ellis, R. (2009). Corrective feedback and teacher development. L2 Journal1(1). https://doi.org/10.5070/l2.v1i1.9054

Ellis, R. (2017). Oral corrective feedback in L2 classrooms: What we know so far. In H. Nassaji & E. Kartchava (Eds.), Corrective feedback in second language teaching and learning: research, theory, applications, implications (pp. 3–18). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315621432

Ha, X. V., & Murray, J. C. (2021). The impact of a professional development program on EFL teachers’ beliefs about corrective feedback. System96, 102405. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2020.102405

Junqueira, L., & Kim, Y. (2013). Exploring the relationship between training, beliefs, and teachers’ corrective feedback practices: A case study of a novice and an experienced ESL teacher. Canadian Modern Language Review69(2), 181-206. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.1536

Li, S. (2018). Corrective feedback in L2 speech production. The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0247

Li, S., & Vuono, A. (2019). Twenty-five years of research on oral and written corrective feedback in system. System84, 93-109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2019.05.006

Lightbown, P. M. (1998). The importance of timing in focus on form. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (p. 177–196). Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned – Oxford handbooks for language teachers (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Loewen, S. (2013). The role of feedback. In S. M. Gass & A. Mackey (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 24-40). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203808184

Mackey, A., Abbuhl, R., & Gass, S. M. (2013). Interactionist approach. In S. M. Gass & A. Mackey (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 24-40). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203808184

Nassaji, H. (2015). The Interactional feedback dimension in instructed second language learning: Linking theory, research, and practice. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781474219068

Quinn, P. G., & Nakata, T. (2017). The timing of oral corrective feedback. In H. Nassaji & E. Kartchava (Eds.), Corrective feedback in second language teaching and learning: Research, theory, applications, implications (pp.35-47. Routledgehttps://doi.org/10.4324/9781315621432

Russell, J., & Spada, N. (2006). The effectiveness of corrective feedback for the acquisition of L2 grammar: A meta-analysis of the research. In J. M. Norris & L. Ortega (Eds.), Synthesizing research on language learning and teaching (p. 133–164). John Benjamins Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1075/lllt.13

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan Education.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge University Press. 

Elisavet Kostaki - Psoma
Elisavet Kostaki – Psoma

Elisavet has been involved in various aspects of TESOL for more than two decades: as a teacher, an examiner, a mentor and a teacher trainer. For the last two years she has also worked on various CELTA courses as an approved tutor.

A teacher’s tale

When I embarked on my CELTA course there was no way I could imagine I would now be a CELTA Tutor and Assessor as well as a DELTA tutor and even a teacher development centre owner!

As a young man, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work as a teacher. Teaching seemed particularly challenging, even daunting back then. Instead, I briefly worked as a translator of fantasy novels – naively believing that this was going to be easier – and had to find a McJob on the side to make a living; translation did not pay much, I quickly came to realise.

One day, a friend suggested I should give teaching a try. He said it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, he explained how rewarding it could be (albeit not financially), he even compared it to what I was doing at the time and in the end asked “how much worse can it be?”. I started having second thoughts and reluctantly took his advice and started applying to language schools.

A few weeks later, one of these schools did get back to me and, after a nerve-wracking interview, I was offered a teaching job. By the way, that foreign language school located in Nikaia will always have a special place in my heart – so will the owners and the learners I got to teach there.

Ms. K.M. had given me my first opportunity to teach. I’m not going to dwell so much on all the blunders I made in my lessons – they were a lot; however, I did try hard not to let anyone down. I kept studying, asking for advice, experimenting…

When the academic year ended, I realised my teaching wasn’t good enough and I had to do something to become a better teacher. I hated the fact that, in my students’ eyes,my lessons would be considered just one more inescapable slot of absolute boredom in their heavy daily schedule. At the same time, I did not want to betray the trust the centre owner had shown me.

So, I applied for an intensive summer CELTA course. I learnt a lot, I worried a lot, I even panicked at some point. The course itself naturally had its ups and downs; but I still have very fond memories of some of my colleagues on that course! How they helped me during the stressful weeks, how much fun we had, how we learned from each other!

September came and I returned to the Nikaia school. I was feeling much more confident. I could finally see exactly what I had been doing wrong and was able to reflect on my own teaching, exchange ideas with colleagues in the teacher’s room, plan lessons of different kinds; I was able to use a number of different techniques to get the students interested, to cater to their individual preferences; most importantly, I was able to finally focus on the students themselves since the burden of not knowing the basics had stopped exclusively occupying my mind during the lessons.

As the school owner/director started noticing my improvement, she offered me more and more hours and I finally got to work for her school full time. In the years I worked there, I taught different levels and age groups, I kept learning from my students as well as from my colleagues and I developed as a teacher. I went on to teach in different contexts, gained a lot more valuable experience, and a few years later I did the DELTA and started working as a trainer – and that has been a completely new adventure, with its own challenges.

When I reminisce about my journey in ELT, however, I always think of my CELTA as the beginning of everything.

  • Could I have gained this invaluable knowledge and experience without having done the CELTA?
  • Would I have improved my job prospects without it?
  • Would I have met all these lovely colleagues who helped me on this journey?

The (obvious) negative answers to these questions might seem to be overly romantic and immaterial now. Yet, I wouldn’t be able to ask them if certain things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did. And the CELTA course was one of them.

It gave me the confidence I needed as a teacher to share ideas and experiment even if that meant occasionally failing to achieve my lesson aims; it gave me the ability to reflect on those failures, identify the problems, isolate them, and work on them to get better and better as a teacher – sometimes as an individual, too. Last but not least, it opened up a whole new world of opportunities in the world of English language teaching; a world I couldn’t have imagined actually existed.

One size fits all?

Michael Blann/Getty Images

One-to-one lessons: some of us love them, others put up with them. Yet, they are a major part of our teaching, right? Many teachers tend to fill up their daily schedule with as many one-to-one lessons as possible. This is understandable – after all, teachers do have to make a living, like everyone else, and in many countries, including Greece, the low rates they are paid leave them no other solutions.

However, for a one-to-one lesson to be successful, and for learners to want to return for more, we do need to spend some time thinking about the learner’s needs, wants and preferences in each case, finding appropriate and relevant resources and materials and planning the lesson in such a way that the learners can derive the maximum benefit, so that they feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

The learner’s needs and wants

Even if learners are at the same level and the same ages, they may still be different in terms of their needs and wants. For example, let’s look at the image below showing the needs and wants of two teens both aiming to sit the same exam at the end of the academic year. You will notice that there is very little overlap; so, using the exact same materials with both would not be a good idea.

Planning a one-to-one lesson

We need to remember that we should not be trying to re-invent the wheel for each lesson; there is no need to aim for the unique, extraordinarily ‘magic’ materials every time we want to make something more fitting and suitable for our learners’ needs and preferences. Using a set of specific questions can save a lot of time and effort. In particular:

  • Why did I choose this material?
  • Why is it of interest to my student/myself?
  • How does it address my student’s needs?
  • What is the specific purpose of this material?
  • Does it cover skills/useful language my student needs/wants?
  • Does it include activities my student prefers or should I adapt it?
  • Is it culturally appropriate?
  • Is it at the appropriate level?
  • What problems can I anticipate my student to have?

At this point, we need to start thinking about the learner’s preferences and their interests so that we can make the materials even better, even more motivating.

A set of criteria we can use to make our lives easier when adapting materials is the following:

  • Modifying: changing the type of activity
  • Personalising: making it relevant to the learner and his/her personal life, etc
  • Supplementing: adding materials, e.g. short videos, etc
  • Reversing the roles: the learner becoming the teacher  
  • Student taking control: the learner deciding what to focus on, conducting the activity, etc

Taking Student A from the image above as an example, we can safely assume that we would focus more on their writing and speaking skills rather than their reading, their accuracy and range of past tenses rather than present tenses, etc. So, how would we adapt the activity below without wasting precious time?

Taken from ©Pearson, New Cutting Edge
  • Modifying:
    • turning it from writing into a speaking activity, e.g. an interview between Justine Klaus and an interviewer
    • designing and completing a flowchart
  • Supplementing:
    • adding a follow-up activity: a written or spoken ‘response’ from one of the relatives to the event/ an interview, etc
  • Reversing the roles:
    • the teacher fills in the gaps including some mistakes; then the learner corrects them and explains why they were wrong.

Finally, we should not forget that the student himself/herself can be involved in the process of selecting materials or even designing material they would like to use in their lessons. In that case, we might be able to learn something ourselves from our students!

In a nutshell, we ought to remember to:

  • create a detailed learner profile and keep it up to date as the course progresses
  • base our selection and adaptation of materials on our learner’s needs, wants, and interests/hobbies
  • involve our learner in the selection/design of the materials 
  • establish a line of communication appropriate to the teaching/learning context
  • keep a record of lessons/topics/etc covered to present it to the learner’s sponsors
  • encourage learner autonomy to help them achieve their goals faster

Can a leopard change its spots?

Stalking Aditya Singh—Flickr RF/Getty Images

The interview

It was one of the first few times I was interviewing candidates for a teacher training course. I remember being quite nervous myself trying to make complete strangers feel comfortable enough to maybe get a glimpse of their motives by asking for their reasons for taking the course and their expectations. And there was that young confident teacher, ticking all the right boxes, up until she looked straight at me and declared in brutal honesty: “I don’t think I’ll become a better teacher or a good teacher. I only care about getting a better job”. Hm. Sure. Fine. A good qualification helps in that direction I said, smiled, and moved on. 

It got me thinking, though. The part about becoming a good teacher was perplexing. It was said in a way that made it look like being a good teacher is an unattainable goal and good teachers are only short of mythical creatures. Surely, there is no simple answer to the question ‘what makes a good teacher’. I was more concerned, though, with this teacher’s attitude towards the course, which I fear is shared by many others: almost convict-like, being resigned to do the time; keeping their heads down, avoiding trouble, reading and doing what they are told, and then finally being released into the world of ELT with a professional competitive qualification. But why take for granted that no substantial change will come of it? Why not challenge existing beliefs about teaching and learning? There are of course some valid reasons for the whys that started piling up. But still, I kept missing the point. The real question, the one that really mattered from where I was sitting, was how these beliefs could be challenged on a teacher training course. 

A new set of questions 

So, a new set of questions arose with the first thing to clarify being what beliefs are in the teaching training context.

There has been a lot of work from psychological and philosophical perspectives aiming to define beliefs in general. Borg (2011), based on that work, describes beliefs in our teaching training context as ideas or opinions individuals hold to be true, often tacit, with a strong evaluative and affective component, used as a basis for action and resistant to change (pp. 370 -371). Beliefs then affect teachers’ learning and their practices; so much so that the importance attributed to them in teacher education has reached the point of describing them as possibly “the clearest measure of a teacher’s professional growth” (Kagan, 1992, p. 85).

That much is clear then. For teacher education to have an impact on what teachers do it has to impact their beliefs, too. Obviously, the tricky part is how to impact those beliefs which are resistant to change. For us teachers the part of resistance is even more difficult to challenge because our initial beliefs about second language teaching (the ideas that we come to teacher education courses with) are to a great extent based on our previous experiences as language learners, or what Borg (2003) calls the “apprenticeship of observation”. This apprenticeship is a powerful thing that has been found to withstand training and not to waver even as teaching experience accumulates (Junqueira & Kim, 2013). The cards are stuck against us right from the start, it seems. 

Research to the rescue 

The good news is that research into the matter, and there has been plenty since the 1970s (see Borg 2009 for a comprehensive account), points to the direction that not only are there changes in the behaviours of trainee teachers but also changes in their thinking and beliefs as a result of teacher education courses (Borg, 2009). Research has also had an impact on the design of teacher training courses which acknowledge the importance of teachers’ beliefs, such as for example the DELTA, which aims at developing “candidates’ ability to reflect critically on their own beliefs about teaching and learning” (Delta Syllabus specifications, 2019, p.4). 

Some suggestions

Reflecting critically on one’s beliefs is no easy task, though, especially for many teachers for whom it can be a novel experience that requires support and examples of how to start this process by asking the right questions. Teachers need to be able to distinguish beliefs from practices and theoretical knowledge; they also need to be given an explanation as to why they are encouraged to examine their beliefs. Providing a safe space, ways, and opportunities to make their beliefs explicit, is as important as it is to be able to share this process with peers. For some, questioning their beliefs about learning and teaching leads to the verification of pre-existing beliefs, for others it opens new prospects. Either way, teachers have been introduced to a roadmap of how to reflect upon their praxis (knowledge enacted into a practical and active process), an integral part of which is to challenge their beliefs, to view them as fluid rather than set in stone.

Conclusion

Teacher training courses are so much more than a welcome addition to a resumé. On top of everything else, a training course is a transformative time that equips us with tools to reflect on our practice and our beliefs. Learning how to challenge our beliefs is perhaps the secret to becoming a unicorn, the mythical unattainable creature, a good teacher. As Prodromou (2020) eloquently frames it “Good teachers are not experts with answers; they are practitioners who ask questions” (p. 309). So, keep on asking. The teacher from the interview certainly did.  

References 

Borg, S. (2003). Teacher cognition in language teaching: A review of research on what language teachers think, know, believe, and do. Language Teaching36(2), 81-109. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444803001903

Borg, S. (2009). Teacher cognition and language education: Research and practice. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Borg, S. (2011). The impact of in-service teacher education on language teachers’ beliefs. System39(3), 370-380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2011.07.009

DELTA Syllabus specifications. (2019). Cambridge English. https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/22096-delta-syllabus.pdf

Junqueira, L., & Kim, Y. (2013). Exploring the relationship between training, beliefs, and teachers’ corrective feedback practices: A case study of a novice and an experienced ESL teacher. Canadian Modern Language Review69(2), 181-206. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.1536

Kagan, D.M., 1992. Implications of research on teacher belief. Educational Psychologist, 27, 65-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep2701_6

Prodromou, L. (2020). Epilogue. Good Language Teachers – What Do They Do? What Do They Know?. In C. Griffiths & Z. Tajeddin (Eds.), Lessons from Good Language Teachers (pp. 309-312). Cambridge University Press.

Elisavet Kostaki - Psoma
Elisavet Kostaki – Psoma

Elisavet has been involved in various aspects of TESOL for more than two decades: as a teacher, an examiner, a mentor and a teacher trainer. For the last two years she has also worked on various CELTA courses as an approved tutor. It is our pleasure to welcome her to ACE TEFL!

How can we revitalise ELT?

‘Wait – I could use that!’: A few days before the US elections, researcher A. Greenwald went around asking people whether they intended to vote and why. Naturally, most replied that they would. But here is the thing: it later transpired that the people asked were much more likely to vote than another, control group (Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 63). Why? Because simply stating your intention creates a public commitment and this generates a small, subconscious pressure that pushes you towards being consistent. OK – let’s pause here: could we not do the same idea with our students? Ask them whether they intended to do their homework perhaps (and why)? Indeed, we could. Is this an idea we could use? Yes. Does it have to do with ELT? No. Read on…

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Has this ever happened to you? You read books, you attend conferences, you watch webinars and it is all great – initially. Beyond a certain point however, you find yourself thinking ‘Yes, I know that’ or ‘Hmmm – that’s X in other words’ – if you are an old hand, you may even find you can predict what people are going to say before they do so! Why? The answer is ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns’. It’s a little like picking figs from a fig-tree. In the beginning it’s all very easy and your basket keeps filling up, but once you have picked the low-hanging fruit, you have to work much harder for much smaller returns. So here is an idea: why not move to another tree? The Moral: To rekindle your interest in teaching, try going beyond ELT.

For the past ten years or so, I have been exploring the vibrant field of Applied Psychology and I have come to realise that there are all kinds of insights from such domains as Advertising, Management, Custumer Service or even Design which can be really useful to us as teachers. In what follows I am going to share with you three ideas pinched from the food-and-drink industry. In each case I will be suggesting one or two ways in which we can make use of these discoveries in our classes.

The loveliest word

 What is the best word out there? A word which captures everything that really matters? I will tell you. It’s ‘Kate’ – if your name happens to be Kate, that is; or ‘Anne’ if this is what people call you. The loveliest word in English is your name. Advertisers know that of course. In Australia, Coca-Cola wanted to reconnect with the younger generation. How did they do that? Piece of cake: they printed some of the most popular names on Coke bottles! Imagine going to the supermarket and finding a Coke with your name on it. Wouldn’t that attract your attention? And why not get one for your boyfriend with his name on it? But what if you couldn’t find it? No problems: there were special kiosks where you could have a friend’s unusual name printed out on the bottle. Naturally, sales soared… (Ferrier 2014 – p. 110) Watch this amazing clip:

Make a note of the idea: we are the centre of our world. Our first name attracts our attention and creates positive associations.

So how can we use this? 

Use your students’ first names. At every opportunity. I used to try to create a closer bond with my students by addressing them as ‘mate’ or ‘chief’. Not anymore. ‘But’ you might say ‘I already use my students’ first names – all the time’. Do you? Let us have a look at that essay you marked a moment ago…

Don’t tell – sell!

This one completely blew my mind (Wansink et al. 2005). Imagine a buffet restaurant like the ones you find in all good hotels. Next to each of the metal containers, there is a label with a description of the food: ‘Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Cod Fillet’ or ‘Vegetable Soup’. What do you think would happen if someone were to replace these labels with more descriptive ones such as ‘Tender Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Succulent Cod Fillet’ or ‘Creamy Vegetable Soup?’ That’s right: all of a sudden, these dishes became much more desirable and consumption increased dramatically. Clearly, the fancy adjectives worked wonders. But here is the interesting thing: not only did these descriptions increase demand, people gave the food much higher ratings too! Watch this clip:

So this is the big discovery here: expectations colour perceptions. Forget ‘What you see is what you get’; research suggests that ‘What you get is what you expect’!

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about how you introduce the material you give your students. Do you say ‘Now we are going to read an article…’ or ‘OK – you’ll never believe what this article says…’. And what about activities? Is it ‘Now we are going to do an activity to practice X…’ or ‘Right – this is my favourite activity ever…’? Now look at how I introduced this section. The moral: sell your stuff to students.

Engagement – (capital E)

This last story comes from Germany (Ferrier 2014 – p. 108). The McDonald’s people had a problem: they had to advertise, but their budget was limited. What could they do? Then one of them had a brainwave: why not get the customers to do the work? So they organised a competition. They set up a site where people could go and make their own virtual burgers. All the ingredients were there, and they could combine them in any way they wanted to create something visually impressive. Now here is the clever bit: having done so, the people themselves would then promote their creation in the media! And everyone would get to vote for their favourite option. Not only would the winning burger be included in the McDonald’s menu, there would be prizes too. Well, wouldn’t you get your friends involved? Wouldn’t you get them to vote for your masterpiece? Watch this clip:

Needless to say, the idea was hugely successful. The secret here was ownership: whatever we create, feels exceptional – regardless of how good it actually is.

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about the activities we use in class. Most of them are language manipulation tasks, right? But what if we were to ask our students to create something – a story, or a poster or a sketch? And what if there was a safe site where they could upload their work and where others could vote for their favourite? Just an idea…

It only takes a nudge 

OK – what about this one? The students of a secondary class in the UK were due to take a math test the following week. The parents of half of these students – the parents, mind you, not the kids! – received the message in the picture a few days before the test. That was all. The results? The students whose parents got the message did substantially better than the others. Not only that; the idea was popular with both parents and students! (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. 115) Apparently, sometimes all we need is the right reminder at the right time. The sender doesn’t even have to be the teacher! Imagine the possibilities here: ‘Improve your school results – get a good secretary!’ I rest my case… 😊  

References

  • Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
  • Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. (2007) Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion. London: Profile Books
  • Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
  • Wansink, B. van Ittersum, K., Painter, J., , How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. (2005). Food Quality and Preference, 16 (5) 393-400
Nick Michelioudakis
Nick Michelioudakis

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries.  He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines. Nick has just designed a short course on Psychology and Language Teaching, which you can find out more about here

A teacher (trainer) is a teacher is a teacher

WARNER BROS
Dame Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall  in Harry Potter

A learning experience that made my day

Recently, on a particularly stressful afternoon during which I was in an awful mood, I attended a webinar delivered by a very well-known, highly respected teacher trainer and it changed the course of my day. It made me feel refreshed; it calmed me down and helped me feel good about myself, about my colleagues and my profession in general. I had been de-stressed, re-energised.

Later that same day, I sat down and tried to reflect on the experience and try and identify what it was that made that webinar so good. Which shows that the webinar didn’t just inspire me, it also urged me to delve into the process of reflection once again and, therefore, help me work on my own presentation skills.

As I was brainstorming and listing some of the things that were great about the webinar, I suddenly remembered several other occasions similar to the webinar: decades ago, when I used to attend exam-prep lessons with another teacher. The parallels were obvious. Back then, those lessons made me feel equally good about myself; they always made my day –not in a Coelho-esque superficially positive manner. On the contrary, they genuinely sparked my curiosity and hunger for learning; they stimulated my brain for wanting something more profound, something insightful and unique. And that ‘something’ was not a goal in itself, that ‘something’ was not a prize, but a process. In fact, the goal (passing the exam) had almost become immaterial at that moment.

Teachers vs. teacher trainers

It was clear to me that there were a lot that the trainer whose session I had just attended and the teacher who had taught me decades ago had in common. Inevitably, the obvious question came to me: Is there an essential difference between teacher training and teaching the language itself? Or even better: what are the similarities between training language teachers and teaching the language to a group of students?

I should say that the more experienced I become, the more discussions I have about this specific topic, the more webinars I attend, the more books I read, the simpler the answer is: what makes a good teacher and what makes a good trainer are basically the same few things. And it can be dangerous for a trainer not to realise the similarity!

I am, of course, like everyone, talking about my own preferences and prejudices when I talk about what makes a good teacher. And admittedly, I may be dwelling more on the characteristics that I sometimes feel, or fear, I fall short of.

What makes a good teacher?

So, in my opinion, what makes a good teacher is…

  • our ability to listen to our students: One of the most important characteristics of a good teacher; if we cannot actively listen to and understand our students’ needs, wants and preferences, then how are we supposed to help them?
  • our ability to empathise with our students: once we take an active interest in our students’ preferences and needs, we can start showing empathy towards their difficulties, their problems, and the things that make their learning more challenging perhaps. We can establish good rapport and mutual trust.
  • being open to feedback from our students: getting used to accepting criticism and getting feedback from others can sometimes be a painful process; however, only then can we actually become better at what we do. No matter how experienced we might be, there will always be things to work on and improve.
  • our willingness to show we’ve taken our students’ feedback on board: accepting feedback means nothing if we do not take it on board and actively show our students that their opinions matter and have value.
  • being humble enough to admit we cannot know everything: once we get into the role of a teacher, we tend to forget that we are not the light of the world, and we tend to believe we have the answers to everything – even if we knowingly sometimes give answers which are inaccurate and misleading. It is absolutely fine not to know the answer to a question a student might have, as long as we then do our homework, find out the answer, put it into words that are easy for the student to understand, and get back to them at the first opportunity.
  • our overall sense of duty as educators: that’s admittedly a huge discussion. However, what I consider important is the sum of our ability to listen, to simplify and explain, to monitor, to reward, to correct, to provide a safe space, to motivate, to subvert.

Why is this relevant to teacher training?

Some teacher trainers seem to believe that they are now in a position to advise and admonish teachers, as they are no longer just teachers themselves. After all, a teacher trainer enjoys a higher financial and social status, right?

Well, not exactly – even our government does not seem to think that way, and that speaks volumes!

There are certain dangers lurking behind the deliberate and misleading divide between teachers and trainers.

  • Thinking that we trainers are it: becoming a self-professed authority and losing our humility is the gravest of dangers which logically leads to arrogance; consequently, we do not listen to our students’ feedback, we cannot learn from them (or anyone else for that matter) and we end up detaching ourselves from them (and reality) growing more and more distant.
  • Resting on our laurels without caring to develop ourselves any further: arrogance tends to have that effect on teachers turning us into so-called gurus negligent of the fact that we might be resembling dinosaurs as time goes by.

No matter our title (director of studies, teacher trainer, teacher educator, trainer trainer), we remain teachers. Only upon this realisation can we make the difference and bring about some genuinely positive changes – and not just in the relatively limited environment of the classroom.

Teachers and Corpora

Do you use corpora?

If you think you don’t use corpora in your planning and teaching, think again! Because we teachers actually do use corpora all the time, perhaps unknowingly, for example whenever we google a word or an expression, looking for examples of its use, or when we go through texts online to find the one with the required linguistic elements for our class.

What is a corpus?

Corpus (plural corpora), the Latin word for body, has come to mean, in corpus linguistics, a “collection of electronic, naturally-occurring texts (written or spoken) which are selected to be representative of a particular language or language variety” (McEnery et al, 2006, p. 5). Corpora usually include millions, if not billions of words, not only as used by native speakers but also by L2 speakers. They can provide evidence of language use in different genres and registers and reveal patterns in language.

Accessing all these becomes feasible with the use of corpus software tools. For example, have a look at the three figures below, which illustrate how I used Sketch Engine to produce frequency lists for the word teacher (figures 1 and 2) and to create a concordance for the same word, based on data from the British National Corpus (BNC).

Figure 1. Visualisation of a frequency list for ‘teacher’ generated by Sketch Engine
Figure 2. Different view of the same search of a frequency list for  ᾽teacher᾽ generated by Sketch Engine.
Figure 3. List of concordance lines for the lemma ᾽teacher´ generated by Sketch Engine. 
KWIC stands for keyword in context

Frequency of linguistic items can inform curricular decisions about the order these items should be taught in, materials to be used, as well as test development. Concordances, i.e. all the instances of a linguistic item listed in their immediate context, are not to be confused with collocations, ie.the way individual lexical items are used together regularly. Collocations can be traced in concordance lines, along with other information on language use in context which can be utilised in teaching.

Why is it a good idea to use corpora?

So, corpora can provide a wealth of information about authentic language use of different registers and genres, and corpus software tools can help explore them. But why should teachers use corpora? Most importantly, why should learners use them?

Teachers can use corpora to enhance their research skills and develop their language awareness to inform their teaching. Quite often teachers need to adapt or supplement published materials which cover to a limited extent desirable linguistic features, or in which natural speech instances are not presented, or need to be presented using a different approach (Walsh, 2010). Teachers can source instances of natural language from corpora to provide tailor-made activities to cater to specific learners’ needs considering level, context, system and skill. They can modify corpora or use them as is to demonstrate a language pattern in context or ask learners to notice features of a function or compare data from native and L2 corpora for error correction. Imagination is the limit. 

The use of language corpora as a resource holds significant benefits for the learners on many levels as well. Cheng (2010) states that it “has been shown to contribute to the acquisition of both implicit and explicit knowledge” (p.320). It can support exploratory and discovery learning, which is motivating for the learners and as they engage more actively probably retain knowledge for longer. Autonomous learning is encouraged and since learners acquire or practice essential learning skills such as noticing, making inferences, and reflecting, they can transfer all these to other fields of study (Gilquin & Granger, 2010).

The cognitive, pedagogical, and motivational benefits of the use of corpora in language learning in the form of Data-Driven Learning (DDL) have been discussed repeatedly in presentations in conferences of local and national TESOL associations, and the annual IATEFL conferences over the years. ELT Blogs often feature corpora and there is even a dedicated FB group promoting the use of corpora in language teaching. Why is it then that teachers are reluctant to apply DDL and mostly view the use of corpora as a tool limited to lexicographers, academics, researchers, material developers and test designers? 

Challenges associated with using corpora

McCarthy and O’Keeffe (2010) point out that teachers’ attitudes towards DDL are not favourable as “it turns the traditional order within the classroom upon its head. The corpus becomes the centre of knowledge, the students take on the role of questioner and the teacher is challenged to hand over control and facilitate learning” (p. 7). Attitudes aside, teachers’ limited time and workload, lack of computer skills and training on how to access and use corpora are major issues. There is also the cost to access corpora since many of them are not freely available. To that, schools will need to add the cost of the investment in computers, training of teachers and students, and software tools. And with empirical data on the effectiveness of language learning still limited it is not even a guaranteed investment for them to make (Gilquin & Granger, 2010)! Apart from teachers’ attitudes and logistics, learners’ attitudes towards DDL are an additional reason why interest in DDL is still limited. There are challenges for the learners, especially when little training is given, or they do not have appropriate proficiency level and technological knowledge (Soruç & Tekin, 2017). 

To address the challenges learners experience, time and effort need to be invvested in training in using corpus tools, reading and interpreting corpus results, and interpreting quantitative results may be needed (Sripicharn, 2010). The step preceding this, though, should be the training of the teachers. Corpus linguistics is more common nowadays in initial language teacher education but besides basic knowledge, development of skills is required in a way that would promote active engagement with corpora. 

Conclusion

Should we then abandon the use of corpora in non-academic teaching contexts? In my humble opinion, no. It is a tool that could contribute very positively not only to language learning but to teacher development and most importantly to learner autonomy in a way very fitting to today’s COVID-19 pandemic online teaching and learning challenges. Forced into a world which requires learners to be technologically adept and more independent provides the perfect opportunity to explore the world of DDL especially when more corpora can freely be accessed nowadays, and a quick online search produces results for corpus software tools that are not just free but also user friendly. 

A few corpus resources

For those interested in exploring corpora and their use further, some indicative sources follow:

General reads in corpus linguistics 

Corpora 

  • British National Corpus (BNC)
  • Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)
  • The International corpus of learner English (ICLE) (via CQPWeb)
  • Longman Learner Corpus (via CQPWeb)
  • Cambridge Learner Corpus (not freely available)

Classroom resources based on corpora 

Corpus software tools

References

Cheng, W. (2010). What can a corpus tell us about language teaching? In A. O’Keeffe & M. McCarthy(Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics (pp. 319-332). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203856949.ch23

Gilquin, G., & Granger, S. (2010). How can data-driven learning be used in language teaching? In A. O’Keeffe & M. McCarthy (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics (pp. 359-370). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203856949.ch26

McCarthy, M., & O’Keeffe, A. (2010). Historical perspective. What are corpora and how have they evolved? In A. O’Keeffe & M. McCarthy (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics (pp. 319-332). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203856949.ch1

McEnery, T., Xiao, R., & Tono,Y. (2006). Corpus-based language studies: An advanced resource book. Taylor & Francis. 

Soruç, A., & Tekin, B. (2017). Vocabulary Learning through Data-driven Learning in an English as a Second Language Setting. Educational sciences: theory & practice17(6), 1811–1832. https://doi.org/10.12738/estp.2017.6.0305

Sripicharn, P. (2010). How can we prepare learners for using language corpora? In A. O’Keeffe & M. McCarthy (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics (pp. 371-384). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203856949.ch27

Walsh, S. (2010). What features of spoken and written corpora can be exploited in creating language teaching materials and syllabuses? In A. O’Keeffe & M. McCarthy (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of corpus linguistics (pp. 333-344). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203856949.ch24

Elisavet Kostaki - Psoma
Elisavet Kostaki – Psoma

Elisavet has been involved in various aspects of TESOL for more than two decades: as a teacher, an examiner, a mentor and a teacher trainer. For the last two years she has also worked on various CELTA courses as an approved tutor. It is our pleasure to welcome her to ACE TEFL!

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.

Whose understanding are you really checking?

We know for a fact that no matter how clearly we present language in the classroom, we should always ask questions to check the learners have understood the important aspects of this language, e.g. meaning, use, and form, and perhaps further clarify potential confusion or misunderstanding, if we get evidence that they haven’t understood – or move on to something else if they have!

One of the most common ways to check the learners’ understanding effectively is through CCQs – short for Concept Checking Questions. Inexperienced teachers tend to find CCQs quite difficult to come up with; their judgement as to when a CCQ is good or not is shrouded by a cloud of uncertainty.

The reason for this may have to do with the fact that CCQs are closely connected to a teacher’s ability to analyse language for teaching. In fact, CCQs mirror a number of things:

  • a teacher’s knowledge of the language, and their own understanding of it
  • the background studying they’ve done on a specific structure, word, etc
  • how well they have prepared for the teaching of a specific structure
  • their ability to decode and simplify this inherent or acquired knowledge to help students understand.

Let’s look at two examples and put this hypothesis to the test.

Scenario 1:

A taecher introduces the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate learners. The language is found in a coursebook text about great works of art. The marker sentence is ‘The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci.’ So, after having presented the meaning, form, etc, the teacher proceeds to ask the CCQs they have prepared to check the learners’ understanding. One of the CCQs is:

Teacher: “Do we know who did the action?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Do we need to know?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Really? Do we need to know that Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa?”

Students: “Yes, it’s important!”

Teacher: “No, when we use the passive, we don’t need to know who did the action.”

The obvious consequence is utter confusion, to say the least. The reason is that the teacher thought (s)he knew the use of the passive voice without paying attention to the context. It is true that one of the uses of the passive voice is when the doer is unimportant/obvious. However, this is not the case for this specific marker sentence, in which the opposite is true: the passive is used here in order to place special emphasis on the agent of the action! The problem with the concept question selected is that the teacher was overconfident: they thought they knew the rules and did not bother to check.

Scenario 2:

Again, introducing the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate students, the teacher contrasts the same sentence formed in the active and in the passive voice to present the differences in relation to form.

The marker sentences are:

  1. The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci
  2. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

After having presented the difference, the teacher asks the following questions to check the learners have understood:

Teacher: “So, what happens to the subject of an active voice sentence when we turn it into the passive?”

Students: *silence*

Teacher: “Is sentence 1 an agentless passive voice construction or not?”

Students: *silence*

In this case, the teacher was perfectly aware of the differences in form, the terminology to describe it, etc. They had done their background studying. The major problem though is that the metalanguage they used to check understanding was not accessible to the learners. In other words, the teacher had not been prepared appropriately to teach the language.

Conclusion

So, when we analyse language for teaching, we need to bear in mind that knowing the rules – or thinking that we know the rules – is not enough.

Analysing language for teaching purposes also involves being aware of the audience and how you can get through to them; our CCQs reflect not only our ability to check the learners’ understanding, but also our ability to anticipate confusion, our ability to empathise with the students, and our willingness to help them understand.