This is a response to a post by Andrew Walkley of Lexical Lab on his about how teachers can use coursebooks in a principled way.
I am not actually getting into the back and forth about how evil/good they are as I have done so several times before.
Andrew has a couple of questions that seem genuine as opposed to discursive window dressing.
It seems to me, for example, that in choosing a task, TBLT practitioners must have some ideas of level and potential language in mind before the class.
Yes. Very much planned. There is a ton of planning, or at least gathering background information. There’s a needs analysis (NA) and a discourse analysis (DA) in the kind I do, based on Long (2014). I don’t have an applied linguist do my DA for me, though. I try to make a small corpus or at least gather some authentic texts (including videos or audio) to check how the tasks in the needs analysis would normally be done in the real world.
If I can’t access real-world examples then it comes down to reliance upon intuition. I dislike this but I feel that this gives me the chance to say that I have an idea about tasks ought to be performed but they should be co-constructed with learners’ knowledge of it. I certainly feel that writers rely on instincts at times, too.
The tasks to complete should be comparable to real-world tasks. Such tasks in my classroom may be (and I know that I diverge from orthodoxy from time to time) to engage in small talk in reception prior to a meeting in order to build rapport with a customer/client all the way to negotiating timescales with builders for renovation work so you can move into your house. It’s often (but not always) appropriate for learners to plan and repeat tasks. Focus on Form comes in as required. I know some people use Murphy (2012) for this. I don’t but that’s my preference. I use the board or have learners search for examples in SkELL and report findings or even just clean up a bit of lexis and grammar. It could be worksheets printed on the fly in higher tech classrooms. I like learners’ transcription of and reflection on parts of their own recorded tasks and reflection after focus on form and/or feedback in the lesson as a bit of homework.
Andrew also asks:
my questioning of TBLT/Dogme centres on how lessons actually work. I understand that a material-free classroom can work in principle, but I think we need to question the practice. What exactly are the tasks? How are those tasks chosen?
As for Dogme, I doubt I’m canonical here but knowing as much about the learners first helps the teacher pick tasks/topics that will pique interest as part of a negotiated syllabus. Then the syllabus gets negotiated and remains a work in progress. Tasks may even be chosen by learners seeing as they have an idea what they know/don’t know. It’s not an negation of the teacher’s role but information to support it. You negotiate a syllabus, rather than blindly accept “We want to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of the contemporary Russian state” with A2 learners. But who’s to say that talking about Russia or philosophy aren’t nice prerequisite steps towards this?
My Dogme lessons tend to start with a gathering of collective knowledge about the topic or reacting to a story or artefact. This output is then used to synthesise something else (even if it is merely a more crystallised opinion), taking the conversation to wherever it heads, focusing on form as and when needed. This requires neither coursebook pages nor the aforementioned Murphy (2012). Again, boardwork, negotiation of meaning in greater detail and work on nuance pay dividends. Grammar work could even involve a sentence jigsaw made from index cards or Post Its.
I hope this demystifies TBLT or Dogme classroom practices. Any questions, hit me up in the comments. Any comments, er, in the comments.
Long, M. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. New York. Wiley.
Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar In Use (4th Ed.). Cambridge. CUP.
I don’t think it’s exactly a secret that I rather like corpora. In this post I shall show you how you can create an easy spoken corpus using YouTube and a subtitle downloader. Use at your own risk, and YouTube might disable this usability at any time.
Find your videos.
Search YouTube. You know how to do this.
I used DownSub.com. It opens a pop-up ad the first time you get paste the video address in the search box but is otherwise benign.
Download your subtitles. Repeat for as many videos as required. Yes this is a pain in the bum but it’s the best I can do.
Open all your subtitle files in the text editor of your choice and replace nonsense/ html codes with nothing. Save them as .txt files.
Wow, a corpus!
Or a small one, depending on how much time you have. Tag the corpus if you wish, using TagAnt by Laurence Anthony. You can open the corpus in AntWord by him, too. Free downloads.
Some of you who know me a bit or have delved in the archives may know that I just finished my MA Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Distance Learning) through University of Portsmouth. Nothing is finalised yet but my work has been marked and in the next couple of months I believe I get a lovely new piece of paper.
Would I do it again? Yes. I loved reading up on stuff I am interested in and then chatting about it. Would my wife let me do it again? Perhaps begrudgingly. There are reasons for her antipathy, none of which are to do with the University of Portsmouth but to do with work-life balance.
My workload (as in paid work) right now is 15 hours university teaching (and does not include planning, preparation or assessment), 16 hours of school teaching, planning, preparation and assessment, and 3 hours thirty minutes of ESP/Business English teaching (not including preparation, planning or assessment). While I was doing my MA, I was teaching 3 to 6 hours less at university but instead teaching 3 hours more Business English, teaching YLs for 7 hours and coordinating YL courses with 2 assigned hours. A colleague told me a couple of weeks ago, “Marc, you should be really proud if you do pass because you have the workload of two full-time lecturers while completing the MA reading and writing.”
I am proud, but I wish I had controlled my work-life balance better, what with having a young son. I also started the MA when I was finishing up the teaching practicum of my Trinity DipTESOL, as well, which was stressful in and of itself. This was not simply unwise but totally stupid and irresponsible. I did all of it by sacrificing family life, mainly by burning the candle at both ends.
Why did I do it, then? I am not a pretty paper collector. I am stuck in a situation where I need money and it needs to go up quite often seeing as I have basically no pension, not really enough savings, and there are social norms in Japan about extra-curricular stuff that costs the kind of kind of money I will probably start to balk at come April. I can talk about the inherent edification of completing work above my comfort zone, and it is a huge factor in what got me through. Learning stuff is fun, kind of. However, I have to at least be a bit utilitarian. MA is basically the new BA. Perhaps I even understate it.
I also work for four different employers, plus myself. I am tired of this. I would love a full-time job that pays a similar amount to my current earnings, after taking into account the social insurance differences and such. Unfortunately, there’s a bit less job security there unless I were to chance upon a tenured position immediately. This is as likely as discovering a magic lamp at the bottom of my bag. However, an MA makes the probability of this at least a sporting chance. It also means that I can move countries if I absolutely have to. It also means that I can advertise my services as that of an expert rather than as a journeyman, and get more money for them. Alternatively, it means I can find better paying part-time work.
Anyhow, studies are finished, kind of. I just have to wait. My dissertation supervisor said in an email, “you should follow up on this research.”
“Hey, let’s move to New Zealand! I’ll do a PhD!” I said, in the mania of knowing I passed everything as opposed to the gnawing fear that I had failed. Also, I am a workaholic, which is definitely not a good thing but a side effect of impulsive decision making.
“Do they have good trains?” my son asked.
“Eh?” asked my wife, with the stoniest stare since Medusa. “No.”
So, not quite that. Instead, I am doing stuff, sort of a long-term research project come side business thing that I hope to use as a PhD by publication in the next few years, to increase the chance of finding a permanent, well-paid, full-time job (don’t laugh, PhD holders; I did say ‘chance’) . Luckily I have good library access with my jobs.
In the meantime, I am trying to find time to transform my dissertation into a research article and figure out how to get my jobs to let me use students as research subjects or else find time to get volunteers for research. Or get the time to try finding a magic lamp.
I’ve been using Saboteur with an adapted Kotoba Rollers framework by James York with my university classes. I want talking with authentic tasks, which games provide. There is also transcription of language used. It isn’t all fun and games though.
In the game, players are either good, hardworking miners or saboteurs. None of the players know the roles of the others but they hardworking miners need to work together to get the gold. The saboteurs need to ensure the pack of cards is exhausted before the treasure cards are reached. There are also action cards such as breaking tools, fixing tools, causing rock falls and checking maps for gold, which may lead to cooperation or subterfuge.
The published rules are a bit tricky to understand. I had set the reading for homework, figuring that if there were a lot of difficulties the students would use dictionaries or Google Translate. This means my students skim read them superficially and did not bother to understand the rules fully before game play. Dictionaries and Google barely got looked at.
However, the rules needed a bit of clarification. This led to some good negotiation of meaning (Long, 1983). There are cards used to destroy the mine path above or break other players’ tools but they weren’t always easily understood.
The transcription is the main part I changed. I ask students to write three parts.
What did your partner say? Did they say it differently to how you would say it? How would you say it?
This has been done pretty well and is usually the best part of my RPG-based classes’ sheets, too.
What communication problems did you have? Why?
This sometimes ends up being a wishy-washy “I need to speak more fluently” but a lot of my students have gone a bit deeper.
If you spoke Japanese, what did you say? How can you say it in English?
This has an obvious function but students do sometimes half-arse it and just use Google Translate one way without checking the translation in a (monolingual) dictionary or Skell.
Still the work got done and there was another game of Saboteur in the following lesson to review. I was satisfied with this little Kotoba Rollers cycle, and so were my students, though I needed to buy 4 lots of the game for my big class.
Long, M. (1983) Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input1. Applied Linguistics, 4 (2) pp. 126–141.
Research doesn’t affect anything except practice among some university teachers or a small number of school teachers. It does not affect materials to a degree significant enough to affect teachers’ general classroom practices. This is OK; those of us with lab coat envy can feel good about our principles while others can feel good about being in touch with teaching realities.
However slavishly you believe that you follow a method or approach, you’re probably following your interpretation of it rather than something the developer would regard as a practice they prescribed. This is fine because it is also informed by judgment of how the people in the classroom would respond to your methods.
We can talk ourselves blue in the face about IATEFL, but I have met approximately two members of that organisation in the time I have been teaching. For most teachers, IATEFL has as much bearing on our professional life as Paris Spring Collection has on the clothes sold in Topshop. You can choose to enthuse or dissent about points of view expressed there there but your enthusiasm or dissent is irrelevant to most teachers. It is your own, and it affects mainly your own practice.
Do learners rely too much on teachers to do the ‘heavy lifting’ in the classroom? I’ve had a couple of things happen this week that have had me on this train of thought.
One of my colleagues put me on to Alan Waters’ (1998) article, Managing Monkeys in the ELT Classroom. The monkeys are not learners but the task at hand. Who is dealing with the task, and who should be?
Today, I had a review class with one of my RPG-based classes. It was the worst I have seen them. For a minority of students, when they should have been planning, they were talking about nonsense in Japanese (yes, I eavesdropped). I reset the task, asked to give support, but in the end I can only do so much. Perhaps they thought the task retry was too simple in spite of initially claiming otherwise. Next week, I have students managing proverbial bonobos rather than the capuchins they have had so far: they will control the role playing and the points for the game themselves. They have been given a basic scenario and have to imagine possible events. I shall see what happens next.
I was on Twitter (and I know I came off: different story) and was involved in a thread with the EL Gazette. I suggested that the status quo of white-centred, unrepresentative materials will never change until OER (Open Educational Resources) become standard.
The EL Gazette’s answer was, the British Council/BBC have open resources (i.e. freely available and copiable) on TeachingEnglish.org.uk . I replied that they are not open because they are not editable. PDFs are a pain to edit. The Gazette urged me and others who share my concerns to contact the British Council and BBC. So I did, through the contact page. Feel free to use my email as a basic template but add your own ideas as you see fit, of course.
To those it may concern
I am writing to suggest a change of file format for the resources on Teaching English. As you may be aware, some teachers are becoming more concerned that the materials they use may not adequately represent or relate to their learners’ lives.
The Teaching English website provides quality materials that teachers can pick and choose from easily; unfortunately, what is useful for one teacher may be less useful for another for reasons of region, context and setting. Bearing this in mind I would like to request that the format of lesson plans and teaching materials on the website be changed from PDF, which is difficult to edit, to another format such as Word document or Powerpoint presentation, which can be opened and edited by a wide range of computer software. This would allow teachers to adapt materials to better suit their learners and also, in turn, result in a likely greater uptake in use of the website’s materials.
I do hope that you bear my request in mind. I look forward to future contact regarding any decisions made.