Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching. Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.
In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten. At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.
Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.
The copier in one building requires a login to operate and breaks often. The one in the next building doesn’t. This turns out to be the most consequential piece of information in the entire community college system.
SLOs, whatever they are, are crucial. One of those words (like コマ koma in Japanese university) that everyone knows and treats as incredibly important but never appears anywhere in any training literature. From what I gathered at staff meetings for the first few months I was working here, SLOs are things that the state regards as even more important than grades and you have to give a special test for, but are often curiously at odds with what everyone you know actually thinks you should be doing. If you’re wondering what SLO stands for, that’s another of the things that nobody explains.
Students may be using computers for the first time. This being 2018, most of them know how to use a smartphone, but when it comes to using a computer, your students may sometimes make you feel like a desktop publishing teacher from 1993. Each convenience afforded by LMS like Canvas comes with even more class time devoted to how to use it and an even yawning-er generation gap separating the college-age students from the parents and grandparents. Here are a few of the misunderstandings I’ve run across:
Double spacing does not mean hitting enter twice every line (a classic)
A 2 page essay does not need to be 2 separate MS Word files
“Here” on the Internet means “click here and then follow more instructions”, not “post your homework as a comment on the announcement”
Contrary to the rules of good design in most other media, an essay should have a ton of text on the page, no curly borders and no colorful sidebars
Emailing an essay as the text of that email makes it very hard to tell if you followed MLA format (this was more common in Japan)
Turnitin.com’s similarity scores are more convincing than your assurance that you totally didn’t copy (and on a related note, and this is an area of genuine interest for me, the phrase “in contrast with” is not plagiarism even if copied from the Internet, while non-idiomatic non-chunk 3-word phrases definitely are. It’s probably not obvious to students why this should be true).
The air conditioner is the seat ofpower. Aside from the copier, no device has held the power to completely ruin the atmosphere (literally and figuratively (is “atmosphere” meaning “ambience” not literal?)) of a class like the air conditioner. I’m a believer in Dogme and conversation classes; a broken projector is like a golden opportunity. The AC on the other hand has both physical and psychological power over the students. The physical power is obvious, although you might not expect the difference between 73 and 76 degrees to produce such epic ranges of comfort in your students. The psychological power is what really threatens to tear your class apart, though, as students challenge each other for the right to sit near the AC controls and take up the responsibility or opportunity to choose who is comfortable and who is not. This was a problem for me last semester, and I eventually had to make a rule that only I can touch the AC controls, and later that I would only listen to AC-related requests once per hour.
Classroom facilities may be new-ish or may need exorcism. Back in Japan my university had one wi-fi router per floor (of 10 or so classrooms that fit 50 or so people each), projectors that rejected all input like a stubborn grammar-translator, and chalk boards. Here in California some of my classrooms have remote desktop workstations which seem like a good idea in theory, some have decades of accumulated teacher skin cells on the teachers’ keyboards and mice (mouses?), and some have large, space-taking file cabinets on which sticky notes declare the entire contents to be the property of another adjunct. Many of the classrooms and facilities are also modern and easy-to-use, but almost all of them have no white board markers within a 5-km radius. Part of the job is being prepared for whatever type of classroom, with its random array of functioning and non-functioning equipment, you will be working in.
The classroom phones might not be able to dial outside lines. The aforementioned generation gap sometimes plays out in older students not doing coursework that is presented online, not being able to login, and sometimes not being able to reach you or be reached through electronic means. You may need to call these students to ask why they haven’t shown up in a week, but you probably don’t want to use your personal number for this, leading you to pick up the classroom phone. But surprise, these only call on-campus extensions. There is a rumor that a phone in one of the break rooms can call outside, but nobody knows which one.
Students can’t access the LMS from China. In ESL, students sometimes have emergencies (or just plan their vacations rather poorly) and have to fly off in the middle of the semester for a week. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if one country in particular didn’t block access to most of the Internet by default. Your students in China will be even more out of touch than you might expect while they’re gone.
Finals week doesn’t stop the parking lot from having a lot of cars in it. The rest of the world doesn’t care that you have a test. People will have tailgate parties in the parking lot while students 20 feet away in the classroom are struggling to distinguish between “felt” and “failed” on a listening test.
Teaching in society
The meaning of your job depends on the society you live in. JALT, the main language teachers’ professional organization in Japan, is full of worldly types who are accustomed to being automatic social deviants due to simple demographics. They take a job that is stereotyped as unskilled yet impossible for Japanese people to do (native-speakerism in a nutshell) and try to find some professional pride in it by taking it ostentatiously seriously. To most people in Japan, a university English teacher (at least a “native speaker” teacher) is half exotic transplant and half effete intellectual, and JALT members seem to take both of these identities on board – even the Japanese ones. In California, ESL teaching at community college or university, which nominally requires the same qualifications as teaching university in Japan, seems to carry none of the same connotations. Here, the job seems to be defined half by peace love and understanding and half by grammar pedantry. I know a few teachers here who enjoy getting into the relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge, but the public face most ESL teachers put forward seems to be “I’m here to heal the world through adjective clauses”.
(Remember in Homeland when Carrie briefly quits the CIA and becomes an ESL teacher as part of her emotional healing? It seems a lot more plausible now.)
Adjuncts need to balance attention with time. Back when I was the owner of my school, I started each workday 10 feet from where I was going to be teaching all of my classes, with all my materials, board games, books, and office supplies close by. It was easy to imagine making custom materials for each of my classes, if not each student, and spend some time reading stuff that was turned in afterward, as there were few official hoops I had to spend time pushing them through. Now, if I need to use any office supplies or the copier I need to leave 90 minutes before my first class rather than 60, and the class after that might be in another city. The time spent creating custom materials needs to be weighed against the time you’ll definitely need to take later checking them (especially if you made them open-ended, as I really, really love to do) and the possibility you’ll have to re-write them in coming semesters if they are too topical, not to mention the time they’ll take away from grading essays and answering add/drop request emails. The point is, being a good teacher used to seem like simply a matter of having the best practices and applying them individually with each student and each situation. Now, it seems like a matter of having the best practices that you can apply in 20 minutes maximum.
The 405 is the very worst of LA and Orange Counties. The 405 and the 5 both go through Orange County, where I work, as do a few others. Although I’ve been spending hours a week on both of them, I haven’t seen a major accident on the 5, while the 405 has accidents (including a crashed plane once) nearly every time I’m on it. The 405 seems to have a perfect equilibrium of BMW-driving golems of entitlement, raised pickup trucks with custom rims that are more mobile advertisements for Limp Bizkit than modes of transportation, and Teslas which, like BMWs, seem to require the deposit of your frontal lobe to lease. All of those exist on the 405 along with streams of normal people who are by some odious force only active on that freeway made to want to fill any space in front of the cars on either side of you at every opportunity.
It’s also name-dropped in my favorite SNL sketch ever.
Teaching in the classroom
Students come to play a role. One of the first realizations you come to teaching English in Japan is that people who are regarded as “good learners” come to class looking to engage with the content silently in their own heads, not to interact with you in real time. Back in the US, students from different backgrounds all have their own versions of what a “good student” and a “responsible teacher” look like. ESL classrooms often feel like everyone’s been handed a different script that happens to have the same setting and characters.
Students react differently to your attempts to address affective issues. A corollary of the above is that your attempts to “fix” students’ apparent reticence, overparticipation, or misunderstanding itself may have meaning to them that further affects how they see you and the class. A stereotypical example from Japan is “NEST grows exasperated at quiet students -> NEST gives exasperated entreaty to PLEASE TALK -> Students now regard NEST (Native English Speaker Teacher) an overemoting foreigner”. A slightly more advanced version is “Students don’t cooperate in NEST’s class -> NEST copies Japanese discipline styles -> Students are discouraged because NEST is no longer authentically a NEST to them”. The general outline of addressing affective issues in the US is to give students more individual attention, more focus on them as unique people with unique stories, and overall more interaction, which may all be felt as bizarrely chummy and unprofessional. Some students react how you might imagine to the teacher basically trying to fix what’s broken by breaking it even more – addressing mismatched expectations by going even further from the expected teacherly behavior – by withdrawing even more from the class.
You need to share. When I was a school owner, I mostly just shared my students with public school teachers who had radically different objectives and methods than I did. Here, I have a group of students for about 4 months, before and after which they’ve studied or will study with another teacher. Their other teachers may be very Focused on FormS, very project-oriented, or take a much more holistic view of education than even I do, and I can’t very well spend time bashing other methods to create buy-in for the ones we’ll be using in my class. This sounds obvious, but in eikaiwa, naming your house method, putting it in all of your fliers and on your website (a whole discussion in itself), and doing your best to set yourself apart from other forms of English education is simply a matter of survival. Self-promotion (including things like blogging) has very little role to play in the community college system unless you’re trying to get classes at a new school or trying to move into a full-time job. Likewise, your materials and methods are no longer what separate your school from your competitors, but ways for you to ensure students taking the same class from other teachers aren’t having too radically different an experience. For the same reason, you need to steal from your colleagues as much as possible, and the students will be better for it.
The following numbers all come from one ESL class in California of fewer than 30 students. The students range in age from teens to 50s. Some are full-time students, some are part-time and some work.
0.63 – Correlation between homework scores and final grades
Homework is a tiny percentage of the final grade, but predicts it to a fair degree. I usually gave homework a simple at-a-glance score between 1 and 5 points per assignment. The highest score for homework for this semester was 108, and the lowest score was 12. Homework is also correlated with attendance at 0.87. Attendance, on the other hand, is correlated with final grades at 0.72. This tells me I can cut the amount of homework (saving myself some grading time in the process), take attendance rigorously, and expect roughly the same distribution of grades. Next semester’s students will be happy to hear being physically present is such a strong predictor of English skill.
0.82 – Take-home essays/final grades
Take-home essays are also, surprisingly, a tiny part of the final grade. That is what makes this correlation so surprising. Take-home essays predict final grades even more than they do in-class essays (0.76), although of course take-home essays are themselves not a part of in-class essay grades, while they are of final grades. Blame my mild innumeracy for not knowing how much that should affect these numbers. In any case, it seems prudent to replace some of the other homework (see above) with essay-related work like planning, more rough drafts, and reflections.
-0.03 and -0.85 – Numbers of tardies and absences/final grades
This particular class met in the early morning, which accounts for the high number of tardies (8.0 on average for the class out of about 30 class meetings, with a standard deviation of 5.8), but they didn’t seem to do much. Students walking in late didn’t hurt their grades so much as annoy me personally. This probably has something to do with my practice of starting each class with some kind of task rather than a quiz, which is arguably a bit of a conceit of mine. Absences, on the other hand, were even more predictive of final grades than essays, and much more predictive than homework scores. Again, being a warm body in the classroom seems to be a reasonable heuristic for a lot of heady work.
-0.55 – Years in the US/final grades
This number comes from a survey we did at the beginning of our classes. I suppose this will surprise a lot of people who work in EFL – I certainly expected a more or less linear relationship between years in the country and degree of acculturation (similar to integrativeness, the motherlode of language learning motivation) before I got here (although I had reason to know better). In fact, particularly with people who were partly educated here, the sense that one doesn’t belong in ESL is a significant barrier to buy-in for class activities and willingness to communicative with classmates. ESL teachers often have a mix of eager international students with standard-issue grammar, communication and acculturation problems and jaded veterans of US society who have established an identity around their patterns of language use and definitely don’t see themselves as ESL students. My main takeaway from this is to acknowledge the different needs and motivations of my main two student constituencies near the start of the semester to defuse any feeling among the veterans that they don’t belong there or don’t need to work hard.
0.45 – Hours of sleep before test 1/final grade
I usually put one “gag” item at the top of my tests – “Name: _____ Student ID: _____ Breakfast this morning: _____ ” to give another example. Sometimes, these yield insights into my students’ lives (a lot have nothing but coffee for breakfast), and occasionally lead to educationally useful data. The only time I had a quantifiable “gag” item this year was on the first in-class writing test, on which students were asked to write how many hours they slept the night before the test. This number turned out not only to predict the scores on that test (albeit weakly, with 0.22) but their grades for the semester. Now, this isn’t a slam dunk, but it is more predictive than most individual homework assignments (whose correlations with the final grades ranged from -0.14 for the first homework of the semester to around 0.60 for essay-related stuff). Apparently the recipe for a high-scoring student is 8 hours of sleep a night before coming to class, not necessarily on time and not necessarily with any homework. As I said, at least this simplifies my grading.
At the end of the semester I like to use a survey to gauge what students found valuable in my class. The survey is just a list of class activities from the semester and then two columns with spaces for scores – an “I like it” column and an “It helps me learn” column. There is a Likert-style scale of 1-5 to be used with both columns across the top of the sheet. So for example, a student who really enjoyed our reading textbook but doesn’t feel like it was useful for learning would give it scores of 5 (in answer to “I like it”) and 2 or 1 (in answer to “It helps me learn”).
I plan on standardizing this survey across my classes in the future, but this semester everyone had a different list of activities. I know from their survey, for example, that my intermediate integrated skills class enjoyed their grammar book more than their reading book, but because I referred to these by name in the survey, I can’t really compare their answers to those for the reading and grammar books in my academic writing classes (naturally, the books themselves are different in structure and approach as well, which limits how comparable they are). All of my classes did have a few items which were worded the same and were similar enough in practice to warrant comparison.
Those items were reading circles, Kahoot!, at-home writing, language logs, and teacher-fronted grammar lessons. Before we get to the meat of this post, let me just make sure everyone knows what those are and explain how I do them.
Reading circles, in a nutshell, consist of reading reflection groups where each member of the group has a different “job”. A group of 5 people in most of my classes might have had a Summarizer, a Vocabulary Enricher, a Grammarian, a Connector (who had to, for example, find articles on similar topics to the reading on the Internet), and an Artist. On a reading circles day, everyone would have read a section of a book or an article over the weekend, and completed half of the sheet at home. They would then gather in “expert groups”, consisting of people with the same job, and compare answers. Some versions of my reading circles worksheets had a part of the worksheet that had to be completed during this time. After a decent amount of time, they would meet with their reading circles group members, all of whom had different “jobs”. All of my reading circles sheets had short sections that had to be completed during this time by listening to the other group members. Much of this is standard for this kind of activity. In practice, not everyone would do their homework, and 3 or 4 people out of a class of 25 would be hurriedly filling in the parts that they were supposed to have done over the weekend in their “expert groups”. I noted who didn’t do the assignment for grades but let them do this so that they would have at least something to show their reading circles afterward. Students always seemed much more engaged during reading circles than any teacher-fronted activities, but as we shall see, that isn’t necessarily reflected in the answers they gave to the survey.
Kahoot! is an online game-show-like platform that seems pretty well-known, although I’d never heard of it before my first CATESOL meeting last December. I mostly used it to review readings (the same ones as the reading circles), about 3 times a semester, with Jolly Ranchers candy as prizes for the winning teams.
At-home writing comprises paragraphs and essays, any of which had at least 3 drafts. Students turned these in on paper, Canvas, Turnitin.com or all of these at once. As I found out a bit late, the steps for submitting work electronically or viewing feedback are not obvious for many students, and as in my time in Japan, there is a strong pro-handwriting bias among ESL students – some students view typing it out as the very last step in completing a paper. Anyway, this was one of the few times in the semester that students would get individual feedback on their writing from me.
Language logs are simple scaffolds for out-of-class input. They look more or less like schedules organized by weeks with spaces for students to write what they read and what they noticed (for writing classes – “noticed” here could mean content or form) or what they read, what they watched, and who they talked to (for integrated skills classes). The spaces are intentionally kept small to keep the focus on input rather than rigorous and thorough reporting. For me, these have a lot of room for improvement – I personally kept forgetting that students had them (I had planned to check them every 2 weeks, but it ended up being more like every 4 weeks), and the students reciprocated. I also had to remind students quite a few times that the purpose of the logs was to record their extra input, not to record the homework that I had assigned them, and that conversations with their spouses in their first language didn’t count as language log material. Also, the “I noticed…” sections were often filled with verbatim quotes rather than reflections. Still, a number of students rose to the occasion and read, watched or talked voluminously. I remember seeing written on language logs entries like “I talked to a woman at the supermarket about expensive eggplants” “CNN – California wildfire – scary!!” “Breitbart – Anti-Trump conspiracy” and plenty of other windows into my students’ intellectual lives. Yes, I’m proud of the student who reads Breitbart – I suppose in terms of acculturation it’s somewhat analogous to Americans in Japan who become ardent supporters of the Imperial system and all of its apologia. A sure sign of language learning progress, albeit also a phase I hope they grow out of.
A confounding factor for measuring how much students liked/valued the logs themselves is that I also had them share them with classmates before turning them in. The discussions that arose from this were almost always lively and engaging, and it is certainly possible that some students answered positively for Language Logs while mostly thinking of the enjoyable conversations around them rather than the input that is their main purpose (at least from my perspective).
Teacher-fronted grammar lessons are probably familiar to most readers of this blog. Mine are not particularly unusual, I think, except that I tend to give absurd examples and lots of analogies to food (an independent clause is a burger, a dependent clause is fries, and adverbials are drinks and toppings).
Numbers and stuff
On to the data.
For all 3 classes, the most popular class activity was Kahoot! followed closely by grammar lessons. The one most viewed as helpful was at-home writing, followed again by grammar lessons. That’s a bit interesting. The other values on the table are a bit more interesting.
The second column, consisting of t-values, shows basically how meaningful the differences between the “I like it” and “It helps me learn” are. t-values, if I recall correctly from the last time I googled them, are roughly the odds that a difference between 2 populations (or a change in 1 population) could have been coincidence even if the populations themselves are actually not different with regards to the value you are testing. Generally, the null hypothesis (that there is no significant difference between the populations tested) is rejected if t is below 0.05 or 0.01. The computed value of t depends on the differences between the populations’ answers and on the size of the population. I only computed t for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” scores for the same activity, and the numbers in the center column are those t-values. As you can see, the only one that would pass a conventional test for significance is at-home writing, although grammar on the whiteboard is close. This tells us that the different values for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” for at-home writing are probably large enough for us to assume that a difference would be found even if I taught thousands of students instead of about a hundred. I find this interesting mostly because it shows how large the gap is between enjoyment and valuation of paragraphs and essays – a gap which might generally be found among students who feel that some things that aren’t enjoyable are nonetheless good for your brain, which might call the eating your vegetables effect. (I would be tempted to conclude that the relative lack of enjoyment causes the feeling that it must be useful except that Language Logs have an even lower enjoyment score and a correspondingly low usefulness score.)
The last column is standard deviation, or how widely answers are dispersed. As you can see, “at-home writing helps me learn”‘s answers are the least dispersed of any item, meaning that there was higher consensus around the usefulness of at-home writing than, say, Kahoot!. This means that not only was the mean higher, showing that on average more people found it useful, but people agreed more on how useful it was. Language logs, on the other hand, had wide disagreement on their usefulness (and enjoyability). It seems that students are much more unanimous on some questions than others.
Last, I have the correlations. Not too much to say about this, except that liking/valuing Kahoot! is negatively correlated with almost everything else. The positive correlations between reading circles and Language Logs could be explained by the social nature of both (see the confounding factor of the Language Logs above). I have no idea what could be behind valuing reading circles and valuing grammar on the whiteboard/projector.
Discussion and hedging
One must keep in mind that students are likely judging the usefulness of activities based on changes in their abilities that they can detect; a very long-term effect or a subconscious one will be mostly invisible and may feel useless, while one that gives the rush of endorphine that comes from solving a puzzle may not be as effective in long-term acquisition but will seem to have led to some understanding. This is a circuitous way of saying that we can’t trust students at the end of a 4-month course to know what actually helped them learn. I tend to regard the Language Logs as the most beneficial, because they 1) facilitate large amounts of input, 2) are student-directed and therefore more likely to keep their interest, and 3) are the most likely to be continued outside of class. Of course, stuff that seems pedagogically useless to students is not likely to lead to re-registration in the spring, and if students don’t sign up for classes, it’s hard to say I served them well by insisting on nutritious but unrewarding educational broccoli. Activities like Kahoot! may be worth the time and effort if only to provide the hit of pure enjoyment that keeps people looking forward to the next serving of ice cream when they’ve finished their vegetables.
(Pace Timothy Snyder – originally this post was going to be “Democrating Backsliding in the ELT Classroom”, but I haven’t actually read the relevant materials for that. The point is the same, though – a series of semi-political tips for not letting classes or institutions slide into tranmissive dictatorships. The usual caveat applies: I certainly don’t apply as many of these rules as I’d like, and in fact wrote this partly as a warning to myself.)
Do not obey in advance
Let’s assume your students have shown a pattern of reluctance to choose input for themselves or engage in self-directed learning, which is common in language classrooms around the world. Do not assume that this pattern will continue forever, and do not change your teaching methods in anticipation of this reluctance even before it happens. Do not treat your students as unready for communicative or other modern methods simply because previous classes may have been.
Defend modern ELT in principle. Many classes slide into teacher-domination because expedience seems to demand it – because teachers accept the unilateral authority that the forces of student expectation and curricular deadlines seem to require. Temporary suspensions of student-centeredness in favor of transmission-style teaching should be resisted, not just because they do not work, but because they encourage the view that researched and rigorous concepts such as interlanguage are inconveniences standing in the way of truly efficient impartation of knowledge. In reality, of course, that efficiency is more a path toward perfunctory teacherly role-playing than toward learners’ mastery of English.
Beware the one-party state
Many classroom dictatorships arise not because a teacher arrogates power but because his/her pupils choose to cede it when given the option. Do not take opportunities that students give you to take full control of the classroom, and do not use your authority as a teacher to consolidate attention and legitimate authority around yourself.
Take responsibility for the face of the world
The appearance of the classroom should not reflect the will of a single person. The only writing on the whiteboard should not be the teacher’s, the only printed text used should not be from the teacher, and the only voice heard should not be the teacher’s. Classrooms should physically manifest the priority given to students’, not teachers’, expression.
Remember professional ethics
Oftentimes, a teacher-centered class emerges because students feel pressure to play the part of the student as they understand it. This part, which is often defined by passive receptivity and obedience, is not simply unconscious habit – students may see it as an affirmative moral value in itself. That is, the job of the teacher may not be just to present a more interesting alternative to silent absorption of information, but actively discourage students’ preconceived ideas of “how to be a student”. Students have their own professional ethics of classroom conduct, and teachers would do well to acknowledge their existence.
(Yes, this is the opposite of Timothy Snyder’s point on this subject. Bear with me.)
Be wary of paramilitaries
Clusters of students that are apparently sympathetic to the communicative, egalitarian, task-based curriculum that the teacher is trying to effect may appear and begin to dominate classroom activities. The existence of these seeming allies among the student population is welcome to a degree, but can begin to create a hostile environment for students who are reluctant to engage to the same degree for reasons of identity or ability. Remember that the job of the teacher is not to give more advantage to students who are already advantaged because of a higher starting point or previous experience with modern ELT classes, or to signal a preference for those students. The creation of a privileged minority of students within the classroom should be avoided.
Be reflective if you must be armed
For students: Being appointed, being selected, or volunteering to be group leader means that you are responsible for the maintenance of communicative norms within that group. When you have power over your classmates, maintain norms of discourse that do not privilege particular viewpoints – yours especially – or consist only of participation by students who are already fluent speakers. Some students will take the reduced numbers of eyes on them when working in a small group as an invitation to dominate the conversation or to shrink back into individual study. As the local authority, your job is to prevent either of these from happening.
Taking a modern, communicative approach may distinguish you from your colleagues in ways that are mutually uncomfortable. You may feel that you are passing judgment on your colleagues’ or institution’s way of doing things by breaking from it. Indeed, some teaching milieux may have norms so deeply established for so long that trying something new is seen as synonymous with questioning everyone else’s competence. Be open about trying new techniques and approaches and be honest about their success or failure. Be prepared to justify them with reference to research. Above all, be honest about why you teach the way you do, and do not acquiesce to unjustifiable pedagogical norms no matter how many people with pages-long CVs are pushing them.
Be kind to our language
Do not adopt buzzwords needlessly, and certainly do not use them without understanding them. “Learning styles” were a litmus test for being a modern teacher for 15 years or so, during which many teachers described their classes and students with the vocabulary of what turned out to be a false theory of educational psychology. Many still use the terminology of “learning styles”, describing an activity as “ideal for kinesthetic learners” when they could just as easily call it “less boring than sitting still”. By adopting this terminology, teachers have appeared to endorse a theory which was debunked.
Believe in truth
In some teaching contexts, a long career is seen as a substitute for reflected-upon experience and confidence in one’s methods as equivalent to knowledge of their efficacy. Foreign language pedagogy is a field with a long history and plenty of research. This body of research is mature enough to offer at least some tentative answers to long-standing questions in our field, such as how central formal grammar should be in classes and how much of a difference input makes. Access to the current state of knowledge on questions like these, and more importantly, believing that the questions have answers that can’t be ignored in favor of a local or individual long-practiced method, is a step toward more effective and more justifiable pedagogy.
That said, the answers to pedagogy’s big questions may not come in an obvious form. Sometimes a teacher will have great success with a method or technique that appears to come from the middle ages. Commit to trying to understand how different teachers have success with different class styles and the principles underlying that success. Above all, do not accept pedadogical prescription or proscription without the application of your critical faculties.
Make eye contact and small talk
Humanity can be brought to the classroom by simple engagement with learners as people. Some one-on-one or small group interaction with the teacher not as a fount of wisdom but just as a person, and with the learner not as a receptacle of knowledge or target of remediation but as another person, can bring much-needed humanity back to the classroom.
Practice corporeal politics
PhD researchers who don’t teach and chalk-faced teachers who don’t reflect on practice or theory are a perfect recipe for each other’s stagnation. Take theory that comes from people who haven’t set foot in a language classroom in years with a grain of salt. You cannot realize good pedagogical theory without contact with learners. I mean this in two ways – your theory will be useless if it doesn’t survive contact with actual people, and putting your theory into practice with your own students ensures that at least some people will benefit from it.
Establish a private life
You do not need to share as much with your learners as they share with you. There is a happy medium between sterile professionalism in the classroom and complete shedding of boundaries. Affective factors certainly do affect achievement, and that entails at least some rapport and sense of community beyond a shared interest in skillbuilding. However, oversharing runs the risk of reducing the teacher to merely an affective variable and not an expert in either the subject or how to teach it.
Contribute to good causes
A local, institutional professional culture may fall short of maintaining pedagogical standards. Sometimes, a national or international group, formal or informal, may function better as a community of practice for a teacher hoping to grow and keep up with current wisdom. In any case, join (i.e., send money), attend, and especially present. If a group of which you are a member is failing to provide something of value, you should provide it instead.
Learn from peers in other countries
ELT and especially SLA are worldwide fields, and different cultures, countries, and institutions around the world often practice radically different pedagogy. Staying in one milieux for too long threatens to particularize your skillset; working in many countries or at least communicating with fellow teachers and learners in other countries exposes you to different sorts of problems to be solved and ways of solving them. A frequent stumbling block in your milieux may have an extremely commonsense solution elsewhere in the world – and you may be surprised by the depth of thought that goes into an issue you thought only had one answer.
Listen for dangerous words
Pedagogy can be circumscribed a bit too cleanly by the words used to describe it. “Syllabus”, “material”, “instruction”, “grammar”, “participation”, “master” and even “know” are all words that language teachers have good reason to take with several grains of salt. If you hear these words being used as if their meanings were obvious, and especially if they are being used with obviously mistaken meanings, don’t be afraid to ask, “what do you mean?” Often, the most useful discussions with colleagues and students occur over supposedly commonsense terms.
Be calm when the unthinkable arrives
Emergencies and exceptions are dangerous times. The last day before the test might seem like a time when the norms of student-centeredness might best be suspended in favor of teacher-led review sessions. This might even be presented as the only responsible option. Of course, if teacher-centeredness is the most responsible path right before an exam, another exam will come soon, and the exceptional circumstance might be stretched a bit longer. In fact, every lesson contains something of vital importance which seem to deserve priority over the luxuries of free student participation and self-directed learning. There are always circumstances that would seem to make every class session a temporary exception or an emergency and cause the teacher to resort to a more “efficient” method. Be very suspicious of exhortations or enjoinders because of the supposed unique circumstances of the present class period.
Be a patriot
Be a teacher, not a deliverer or keeper of information. You can take for granted that you know the subject matter better than your students. Knowing the metalanguage around your subject matter, including serious-sounding terms like “adjective clause”, makes it easier for you to convince other native speakers that you really earn your paycheck, but of course you will never catch up to Google search in your grammar knowledge. Your job is bringing other people to a more complete understanding (see “dangerous words”) of the subject matter, not just knowing it yourself, and certainly not impressing your students with how much more than them you know.
Be as courageous as you can
If none of us is prepared to work for our betterment, then all of us will labor under mediocrity.
Or is it… a bunch of teachers has taken my grammar test?
Why does the second sound so bizarre? Is the frequency with which we match apparent subjects like “a bunch” with “have” or “are” a lamentable pattern of grammatical laziness or is “bunch” just a special kind of word, rather than the noun it appears to be?
An interesting transition appears to have happened or be happening to English partitives and quantitatives, phrases like “a piece of”. Under certain circumstances, they seem to lose their grammatical class as noun phrases and are instead interpreted like adjectives, modifying a noun to come rather than being nouns themselves. You know the most common of these – “a lot of”, which appears to be a noun phrase with an indefinite article (“a”), a single noun (“lot”), and a prepositional phrase (“of ~”). In practice, “a lot of trees” is interpreted as a noun phrase about “trees”, not about a “lot”, which can see reflected in in the verb conjugations in sentences like “a lot of trees are in the park”, wherein “are” conjugates to match the plural noun “trees”. Needless to say, different noun phrases with a similar forms to “a lot of”, e.g. “a room with” or “a shot in”, are not treated this way – “a room with windows” is not a noun phrase about windows. I’ve never heard a sentence constructed like “a room with windows were open to let in the breeze” – have you?
You probably think I’m about to condemn a lot of the English teachers who took my survey for having bad grammar. No, I’m not. Instead, I’m about to propose a semi-regular change in grammatical class that most people’s (including my) notion of correct grammar hasn’t caught up with yet. I name this below the jump.
I regard myself as the most professional when I’m acting in ways that are seen as vaguely unprofessional. Contrarily, if everyone from administration down to new students seems to be regarding me as a consummate professional with everything under control and nothing left to chance, I feel as if I must be doing something wrong.
Part of this is unambiguously a result of modern training in language teaching with all its student-centeredness, communicativity, and insistence on relevance to real needs. Not many teachers educated since the Krashen days see language teaching as a matter of verbally transmitting the rules of grammar. But students often want teachers who appeal to their conscious and rational minds, and teachers respect each other for their grasp of effete theory and ability to maintain control of a room. On the other hand, asking a class to generate discourse by itself or choose topics close to them, taking long stretches of class time simply to listen to students negotiate with each other, is seen by many students and some teachers as abandoning your professional authority and objectivity. Ironically, greater professional investment in the current field of TESOL, which correlates with greater commitment to student-centered norms, leads students and colleagues to expect to gain more from you simply by listening, leading to still more disappointment when you seem to cede the floor to someone still figuring out “are” and “is” (see Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context for a specific example of this effect). Here, our training seems designed to disappoint anyone who comes into a classroom to “learn” in a traditional sense. I believe most language teachers come across this conundrum often in their careers, more if they lean heavily to the Dogme side of CLT and especially more if their students see didacticism as a sign of seriousness.
With fellow teachers too, I feel a need to have conversations go slightly awkwardly to confirm to myself that I am taking an appropriately circumspect distance from the norms of my field. Besides the list of expressions the ended one of my recent posts, I find that their are surprisingly few terms that language teachers use that I can accept exactly as intended, because I don’t think the term accurately describes what people usually take it as. For instance, one that came up in a bit of downtime discussion with a colleague in the language lab today was “grammar teaching” (which we agreed should always be surrounded by scare quotes). In my view, “teaching” can only practically mean doing the things that bring cause people to improve in the area whose noun premodifies “teaching”. E.g., “surfing teaching” most intuitively means teaching people skills relevant to being able to surf, not some other skill tangentially related to surfing, such as musculature or the physics of erosion. Since the endpoint we want to reach with students with respect to grammar is (mostly) unconscious application of the rules, such as they are, in real-time or at least real-world situations, how can we call the explicit teaching of grammar rules “grammar teaching”, when that is the thing we are all trained in our MA programs to know doesn’t demonstrably lead to that endpoint? I’m not convinced that my answer to this question is the only acceptable one, but I’m far less convinced that the term “grammar teaching” should be tossed about as if we all agreed that teaching metalanguage and focusing on formS were the way to go.
So when I hear someone use this arguably commonsense term, I often ask what they mean, which in professional language teaching situations is sort of the equivalent of a volleyball player asking what you mean when you say “serve”. I think I leave a lot of colleagues with the alternating impressions that I know a lot and that I don’t know anything (sometimes this impression requires little effort). I do this because I have professional pride in not taking terms and practices for granted, especially if they are as common as “grammar”. My unprofessional inability to smoothly carry on conversations on language teaching is a point of pride for me as a professional language teacher. As is my ability to recognize but not care about split infinitives.
In the classroom, there are ways to work around being seen as unprofessional, and they will placate some students. I found that with my ESL students last semester, if I took a significant piece of class time to explain (with reference to research) why I don’t see much merit in going through the grammar textbook chapter by chapter or stopping to explain every new word in a reading textbook written at the i^2 level, they would generally come along for the ride, bumps and all (as opposed to before, when what I thought were interesting tangents were generally seen as undisciplined diversions from the coursebook). And the bumps are much more important than a smooth but unremarkable ride. I tend to think that in a few years the bumps are all they’ll remember.
Ironically in a field (ideally) focused on creating unconscious and automatic mastery, I often feel I’m in the business of making memories, albeit memories of a particular type and as a scaffold for particular things I want them to know. If I don’t have their attention and they won’t remember what we did that day, I feel like I wasted their time, even if a random passerby peeking into the classroom would have seen something that strongly resembled “teaching”. I seldom find that the way to create memories is by rigorously following a PPP lesson plan (or “teaching grammar”). In order to fulfill my duties and see myself as a teacher, I sometimes need to look conspicuously unlike most people’s conception of one.
A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト). I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members. I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on. Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.
One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room. In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often. I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not. Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on. In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all. I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way. Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.
I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience. For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT. And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.
MIA in CATESOL
Native Speaker. I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan. On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white). I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves. Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers. I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”). Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else. It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!
Interlanguage. This troubles me. The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that. If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing. By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”. I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”. My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.
I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest. I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.
Extensive Reading. I suppose this follows from the last one. A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted. My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve. I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics. To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better. My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true. See next point.
Free conversation. This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it. However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom. This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum. I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train. Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list. It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.
To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy. Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it. The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon. Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it. I hope to be proven wrong.
On the other hand…
行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT
Credit/non-credit. By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t. I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university. However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this. Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant. If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society. The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy. If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.
JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals). Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously. As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them. If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.
In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways. What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip. Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study. If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.
I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.
Immigrants get it done
As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator. Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall. Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.
I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants. The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities. They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers. Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching. I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification. They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST. They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.
Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit. Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.
Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently
“when you get to that point in the curriculum”
“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)
“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”
“reduced adjective clause”
“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)
“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)