#CorpusMOOC Week 1 notes

I joined the Futurelearn/Lancaster University Corpus MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) this week to supplement the module on technology and corpus linguistics I’m studying for my MA. 
So far, so good. I’ve managed to watch all of the video lectures and I’ve done a good deal of the reading. It’s just a bit of a dip of your toe in the water this week but it was useful to read about different types of corpora as well as how to read the frequency data and so on (spoiler: think of source material and how wide it is). 
One thing that did come up that I wanted to reflect upon was something said in one of the lectures:
Corpora may be used by language teachers to check frequency of occurrence so they may decide to teach their learners more high-frequency items. 
It sounds right but then what about sequences of acquisition? Sure, single words, especially simple nouns or verbs might be chosen, but could it be the case that some high-frequency structures are acquired later than less frequent ones? I think I have more reading to do! 

Foolish Utopianism in Teacher Development?


I was going to go to a conference relatively recently but at the last minute I decided not to because I hadn’t actually looked at the price. I thought that because it wasn’t the JALT (Inter?)national conference (nor was it a JALT event at all) that it might be relatively cheap, also seeing as it was at a university campus.
I nearly vomited in my mouth at the price when I saw it. Seeing it there, I hope the keynote presenters were paid for their time, especially seeing as it was unlikely that major publishers would have been paying for them.

1. Possibilities vs. Practicalities

I know that space with nice chairs and decent coffee doesn’t come for free but I also know that some of the teachers who give a damn about their CPD or lack of it can’t afford to pay the equivalent of US$200 to see someone give a talk or workshop that may (or may not) be useful for them in their context.
I’ve never really been that interested in any of the ‘name’ ELT people bar Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings because what seems to be the case at IATEFL is that facile reinforcement of (perhaps erroneous) beliefs is what draws the attention on the internet, with the exception of Silvana Richardson’s NNEST plenary and Russ Mayne’s Myths in ELT presentation. Geoff Jordan complains about the IATEFL palaver, with big names. To justify a large cost I suppose they need names, but why not cut the costs?
I’ve never been able to get to big conferences due to work but the ones I have made it to have been highly participatory and kind of grassroots. I have also loved many of the webinars I’ve attended and some stuff that might fly might be a hybrid of the two.

2. The Interzone of Cyberspace and Meatspace

Imagine 20-odd people gathered in a space with a mike, a projector, a webcam and several others watching online,  feeding questions for the speaker into a public Google document or Twitter hashtag. Imagine 20-odd others in another space in another country watching on a projector, while one of them has the familiar stomach-cramps related to their upcoming presentation-come-workshop.
Google already allows live streaming on YouTube and there are other providers, too. Electronic Village Online has already done web conferences. What about face-to-face with an electronic function? The live-tweeting phenomenon points in this direction, as people seem to want it.
You get to have the communal experience, with networking breaks, yet also have people presenting that you’d never see because they would never normally be able to make it due to time/money/family.

3. Outreach

What good is a conference when it is an echo chamber? Why preach to the choir? In Japan, we need chain eikaiwa teachers and dispatch agency ALTs to come and listen but, more importantly, make their voices heard. Do you know why there is little action research or exploratory practice done in eikaiwa? It isn’t the companies, because people could be taking notes on their regular students, and often do in the roll books. It’s because the teachers know that nobody outside is reaching out to them. Nobody gives a monkey’s. Yet these people do ditch the book, do try out-there things with their students from time to time. I know it would help more of them (as it helped me) to learn more about SLA without it seeming high handed. It would help them if they saw principles put into practice in a workshop. If they could hear people like themselves elsewhere, and also unlike them, with new ideas and alternative perspectives, it would help massively. If it were made accessible, through technology, at cultural centres or coworking spaces, this could easily happen.

4. What could this be like?

It could be like Lesson Jamming.
It could be like Edcamps.
It could be like Electronic Village Online, the ToBELTA web conference, iTDI’s summer webinar season.
It could be like JALT Saitama’s Nakasendo, or Michinohe MEES linked to different locations, available on mobile phones and laptops and projectors and TVs.
If you are interested, message me on Twitter.

Book Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Walton Burns (2016) 50 Activities for the First Day of School. Alphabet Press. US $1.95 ebook. $6.95 pbk.

You know me. I am cynical. I am down on every kind of thing. I do not review products – I rail against the status quo. I only do Dogme and task-based teaching because of their cool, outside-the-mainstream-ness. I don’t do book reviews.
I had never been asked before, and while I more or less knew that Walton Burns’ book would not be my kind of thing. His Alphabet Press indie publishing venture is an admirable thing; some say that self-publishing is vanity publishing but I think this is a myth put out by big publishers to avoid doing anything worthwhile but keep selling dreck. Anyway, he asked nicely, I said are you sure you want me to tear you apart and then stich you back together with gravel where your soul once was and he said he was sure this wouldn’t happen. I am trying to be less of a negative person, so I said yes.
Still, the book is not my thing really though there are some things I really like.

Things I liked

It is obviously rooted in practice. You can imagine that these activities have been tried and tried again. The variations of the activities are good, and usually more difficult than the original. Some activities are quite contrived but they get students talking. Though I say contrived, it’s no bigger a contrivance than the average EFL classroom. There is also a lot of moving around which can be good for young-ish learners. There is a very good activity about having learners talk about their strengths in the language. The time capsule activity is good as an activity to later compare to the baseline to see progress. There were rough time limits, too, and I’d think about making these subheadings (of which more later).

Things that weren’t for me

I knew the book wasn’t my thing. It’s very icebreaker heavy and I’m not an icebreaker kind of guy. I normally ask learners to find out about each other but not “five things”. Life isn’t constantly numbered.
I think the memory chain activities were rather over represented, too. Memory chains for names in particular. There could have been more for vocabulary (there are some, however).
The English names thing has always made me feel a bit uneasy as it’s often an excuse for monolingual teachers to get out of trying to actually pronounce real names. “Yasuhiro? OK: Joey.” Sometimes I think this is a (this specific) teacher annoyance more than a student one but I honestly don’t know. I’ve taught on courses where students were obliged to pick an English name and there were some amazingly bizarre ones, possibly picked as a piss-take.
The learning myths bit was a bit less student-centred than most other activities.

Would I buy it?

No. But I have been teaching since before my hair was grey. I have seen almost all of these activities before in one iteration or another in various in-house resource books in language schools or just from observing other teachers.

Would I recommend it to anyone?

Yes, maybe. If someone is new to teaching, fresh off a certificate or just on-the-job ‘training’ it might be useful and saves them reinventing the wheel, especially if they have a real academic year (unlike most EFL language schools who take all comers all year). I’d say the ebook would be useful for planning on public transport. There are worksheets available to download for some of the activities which might be nice for those with little experience.
So, I hope this was a fair review. If you write materials and have a desire to have your dreams torn to shreds you can always get in touch.

Your Secret Weapon

For loads of us in a (largely) monolingual EFL setting, there is an amazing resource available under our noses. I’d argue that a lot of people feel it’s a bit rude but I’m going to argue that rude or not, you get to maximize engagement in lessons through greater relevance and also at least partial schema activation.
Eavesdropping on your learners when they’re using L1.
If you can do it, this pays dividends. You get to give them what they are already thinking about but may not be able to do in English. For example, are people on your business class complaining on the phone? Can you help them do it in English, with appropriate language and pragmatic competence? How about the young learners talking about cartoons? Can they explain the plot, the characters or the appeal by involving you in a real conversation?
“What about the syllabus?” you might say.
Can you postpone that item? Work it in? Abandon it? I think we need to remember that syllabi are guides not commandments. And if we make things a bit closer to learners real lives they might want to work through that syllabus a bit more.