Moving on …

Time flies and we grow professionally without really noticing the progress. But if you stop for a while and take a deep breath, you realize that you are not the person you used to be a few months ago …

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Two of my recent high-stakes professional endeavours have convinced me that as a teacher, I have made a leap in what I am able to do and, most importantly, how I feel about what I do. I have come to realize, for example, that being able to manage a group of young people, which, in fact, many people not involved in education believe is a piece of cake, is one of my most invaluable skills. But my real victory lies in the fact that these days, I feel perfectly comfortable in class.

This, however, hasn’t come without a price. Obviously, hard work and planning is always a must, especially when dealing with a complex subject and/or a group of people I don’t know well. The good news is that everything gets easier with time and experience. But I’ve also learned to acknowledge that things almost never pan out exactly the way I want them to, no matter how detailed my plan is.

This brings me to another strength of mine which I have recently discovered and that is that I have acknowledged and accepted the fact that many things happening in class are totally under my control but there still may be some which are not. I have consciously and willingly embraced the danger that there may always be a tipping point beyond which I may become totally powerless as a teacher and then my back-up system, my contingency, automatically takes over. This contingency is probably in my DNA and it is part of some deep, human intuition. But it’s also an imaginary box filled with my life/teaching experience.

I have learned that in critical situations when there is no time for panicking or surrender, I can make remarkably quick decisions, which eventually turn out to work out just fine. I sometimes feel a tad guilty for giving orders and commands to people who are by no means my subordinates, but that’s how I act in emergencies. Most importantly, to keep everybody else relatively calm, I can act as if nothing is really the issue. I collapse afterwards when nobody is looking.

Also, I lose less and less sleep over what might potentially have gone better. Things went wrong even though I had done my best to prevent failure. Period. It does hurt for a while but when the emotional pain subsides, I’ll try to learn from my mistake and move on. What a cliché!

Finally, I’d say that I no longer have a reassurance deficit. Don’t get me wrong; even the most secure people need reassurance sometimes and that’s what close friends, colleagues and relatives are for, but in most situations, I feel I’m doing just fine. Perhaps I have dusted off my inner compass which tells me whether I’m making the right move. Ironically, the more OK you feel with yourself, the less criticism from others comes your way.

PF 2020 🙂

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A review of an ELT stand-up comedy

If you asked me about my favourite workshop/presentation/plenary/keynote I’ve recently been to, I’d probably say that something that really struck a chord with me was the talk given by Péter Medgyes at the 25th P.A.R.K. Conference in Brno. There were many other great speakers at this particular event, including big names like Marjorie Rosenberg and Scott Thornbury, and they were absolutely fabulous. However, Péter Medgyes’s topic and the way he presented it resonated with me the most. Why? The answer is because it was full of humour, which, by the way, was the topic of his closing plenary.

Anyway, his morning presentation I’m referring to called Who is better: natives or nonnatives? was peppered with amusing stories and anecdotes. But why, apart from the fact that it was funny, was his talk more powerful than other speeches I’ve heard so far? The answer is – and now you have to excuse my impudence – because he is a non-NEST with a background similar to mine. What he was saying would hardly be replicable by speakers coming from different backgrounds. Also, I really liked the fact that his speech was tailor-made for a Czech audience as well as the global teaching community. His tongue-in-the-cheek remark that unlike Hungary, his native land, the Czech Republic is obviously not part of Eastern Europe – it’s actually Central Europe – really got me. This is something we Czechs are sensitive about so I really appreciated the fact that he included this into his speech. I suspect these are the little tricks with which you can easily wrap the audience around your finger. Is such a tactic artfully deceptive? Yes. Do I mind? Absolutely not!

His morning talk was, in fact, a description of a long and arduous journey of an L2 learner, which finally led to successful mastery of English. I felt that to a great extent, his experience is universal. In other words, the examples he provided were so similar to my own reality that it made me smile inwardly all along the way. Throughout his talk (as if almost inadvertently) he was constantly drawing the audience’s attention to various problematic areas we English learners grapple with, such as the tricky pronunciation of words like species or Los Angeles. What is more, all the examples he kept throwing at us were so skillfully embedded in his talk that it made me want to pay attention to every single word of his.

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I also liked his honest confession regarding his struggles with listening, particularly when interacting with native speakers. This is something we non-NESTs will never be willing to admit openly, let alone publicly. He also mentioned how disadvantaged we non-NESTs are in terms of L2 proficiency when compared to native speakers of English, especially when it comes to lexical areas such as metaphors, idioms and collocations. I believe this is something many non-NESTs avoid saying out loud too.

To conclude, this was a good, old-fashioned talk, in the best sense of the word you can imagine. It was so refreshing that I even skipped my sixth cup of coffee that afternoon. In fact, now that I think about it, it was a stand-up comedy rather than a serious talk about a burning ELT issue. Still, the impact it had on me was immediate and significant. I don’t know about the other people in the audience, but for me, the punch line was that humour is an essential part of successful instruction. Unfortunately, it’s often underestimated and even neglected – by coursebook writers as well as the teachers themselves. Most of all, this talk finally confirmed my assumption that non-NESTs can be as inspiring and influential as NESTs.

 

 

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On strike today

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Today, many teachers here in the Czech Republic are on strike. Teacher unions have been threatening with a strike for some time now because the government failed to keep its promise to raise teachers’ wages by 15 per cent as of January. But the unions’ patience was really over with the government’s final promise to raise the base pay by 8 per cent and provide an equivalent of another 2 per cent for bonuses to be distributed to the best teachers. The unions want a 10 per cent increase in the base pay.

Many people involved in the field of education, including the Prime Minister, think the strike is pointless. Some teachers also believe that the unions’ demand is actually counterproductive since it is less advantageous for the more efficient and competent teachers. In other words, it will not be in the school principles’ power to reward their best teachers. The minister of education complains that Czech teachers are finally getting the pay they deserve and he accuses the unions of taking a “destructive” position.

It may be true that our salaries keep increasing but a study by the Prague-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Analysis has found that despite recent rises teachers’ pay is low by comparison with other professions in the Czech Republic – and with the remuneration enjoyed by their peers in other developed countries.

Anyway, in the school where I work, less than 50 per cent of the staff have decided to give up today’s wage and stay at home. I am one of them. I’m aware of the fact that the strike may not achieve the unions’ original goals, but I believe that it’s important to speak up from time to time. Teachers should demonstrate that they pull together as a team.

Thinking about it, I am also immensely grateful for the opportunity for a peaceful protest like this. I recently learned about the working conditions of garment workers in some of the developing countries. Once these people joined a strike, they were beaten up by the government armed forces. This happened in the 21st century. So I think it is a real blessing to be living in a world where we can express our opinion freely without being punished.

Having said that, although we don’t get punished physically, we are frowned upon by some people, especially those outside of the field of education. Some of them believe that we are greedy. Isn’t it enough that we have two months of holidays in the summer? By the way, according to them, we keep asking for more but we

“can’t even teach their kids a simple phrase like I was in London. If my son hadn’t studied this on his own, he wouldn’t know how to say this”. (end of quote)

But you know what, no matter what everybody says, I am proud to be a teacher and I feel it’s my prerogative to be on strike today. Personally, I have gone a long way to get where I am now. Also, I believe that I’m good at what I do and I’m passionate about it. So as I see it, asking for more (whatever this ‘more’ means) is not a sign of greed; it is a sign of confidence. It shows that I am (=we are) deserving of it.

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Vocabulary testing – the pros and cons

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Paul Nation argues that deliberately teaching vocabulary is one of the least efficient ways of developing learners’ vocabulary knowledge because only a few words and a small part of what is required to know a word can be dealt with at any one time. If deliberate teaching of vocabulary is such an issue, what about deliberate vocabulary testing?

First of all, I believe that if a test should be 100% fair, you only need to test what has been covered in some way. So while some of the popular techniques of dealing with new words are highly effective and quite natural, such as guessing words from context or using a dictionary, they are not suitable for testing.

What also bothers me is that it’s probably in the teacher’s power to make a test 100% fair, but can we make it 100% reliable?

I’ve recently encouraged myself to reconsider one of my ways of testing vocabulary. The main reason for this wake-up call is that after a break time of several years, I got a group of 11-year-old students again. L2 instruction is not totally new to them – they already learned English for a few years in primary school – but they are new to our institution and they are the youngest, so I feel the need to treat them with great care, at least for starters before they get used to all the hustle and bustle of a grammar school.

Normally, I test my students’ vocabulary the most boring way you can imagine, i.e. via the L1>L2 translation of individual words. They have alphabetical lists of words at the back of their workbooks, so at home, they are required to memorize a section of words we previously covered in class and then I pick 12 words for them to translate into English. It’s quick, easy to mark and students mostly like it because they know what to expect.

I needn’t say out loud that this is not one of the most fantastic ways of testing vocabulary. Ironically, stronger students sometimes get bad marks because they simply skip revision (secretly hoping they can remember something on the spot). Clutching at a straw, they usually do come up with something but it’s often some sort of circumvention, which, to be honest, I consider a handy learning strategy, but I can’t always let them get away with it. On the other hand, students who struggle in most areas of language learning pass the tests with flying colours. Why? Because it’s not that difficult to memorize individual words. One may do so quite successfully without even knowing how to use the words.

It’s apparent that passing or failing such a type of test doesn’t really say anything about the scope of a student’s knowledge; it only proves that more diligent students remember to do their homework. That being said, here in the state sector of education we try to educate students, not just teach them, so diligence is one of the character traits we value and support. Also, such a type of test can be a lifesaver for a student who normally struggles and needs to improve their general score. That’s why I think I still use them.

Over the years, however, I’ve tried various types of vocabulary tests. Unfortunately, I believe all of them are flawed in some way, though maybe some of them are a bit less flawed than the one I described above.

Gapfill. In advance, I create a gap fill where I leave out words I would normally ask students to translate from L1 to L2. Wait. Looking at one of my recent gap fills, I’m not so sure I would pick the same words. The words in a gap fill are usually chosen with greater care and the choice appears to be less random. After all, students need to understand the whole test to be able to come up with the words, which requires more of their mental energy. The problem is that if a weaker student fails to understand something in the surrounding context, they may fail to complete the missing word too, even if they know the word. Conclusion: it takes a while to create a good gap fill test. You need to carefully consider the words you are testing as well as the context. Also, some students are slow readers so even when they understand all the words, it takes them more time to process the text and then there is little time left for the actual ‘test’.

Gapfill with the first letter provided: This is something I’ve been doing recently to help students a bit (and sometimes to prevent stronger students from cunningly avoiding the word I want them to come up with). However, I do realize that this type of assistance may make things even harder for weaker students. I recently introduced this type of vocabulary test in one of my classes where I had only tested the infamous way mentioned above (L1>L2). To be able to pass a test, students had to revise a longer text in their coursebook. To my surprise, some students struggled a lot. This time, the class was not divided as usual – into the stronger and weaker ones. The results were more varied. I think it’s because to pass the test, a combination of diligence AND skills was required.

Gapfill with the words provided: This seems to be the best option because apart from being a test, it’s also a nice revision exercise. The grammar of the surrounding context may help a lot. This type of test certainly encourages students to make a wild guess if they are not sure but this too is an effective learning strategy. After all, Paul Nation maintains that we need to see learning any particular word as being a cumulative process where knowledge is built up over a series of varied meetings with the word. And we primarily want our students to learn vocabulary, right? So the test is just another means to an end.

Matching the word with its definition: A bit more time consuming than L1>L2 translation. But, once again, is it a reliable test? What if the student doesn’t understand the definition? Does it mean they don’t know the word itself?

Lexical sets: Write five things you can find in the kitchen. Well, a student may know that there is something called an oven in the kitchen but do they know what exactly an oven is? A more meaningful exercise of this sort could be: Name five things (or choose five from a given list) you’d take with you on holiday and say why (I’d take a large towel because ….).

Now that I think about it, what is really the problem? Is it the fact that you simply can’t design an ideal vocabulary test or because testing itself is a terribly flawed concept? 🙂

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Nothing is arbitrary, so what?

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I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person who strongly believes that nothing in life is really arbitrary.  If nothing in life is arbitrary, then nothing concerning language is either. However, when a student asks me why Bronx is used with the definite article but Brooklyn isn’t, even though they are both boroughs of the same city, I brush them off by saying: “It’s just the way it is”. The truth is, though, that I know that there is probably a solid explanation; according to Wikipedia, the use of the definite article is attributed to the style of referring to rivers or to the fact that the borough’s name stems from the phrase “visiting the Broncks”, referring to the settler’s family. However, explaining the story of every seemingly illogical definite article would be a bit too time-consuming. After all, we have better things to do in the few lessons of English a week.

The same goes for collocations. Mura Nava wrote an interesting post about collocations and how, contrary to a popular belief, they need not be arbitrary at all. Collocation is the behaviour of the language by which two or more words go together, in speech or writing. Honestly, it no longer surprises me that a word prefers the company of specific words but the implication that language ‘behaves’ in a certain way is thrilling. It suggests that language has some of the properties of human beings. Sorry if I’m crossing the line here; actually, I’m aware that language would not exist without human beings and it’s obviously not a living entity of its own. What I’m trying to say is that if one human being prefers (or avoids) the company of another human being, it’s not arbitrary at all; there must be an explanation and there certainly always is one, even though it may not be obvious at first sight. So we either accept the fact that there is a reason and we’ll leave the subject for good, or we become psychologists and start digging deeper into mysteries of human nature. As far as language is concerned, in order to find answers to some of the most burning questions, we can become linguists and start poking our noses into the origins of bits and pieces of language.

My conviction that there is a logical explanation for every aspect of life and language is comforting. And I don’t even mind that some truths will remain hidden forever. But I’m glad to know that at each and every point, I am free to decide which secrets I choose to uncover and which I will ignore. The same freedom applies to language teaching; I believe some things should be left alone, no matter how exciting they may appear to the teacher. The teacher’s job is mainly to help students communicate in the language effectively. If they want to dig deeper and think harder about the hows and whys, they’ll certainly find ways to do so outside of the classroom.

Caveat: the above conclusion doesn’t mean that I do not believe that generalization of what students have learned is useful; the thing is that one has to think twice before investing time into lengthy explanations of why something works this or that way.

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Grammar or lexis? A wedding cake metaphor

cake-937234_1280In her latest post, Zhenya Polosatova presents a bunch of very interesting questions from all walks of our profession. Here are two examples which immediately captured my attention:

  1. Which mistakes are more likely to lead to misunderstanding – grammatical or lexical ones?
  2. Which do you think is more important – advancing vocabulary or teaching grammar? 

These are two questions I often ask myself throughout the academic year. Thus I’ve decided to explore them a bit in this post of mine.

To be able to solve riddle Number 1, it’s useful to explain the difference between a grammatical and a lexical error. Grammatical errors involve faulty structures which may include wrong verbal tenses, incorrect verbal forms, and syntax problems. They are also called usage errors. More specifically, these can include agreement errors (subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement), tense errors (present, past, progressive, perfect, future), number (singular-plural) errors, prepositional errors (missing prepositions, redundant use of preposition, wrong use of prepositions), and articles errors (missing articles, wrong article use, redundant article use).

Lexical errors, on the other hand, are mistakes at the word level, which include, for example, choosing the wrong word for the meaning the user wants to express. Inappropriate lexical choices may lead to misunderstanding of the message. In writing, some lexical errors are a result of misspelling, others are caused by the student’s lack of knowledge (i. e. semantic errors). Based on my experience, in speaking, it is pronunciation which also comes into play, i. e. the speaker knows the word but mispronounces it, which may subsequently lead to communication breakdown.

The following example is a grammatical mistake Czech students tend to make:

They say: a) How long are you staying?

but they actually mean: b) How long have you been staying?

According to this paper and the results of a study it presents, grammatical errors are more frequently committed than lexical errors. More specifically, tense errors are the most frequently committed grammatical errors among second language learners of English. The above set of sentences is an example of this but it is primarily a result of a student transferring their grammatical knowledge from their L1. In Czech, we don’t have the present perfect tense and to express option b, we would simply use the present tense, i.e. option a. Such a grammatical error may lead to a major or a minor misunderstanding, depending on the situation. One way or the other, a respondent not used to dealing with Czech learners of English will probably maintain that the Czech is asking about the future, while, in fact, they are asking about the past up to the present.

I remember I once talked to a teacher from Canada. It was at an English summer camp. We were at a swimming pool and I asked her: You’re not going to swim? She replied: No, I can’t. I still remember my bafflement; I just couldn’t figure out whether she couldn’t swim because she didn’t have the ability or whether she was on her period. I was too young and stupid enough to keep inquiring. I asked ‘why?’ and was surprised I didn’t get a definite answer. She shrugged her shoulders and said: I just can’t. Then she went on reading her book, probably thinking I was an idiot. Now that I think about it, it was not merely a lack of lexical (or possibly grammatical?) knowledge on my part; it was also about cultural differences accompanied by my social immaturity. Provided she didn’t have the ability to swim, my why must have sounded pretty stupid and redundant. Provided she had a personal reason for not wanting to go for a swim, the why question must have sounded totally unacceptable.

I’d say that there is a thin line between grammar and lexis so it’s sometimes difficult to decide what is a grammatical and what is a lexical mistake. John’s uncle has much money. Is this a grammatical or a lexical error? It’s clearly the case of choosing the wrong word but also the case of violating a grammatical rule stating that much is used in questions and negative statements. One way or the other, this little flaw certainly doesn’t impede understanding. Take prepositions, for example. Although prepositional errors are listed among grammatical errors, to my mind, they are actually mistakes at the word level. But this is a question of perspective and it’s not something to lose sleep over because normally, these neither do too much harm to the flow of communication. What does it matter if someone says in the weekend?

Enough of useless babbling. The question I really wanted to find an answer to was: Which mistakes are more likely to lead to misunderstanding – grammatical or lexical ones? Well, it depends. Intuitively, I’d say that it’s a matter of frequency. In other words, before familiarizing myself with the results of the study mentioned above, I would have guessed that lexical mistakes are more abundant simply because there are many more words and lexical chunks than there are grammatical rules. But L2 learners are cunning; they make do with little lexis if they need to. They use circumvention if necessary and thus avoid making lexical mistakes. They also have dictionaries. It’s more challenging to cheat grammar-wise, though. Anyway, as I showed above, one specific lexical mistake can cause as much misunderstanding as a grammatical mistake. But it’s also important to say that there are various degrees and types of misunderstanding. I mean, if a student chooses the word cooker instead of cook to talk about the profession, it will cause amusement and/or embarrassment rather than communicative breakdown.

And Which do you think is more important – advancing vocabulary or teaching grammar? Since grammar is inherently present in lexis, i. e. there are certain syntactic rules, such as the one that adjectives usually go before nouns and the usual word order in English is SVO, it’s not really clever to separate these two rigidly. You know, it’s like a wedding cake. You may ask: what is it that keeps the structure of a tiered cake? Is it the corpus or the filling? Well, I’d say that both are equally important once the cake cools down.

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The threat of becoming obsolete

IMG_20190624_121057These days, English learners (and L2 learners in general) can get as autonomous and independent as they wish. There is a plethora of mobile apps, movies, games, songs and books for them to learn English from. So I often ask myself what’s there left for us, L2 teachers? And, most importantly, to what extent does the feeling of uselessness influence the teachers’ performance and ultimately their attitudes towards their job?

I’m not a pessimist but sometimes, I can’t help feeling threatened. It’s not merely because I personally believe that language teachers may soon become obsolete, but because I fear our students start realizing this possibility too.

I’m now talking about the state system of education, namely here in the Czech Republic. The expected outcomes in English have become very low recently. To say the least, they definitely do not match the knowledge and skills students can or could realistically achieve if they were motivated to do their best. Quite ironically, I believe that the lower the expectations from the school system, the more threatening the environment becomes for the teachers.

What do I mean by this? You may have heard of the Pygmalion effect – the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of a target person affect the target person’s performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the Golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. I simply fear that if students believe there’s very little the teacher can offer, there will be very little the teacher will feel they can offer. Eventually and inevitably, this will decrease their motivation and effort to come up with something valuable. It’s like offering somebody a locally produced apple (which you know is juicy and healthy) when there’s a table full of colourful exotic fruit anyone can grab a piece of at any time.

Don’t get me wrong; there will still be lots of learners who will need us – those who don’t find it easy or possible to learn independently and those who see the teacher as a door to obtaining certificates and degrees of all sorts. The former will probably find the current state of affairs more and more frustrating since they will become the outcasts of the system. Actually, they already are; often very talented in other subjects, they are laughed at by their peers who, unlike them, find learning English to be a piece of cake. The latter lot will probably dump us as soon as they pass their high-stake exams.

This brings me to a hasty conclusion. I said I’m concerned that English teachers will become obsolete, mainly at the secondary level of education. Every teacher probably feels there is a threshold. Past this stage, it gets more and difficult to offer something useful and meaningful to everybody in the class. You can’t start teaching C1 language to satisfy your best students and leave the A2 students behind, can you? Well, yes, you can try personalization and differentiation and whatnot but why would you even do it when your job is to primarily prepare your students for their final B1 exam?

This isn’t to say that I believe teachers, in general, will become obsolete. As far as ELT is concerned, we’ll probably need to closely look at and possibly follow the example of Finland, for instance, where the focus is on work across school subjects, including English. This is something that is already done at some schools here in the Czech Republic. However, it will probably need to become more large-scale than this if we, English teachers, want to keep our jobs and find them meaningful and satisfying.

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