It just happened – I blogged

filler-150980_960_720It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t a race. It just happened. I blogged 15 times last month, which means that on average, I blogged once in two days. It may well be my personal record so, in this post, I’d like to reflect on those past 30+ days.

Blogging every day forces you to notice the details of your life. You need fodder for the day’s post. And you’ll scour your world to get it. You become hyper-aware. You find ways to turn little subtleties into big ideas. You start writing with questions only to be faced with answers by the time you reach the end of the post. Your headspace literally becomes transformed. (How one year of daily blogging changed my life by Jonas Ellison)

What happens if you decide to or just blog every day or once in two days? First of all, blogging becomes your life for a while; it becomes an obsession. One of the downsides of excessive blogging is that you can’t get it out of your head and the same acute questions keep niggling at the back of your mind: Have I taken care of all the errors and misspelling in my latest post? Have I expressed myself clearly? Do I sound pathetic?

But there are perks to intense blogging too. I can’t help smiling when I think of all the enthusiasm with which I looked forward to every new morning. I would wake up around 8:30 am, when all the house was still in bed (teenagers and teachers on holiday are impossible!) and I would work on the post I had started the previous day or I would start a new one. Alternatively, I would just read other people’s posts, which lead to more inspiration.

Over time, the process of writing has become incredibly enjoyable for me. This joy is the consequence as well as the cause; the more I write, the easier and thus more pleasurable it gets and the more pleasurable it gets the more I want to write. Plus the more I write, the more I’m keen to read and the more ideas come to my mind in return. Blogging has become a drug, in the best and worst sense of the word.

However, while in the past, it was the clicks and likes I got from the viewers that to a large extent affected my writing enthusiasm and confidence, these days, my passion springs from another source. While I deeply appreciate the fact that people stop by and take the time to get involved in a discussion, my primary motivation is the desire to put words on paper.

It may sound terribly shallow, even self-indulgent, but it’s obviously not just that. Producing random words or sentences is not what feels so good about blogging. In my case, it’s the joy over the ability to express myself in another language. It’s the satisfaction I feel when I manage to get the message across. It’s the struggle of transforming my inner voice into a coherent piece of text. It’s the process of playing with and shaping that text until I’m fully satisfied. Plus the fact that it gets easier and faster each day, with each try.

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Based on what I’ve read, many bloggers like to save random blog-worthy ideas in the form of many separate drafts which give them great content ideas to come back to. Some say they even have up to fifty drafts. This is amazing given that I’ve never had more than one draft at the same time. Once I turn an idea into a draft, I need to finish it. Starting another draft usually means abandoning the previous one. It’s no longer worthy of attention and it will never be because it wasn’t finished. Having so many drafts would feel somehow cluttered for me anyway. It sounds strange now that I read it back but this is the way I write (and live?) – I need to focus on one thing. Once it’s completed, I let go of it and move on.

Some bloggers say they like to polish their writing by reading it backward and that they like to sleep on the final draft before they publish it. This pragmatic approach is probably suitable for most types of writing. Unfortunately, I’m not that patient and conscientious and this is where my blogging productivity may actually stem from. Upon finishing a post, I suddenly feel a strong urge to publish it even though I suspect there might still be some flaws. At some point, perfect or flawed, it must go and start living its own life. And each post clearly has its own, independent life – it’s shared on different social media, it’s read by a different number of people, it’s of interest for a different amount of time, and it gets a different type of response. I, the writer, have virtually no control over any of the variables.

This lack of control is daunting as well as thrilling. You can obviously delete a post if things go out of hand but it’s like wanting to delete words once spoken. They will never disappear completely.

Anyway, I’ll soon be away from my laptop so I’ll clam up for a while. I’d like to thank all the people who were with me all the time during this rather hectic blogging period. I’d like to thank those who appreciated the strengths as well as those who pointed out the flaws. Thanks for helping me make my obsession bearable.

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Burnout syndrome of the TEFL community

It looks as if it was all over; we seem to be in the twilight of the shiny happy TEFL PLNing era. It’s a bit like looking at the famous painting of The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up. We watch the end with nostalgia; we reflect on how great it once felt to be connected. But there’s this bitterness …

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Recently some strange things happened in the online TEFL sphere. A couple of fellow TEFLers disappeared without a trace from a particular social medium and some folks I know are considering the option too. The reason behind this exodus is that people can no longer take the hostility they witness and/or experience in the online interaction. But what’s more disturbing, some people are suspiciously quiet these days. And then there are the loud and proud ones – those who were quiet up till recently but decided to speak up against all the injustices. By doing so, they opened the imaginary Pandora’s box and since then many angry voices have joined the crowd.

It seems that all the good has been said and so some feel the need to counterbalance this fake niceness and complacency. Their response is brutal honesty. Needless to say, it’s a shock!

But some changes are almost imperceptible. For example, I’ve noticed that people quit starting their comments with the obligatory ‘thanks a lot for stopping by and dropping a line‘. They go straight to the point. Mind you, I don’t think it’s downright rude or something. After all, why should we lavish niceties when our time is so precious?

I’ve also got used to the fact that some don’t even bother to say ‘Hi!’ in the comment box or address the person by a name (not necessarily here on my blog). I’m fine with that provided I know who the person is talking to. Comments do sometimes start with ‘Dear X‘ but this way of addressing has now taken on two distinct connotations: dear = beloved or dear = idiot. It depends on who is replying and to whom. The reader will usually be able to discern the difference after a few lines.

I’ve also noticed that one of my favorite bloggers recently removed the like button from his blog.  Was it an attempt to get rid of a widget so overused in the online communication. It seems to me that some people are so hurt and disappointed that they want to strip emotionality from all the online interaction – negative or positive.

Finally, I witness that like in every dispute, the onlookers tend to favor one side at the expense of the other. For example, they say that if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. I agree. Except that I’m not always sure who the oppressor is or if there is one at all. I’d appreciate more well-balanced views, I guess.

I’m writing this to say that although the online TEFL community seems to be on its last legs, I’m more alive and kicking than ever before. I want to connect, share ideas, and read about other people’s experience. But do people still care? I can’t help the feeling that blog posts offering practical advice and teaching resources have gone out of fashion. It’s rants, like this one, that are in these days. I know it’s summer and teachers are on vacation, but given the fact I follow about 80 blogs and sometimes not a single post pops up in my WP Reader for days is telling. All quiet on the western front. Are people resting or fed up?

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised by the latter scenario. It’s a well-known fact that teachers can suffer from the burn-out syndrome. But I wonder whether an online community as a whole can face the same problem. We used to be so engaged, so enthusiastic. Have we become frustrated by the lack of appreciation on all fronts? Those who were here to support us unconditionally (or PLN) have either left or become silent. Suddenly, we’re standing here, all alone. Or, given the omnipresent threat of sharp criticism, do we just feel too endangered to stick our heads out?

Anyway, I’ll wrap up on an optimistic note. Let’s hope it’s just chrysalis time – the time when one chapter of our lives has ended and the next one hasn’t come into being yet. As Tara Mohr puts it:

This is the stage of old things giving way, the stage of goopy mess, of being neither caterpillar nor butterfly. It is the time of being something in an undefined, transitional, un-presentable state.

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Why you can’t tickle yourself

It’s a well-known fact that it’s almost impossible to get a laugh by self-tickling. The scientific reason behind this is that the human brain anticipates unimportant sensations, such as your own touch, so when you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction cancels the response of other brain areas to the tickle.

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In an analogical manner, it’s sometimes hard, even impossible, to anticipate what impact our own words or actions will have on others until somebody lets us know retrospectively. In other words, we can’t directly sense the feeling other people get from our words or actions; we need to be told.

Some say that they use words because they just fit (a particular genre, for example). Those who say so should probably check out this blog. Particularly in written communication, every expression or even an exclamation mark has its purpose as it can dramatically change the meaning of the message if used inappropriately or carelessly.

silhouette-2480321_960_720But no matter how hard we try and how careful we are when communicating, words slip out of our mouths (or rather keyboards) and accidentally convey a negative message that is buried deep inside. And although it’s rarely our intention to deliberately hurt others, sometimes, the words we use and the way we use them reveal our deeply rooted biases and prejudices – those which do harm once they emerge from within.

Some tricks can be learned and applied to circumvent this; after all, a lot has been written on how to improve communication skills. However, if there are some truly negative thoughts and beliefs residing deep inside our mind, such tricks may prove quite ineffective. The people at the receiving end will see through the trickery since self-conceit and contempt can be detected from miles away no matter how well-disguised they are.

Apart from minding every single word we use, we need to do constantly and patiently scrutinize our beliefs from all possible angles and if we come across something rotten, we should at least be honest with ourselves (and others). Trying to hide or fake things doesn’t help.

The people at the receiving end may be immensely helpful in this respect and we should listen very carefully to what they have to say. If someone misinterprets our ideas, for example, and gets upset, it may not be their fault. It may be the wrong choice of a word or phrase on our part. So we should cherish the honesty of the reader since it may help us uncover the motives we were totally unaware of. In other words, it’s by ‘tickling’ us that the people at the receiving end help us experience some important aha moments and become sensitive to other people’s feelings. We can rarely make it on our own.

 

 

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The *inevitable*

I  recently cooperated on the final report for the Erasamus+ project our school had participated in. The writing was a challenging and tiring process, but the collaboration was pleasurable and satisfying.

I remember that at some point, I wanted to use the word inevitable in the sense that the use of English was inevitable because it was the only means of communication common to all the participants. What I meant was that having no other option than to communicate in English was a blessing not a curse for the participants. However, a colleague of mine, a highly proficient user of English, pointed out that inevitable has a somewhat negative connotation. I agreed and we eventually reformulated the clumsy bit.

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The inevitable

Although it happened several months ago, I still remember this ‘linguistic’ situation as if it happened yesterday. I think it’s because apart from my attention being drawn to a specific language item, I had to make a mental effort to acknowledge that something that I had deemed perfectly appropriate was actually not quite right. And eventually, I had to produce an alternative.

But not just that; since then, whenever I come across the word inevitable, certain neural connections in my brain get switched on. For example, when I read this:

The rapidly changing communicative landscape presents challenges to ELT professionals and students. In the European Union (EU), as elsewhere, increased mobility, migration, and integration, combined with developments in online communication, have led to substantial changes in English language use and practices. Young-adult learners are inevitably most receptive to and arguably most affected by such changes, with potential implications for English language teaching. by Graham Hall and Guy Cook

As I was a little confused about the use of the highlighted adverb, I checked it out.

Inevitableimpossible to avoid or prevent

Inevitably = in such a manner as could not be otherwise; in a way that cannot be avoided; certain to happen; as is to be expected

It seems my colleague was right; at first sight, both expressions imply a lack of control over a situation and they can be found around words with clearly negative connotations, such as risk, blame, violence, suffer, or set back.

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Once again, I looked at the sentence “young-adult learners are inevitably most receptive to and arguably most affected by such changes, with potential implications for English language teaching,” I thought that the fact that young-adult learners are most receptive to and most affected by changes such as mobility, migration, and integration, combined with developments in online communication doesn’t necessarily have to be judged as negative. But then it occurred to me that inevitably may actually refer to the word challenges, which appears much earlier in the paragraph. And challenges can surely be daunting. 

Anyway, my somewhat clumsy attempt at a linguistic analysis certainly doesn’t lead to any major gains in the acquisition of the target language. It does, though, confirms my earlier observation that when learning new words, I need to encounter them in several real-life situations (be it authentic reading or listening) to be able to fully grasp and become sensitive to their complexities and connections to their linguistic surroundings. This understanding (inevitably??) leads to my ability to use them accurately appropriately.

Also, my little discovery leads to some other important conclusions I’ve made, such as the need to constantly question

1) the belief that one can (and should) learn vocabulary from an L2>L1 alphabetical list of words – sometimes even prior to encountering them in context (alphabetical lists can be useful but primarily as a reference tool or for revision).

2) the assumption that web-based tools like Quizlet and flash cards generally are simply amazing (they certainly are but one has to use them cautiously and only as an addition to other ways of working with vocabulary).

3) the view that bilingual and monolingual dictionaries are the most essential tools for a learner (they obviously are helpful but it’s necessary to introduce students to other learning tools as well).

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A word expedition

IMG_20170724_145724In this post, I’d like to share a method of helping your students become more independent learners, especially in terms of exploring vocabulary.

The visual on the left shows a classic example of a piece of text from a coursebook. Normally, students would be asked to try to infer the meaning of the highlighted words from context and then match them with definitions provided. Additionally, students may be invited to look up the L1 equivalents and work on some follow-up activities which would help them retain the target words.

This, I believe, is a perfectly acceptable approach since, as Ellis (1997) argues, acquisition can be speeded by making the underlying patterns of language more salient as a result of explicit instruction or consciousness-raising. However, I also believe that more can be done to help students build vocabulary than just asking them to do a couple of coursebook exercises.

For the sake of demonstration, I’ll pick the word intrepid, but students can be assigned any (number of) words. As you will see, though, one is more than enough.

At home (or in a language lab), students will complete the following ten tasks.

  1. In a monolingual online dictionary, find the definitions of the target word, i.e. intrepid. Pay attention to the example sentences. 
    Note: I usually use The Free Dictionary to do look up words myself but there are loads of other websites. I deliberately chose a monolingual dictionary as the first step since, according to Ellis, some people have difficulty in acquiring L2 lexis because they fail properly to infer the meanings of new lexis. Thus, he maintains, learners should be trained in strategies for inferencing from context. Moreover, active derivation of meaning makes the vocabulary more memorable. 
  2. Google the target word and see what images come up. How useful are the images in terms of your ability to guess the meaning of the word?
  3. In an online thesaurus, find its closest synonym and an antonym. I usually use Thesaurus.com. I believe that working with synonyms may also count as a useful strategy for inferencing. 
  4. By now, you should already be familiar with the meaning. To ultimately confirm your guess, go to a bilingual online dictionary to look up the L1 equivalent. What part of speech is it? Note: To do this, I’d normally use slovnik.seznam.cz. 
  5. Click the speaker icon (if available) to listen to the pronunciation of the word. Repeat several times.
  6. Go to flax.nzdl.org to find out what its most frequent collocates are. The numbers will help you determine this. The higher the number, the more frequent. Jot a few of them down along with the expression itself, e.g. intrepid explorerVýstřižek
  7. Go to Fraze.it and see how the word is used in a sentence. Choose one example and write it down. Note: This is similar to Step 1 above and thus it could come right after it. However, unlike in dictionaries, where the definitions are usually simple enough for the L2 learner to figure out the meaning of the word, the data in corpora are examples of authentic language, which inevitably makes the process of inferring more challenging. Thus, I believe, this step should be postponed till later. 
  8. To explore the expression a bit more, go to Ngram Viewer and compare the word to its closest synonym you found earlier. Which one is more frequent these days? Note: This simple visual, I believe, draws attention to the word once again and by juxtaposing it with a synonym, the learner is likely to make both words more memorable for him/her. Výstřižek
  9. Go to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (no need to register if you only need to do just a few searches) and type in the word into the search box. Add an asterisk, i.e. intrepid* and see the most common suffixes (2-3 will suffice). Write the new words down. What parts of speech are they now? What do they mean? Go back to The Free Dictionary or slovnik.seznam.cz if necessary. Note: By learning a couple of related words, the learner will expand his/her vocabulary with just a little extra effort.

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10. Finally, let’s go on to the productive stage now. Go to paraphrasing-tool.com and type in a paragraph (about 5 sentences) into the first box. Remember to use the target word. See below in the other box how your text has been paraphrased. Notice which words have been replaced. Note: I think this is a handy tool but I rarely use it since I can access synonyms directly through my Grammarly for Chrome. However, while the paraphrasing tool seems to take into consideration the context of the words it later replaces, Grammarly only offers a list of synonyms for each word from which *I * then have to choose the most fitting option. I presume this might be a bit challenging for a less advanced learner. Výstřižek

I dare to conclude that the multiple encounters with the target word, along with the teacher’s requirement to use it, will make it possible for the learner to remember it better. However, this is not the main aim of this expedition. As the learner will encounter the target expression in many different contexts, some incidental learning of more language items is likely to occur. Most importantly, apart from traditional online dictionaries, the learners will familiarize themselves with several useful web-based tools.

 

References:

Ellis, N. C. (1997). Vocabulary acquisition: Word structure, collocation, grammar, and
meaning. In M. McCarthy & N. Schmidt (Eds.) (1997), Vocabulary: description,
acquisition and pedagogy (pp. 122-139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Gestalt shift

 

20292812_10211066952922820_488799651637659270_nI remember that as children, we were mesmerized by all those optical illusions, of which the most popular was probably the one showing two faces that form a vase. But it was only recently, in this post, when I learned about the concept of gestalt shift.

In psychology, a gestalt shift is when your perception suddenly changes. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this phenomenon is Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit illusion: you can see either the duck or the rabbit but not both at the same time. Similarly, in the picture on the left and the one below, you can either see the image as a whole (especially if you narrow your eyes) or as a tangle of individual objects related to the theme of the image as a whole.

I think it’s fascinating how the human brain can alternate between the two choices. I’ve heard that some people find it difficult to consciously shift their perception and see one of the alternatives. I’d say that the ability to see the other perspective (or the whole picture), in the metaphorical as well as literal sense, can be achieved through practice.

20374554_10211066182943571_2702831920542085311_nI was wondering how this psychological phenomenon applies to how I perceive (my) teaching. And I’ve come to a conclusion that while I’m in the classroom, I regularly switch between two perspectives: I either see English as a subject to be taught and learned or as a means of genuine communication among human beings. I simply can’t see both at the same time.

So sometimes my students and I can be fully immersed in an activity and we don’t pay too much attention to the language itself, especially if a task/conversation gets truly engaging. But we then we deliberately switch our perception and look at the language as if from the other side. In other words, while in the former case, we don’t perceive it as a something outside of us (we actually don’t notice the language at all, just the ideas expressed through it), in the latter case, we consciously dissect, analyze, and scrutinize it as if it was something material floating a few steps away; something that can be seized and absorbed – from a coursebook or the whiteboard, for example. It seems that we desperately try to capture it in an attempt to make it an internal and inseparable part of us – so that we no longer have to shift our perception back and forth …

 

 

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Much ado about the lexical approach

london-2242001_960_720Last night, I went over to YouTube to watch LEXICAL LAB ENGLISH BOOST course 2017: Hugh Dellar teaching. There’s been some excitement about the lexical approach and this video in particular, so I was curious to see what it’s all about.

The lexical approach is a way of analyzing and teaching language based on the idea that it is made up of lexical units rather than grammatical structures. The units are words, chunks formed by collocations, and fixed phrases. In case you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s a 20-minute demonstration of the way Hugh Dellar goes about teaching vocabulary – in this case, vocabulary connected to going out and celebrating. 

Now, I have to stress that I can’t help looking at any teaching video like this through my L2 learner/L2 teacher/keen linguist glasses. By that, I mean that although my beliefs about language teaching are constantly formed by SLA research findings, they are also tinted by my own language learning experience.

I’ve always been inclined to believe that the best way to teach English is through meaningful communication and that most of the time in the classroom should be allotted to negotiating meaning and completing meaningful tasks. Only a small proportion of class time should be devoted to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary. My students would probably confirm that this is my preferred way of teaching.

Back to the video now. I’m not sure what the aim of this particular lesson was, but given the fact that the Hugh Dellar is a vocal advocate of the lexical approach, my guess is the aim was to teach students to understand and subsequently produce a set of vocabulary items related to a specific topic. But I’m only guessing.

First of all, I don’t think it’s clever to set yourself such a goal as the main aim of a lesson (no matter how important/frequent/useful you believe the vocabulary is). Given the fact that learners can only absorb a very limited amount of new expressions per lesson, it’s really absurd to demand so low.

However, and I’m finally getting to the point, I think that the teacher in the video actually achieved more than what the proponents of the lexical approach primarily aim for. In effect, it appeared to run counter to the basic principle of the lexical approach, which, to my knowledge, is to explicitly teach a huge amount of lexis. As I see it (through my L2 learner/L2 teacher/keen linguist glasses), the vocabulary items around which the lesson revolved were anchors rather than the ultimate goal, and I didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction anyway. Contrarily, I witnessed quite a lot of casual talk and I found the lesson pretty engaging.

My point is that even if I remembered none of the super-useful words written on the board (which is obviously very unlikely), I would learn a lot because the teacher did a good job. And I think I actually did learn something myself by watching this video. I often caught myself focusing on what the teacher and the students said by the way instead of trying to zoom in on the core vocabulary all the time. And if I were a participant of the course, I’d definitely want to chip in on and off. This communicative interaction might then lead to implicit learning, which, I think, is a valuable outcome of any language teaching.

The trouble is that such outcomes are unpredictable and thus can’t be planned and put on paper in advance. What you can plan, I suppose, is what your lesson will revolve around – and here the lexical approach comes in handy. And let’s be honest, if a group of students come all the way from Russia to England to boost their English, you need to have a plan, or something, to stick to (be it just a set of collocations and idioms). What I believe is important is what happens in the slots.

 

 

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