Anthill or a cobweb – the power of being connected

Here on this blog I like to write about the perks of being a connected educator. I reveal a lot about my students and me as a teacher. However, and quite ironically, I hardly ever mention my colleagues – the people I meet and interact with on a daily basis. I feel I need to make up for my lack of gratitude and appreciation.

If I were to picture my PLN, the final image would probably look like a cobweb. I guess it might also look like a river system or a neural network. If I were asked to describe how I see my workplace, I would choose the anthill or the beehive metaphor. These are highly efficient, but enclosed structures. My online PLN, on the other hand, is more dynamic and flexible; it can grow or decrease in number any minute, I can choose who to connect and interact with, or I can be totally inactive just lurking and observing while still being connected. Obviously, the little creatures in an anthill are also very closely connected. Although they are in charge of small, seemingly unconnected jobs, the existence of the whole unit and each and every individual depends on how responsible and hardworking they all are. Their life seems chaotic at first sight. Yet, if you look closer, it’s perfectly organized and meaningful.

On Monday it was my first day at school. It was a so-called preparatory week during which teachers get things ready for the upcoming academic year. Desks and chairs are moved, classrooms are decorated, books are delivered, forms are filled in, lists are written down, etc. As a newly assigned class teacher and the newbie head of the English department I’ve got a lot of extra duties, most of which are completely new to me. In my previous blog post I talked about my fears concerning the future. I can happily conclude that some of the things I dreaded then are over now. And I can proudly claim that I did well. However, I fully realize that I managed because people were there for me. My male colleagues kindly helped me move furniture, other class teachers showed me how to fill in various forms, the janitor put up a new message board for me, the art teacher gave me some pictures so that I could do up my new classroom, the accountant printed out some important documents I needed to go through, another colleague demonstrated how to work with the internal electronic system for recording data, the technician checked my computer and made sure everything worked, and so on and so forth. In short, I could go and ask whenever I needed help. Everything went smoothly due to the fact that everybody had a specific set of tasks and acted swiftly. I had a wonderful feeling of team spirit which was present everywhere I went. I felt like a tiny ant.

It was this week when I realized that my colleagues are indispensable for me. My productivity (and thus my salary) is dependent on readiness of others; if someone tells me they are busy, no matter how urgent my demand is, the task I need to complete will have to be postponed.

But I also need my PLN because there’s one thing my PLN and my colleagues have in common – they are there for me ready to listen. The truth is, though, that my virtual friends sometimes understand better since they’re far away from the epicentre of my trouble; they can see my problems from a more objective perspective, and this can be very helpful. Hence I believe it’s a good idea to leave the anthill from time to time and get lost in the amazing network of like-minded people out there in the virtual space.

Eat, Pray, Love (Plan and Reflect)

“You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day.” Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love

The other day I watched the Eat, Pray, Love movie based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, which chronicles her spiritual trip around the world after her divorce. When I heard Richard, one of the main characters in the story, utter the words quoted above, I got to my feet and rushed to grab my notebook so that I could note them down. I never do this but I found the words so appealing that I made an exception. According to Gilbert, selecting thoughts is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on your mind. 
I’d already heard a similar zen piece of advice in my life before, and I’d always become enthusiastic and said to myself: Yeah! How easy! Let’s try. Unfortunately, I’d invariably come to the conclusion that it’s a very difficult thing to do. There are hundreds of thoughts swirling in my head every day, of which a large percentage is useless, poisonous crap. Obviously, there are a few ideas which I believe are worth cherishing and relishing. But finding them sometimes feels like gold panning – strenuous and often unsuccessful. The good gets lost easily among all the garbage.
With the advent of the new academic year, various unsettling ideas have suddenly started bothering me. These ideas appear in the form of disturbing questions and nagging doubts, and they usually come just before I fall asleep to spoil my dreams or very early in the morning to spoil my day. Will I manage all the tasks awaiting me? Will I be able to do all the red tape stuff along with teaching my regular classes? What about my family – will I have enough time for them? Will I have a good relationship with my classes (the kids have grown and changed over the two months of holidays after all). What if my students don’t succeed in standardized tests? Will I be able to defend my views in front of my administrators? 
Now that I think about it, these are pretty useless questions – for one obvious reason; there are no answers to them. I can’t answer questions about the future because I’m not a clairvoyant. Is there a point in asking worrying questions then? Can the act of asking the unanswerable be helpful in some way? Can such questions be incorporated into my future plans? The trouble is that it’s not me who actually asks them. They come uninvited. They are unwelcome, annoying guests to my otherwise peaceful mind. I’d say they spring from my deeply rooted fears – fears of failure and disappointment I once experienced. Hence I don’t think they can become part of my constructive planning. However, I do believe I have the power to change them and make them answerable: What will I do to manage all the red tape stuff effectively? What strategies will I select to help my students succeed in standardized tests? What are the best ways of dealing with administrators in case I want to defend my views?
What happens if I later turn these questions into the past tense, such as Did I manage all the tasks in the previous academic year? Then, I believe, they will make sense and they should be answered, as part of my professional reflection, for example. However, there’s always the danger of me crying over the spilt milk if the answer is no. Too often do I worry about things from the past; things I can’t change any more. But again, isn’t our constant dissatisfaction with the past a source of future successes? Doesn’t each failure teach us a lesson? But where’s the borderline between self-flagellation and reflection? My guess is that self-flagellation hurts and makes us even more desperate while reflection points optimistically to the future. Reflection can’t stand alone; it needs to be accompanied by an action plan. It makes us active. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, is criticizing and punishing without forgiveness. It brings about passivity and stagnation. So once the answer is: “No, my students didn’t succeed in standardized tests last year”, my immediate reaction should be: “Ok, what will I do to change it in the future?”
What’s my point then? Start gold panning. Cherish the gold you find and get rid of the waste. Or rather, turn the waste into gold. You can do it because ideas and thoughts are not material; they can be moulded and shaped as you wish if you learn how to. 

Rose is a rose: poetry in L2 classroom

Rose …

The other day I got a beautiful red rose. I actually got other flowers too because it was my name day. But roses are special to me. I find them gorgeous and noble. And whenever I look at a single rose, I think of the famous line by Gertrude Stein: rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. It has an incredibly calming effect if you say it several times quietly. It’s almost like mediation. Sometimes I think I fully understand what Stein meant when she wrote this; things are what they are. In Stein’s view, the sentence expresses the fact that simply using the name of a thing invokes the imagery and emotions associated with it. In other words, we don’t need to say a withered rose or a dewy rose because rose is a rose. It is up to the reader to imagine their own roses. Each person has their own experience and thus their own schema of a rose.

This is obviously fascinating for me as a keen linguist and an EFL teacher. The poet inside me dreams about ways of experimenting with such an intriguing style of expressing reality, even at elementary levels of language proficiency. From a linguistic point of view, all the students need is the name of an object, an appropriate article and the verb to be. Apple is an apple is an apple is an apple. Pen is a pen is a pen is a pen. Rain is rain is rain is rain. Students can listen to the sound of the line and start experimenting. They can discuss what effect each word (apple, pen, rain) has on them when they hear it. Does the number of syllables matter? What happens if the word is too long? By doing this they are encouraged to focus on every bit of the line; they need to zoom in on the stress, rhythm and the way the words are linked when being read aloud. This could be done in pairs or as a chain activity (a warm-up, for example), students passing on an object or an image around the class, saying the simple line one by one. As the activity involves lots of repetition, it’s great for learning and revising vocabulary. If each student/pair is asked to use a different word, the class then gets more language input to work with. By writing down the same words repeatedly, students can reinforce spelling of problematic words as well as practise bits of grammar (for lower levels the focus can be the indefinite/zero article or the verb to be, while more advanced classes may want to practise difficult vocabulary items).

… is a rose …

It’s interesting that in her writing, Stein threw away the traditional rules of grammar, and she made her words act in a completely new way. For her, each word is a completely independent existence. She didn’t use generalizations, and unlike other writers in the 19th century, she wasn’t interested in causes, purposes and explanations. In fact, her language had no past and no future – only continuous present – because she wrote about reality which she found directly in front of her eyes. This may sound like good news to a language learner, but by no means does this mean that her language is simple or easily understood. Here is how Stein would describe a scene:

All the pudding has the same flow and the sauce is painful, the tunes are played, the crinkling paper is burning, the pot has a cover and the standard is excellence. (An Acquaintance with Description, 1928)

Here Stein doesn’t organize the experience for the reader. Things speak directly and immediately. Each object and event has the same importance, and each of them is complete in itself. What would happen if you let your students describe a place (classroom, park, room, playground) in the same way – as it is, without generalizations, causes, purposes and explanations?
(The chalk is waiting), (the board is impatient), (the room is silent) and (the light is dim). 
…. is a rose …
There’s no complicated or complex grammar here but a great potential for lots of colourful vocabulary. Students describe what they can see right there, on the spot. There are no limits to imagination, and interesting word combinations can emerge. The door to creativity is wide open.
ELT is not just about plain language instruction. Our job is to provide students with various kinds of experience related to the target language. By working with poetry, students will become familiar with alternative ways of expression, and they will broaden their cultural horizons. This may ultimately motivate them to read and explore literature outside regular English classes. Some may even find the courage to try and write their own poetry.

By the way, this is my 100th post. But this is not how Gertrude Stein would put it. She would probably say this is a post number one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one. 
Because according to her, this is the reality of the term One Hundred….
… is a rose.

References: High, P.B. (1986). An Outline of American Literature. Longman.

Czenglish or interlanguage?

The idea for this post was inspired by Sandy Millin, an EFL teacher currently based in Sevastopol, Russia. Sandy has lots of experience with teaching English but she’s also a keen foreign language learner. What I find particularly interesting about Sandy is the fact that she used to live and teach in Brno, the location of my alma mater, where she tried to learn Czech in-country. While reading about her experiences on her blog, I came across a post which directed me to an interesting slideshare presentation including a list of Czenglish corrections, i.e. incorrectly used language items which Sandy collected from her Czech students’ written and spoken assignments.

According to one definition, Czenglish is ‘the poor English spoken or written by some Czechs’. This is a very simplistic definition and it’s useful to read what interlanguage stands for if one wants to delve into the problem. For those who are not familiar with the term, interlanguage is a dynamic linguistic system that has been developed by a learner of an L2 who has not become fully proficient yet but is approximating the target language, preserving some features of L1, or overgeneralizing target language rules in speaking or writing L2 and creating innovations.

Back in 1989, Don Sparling, once a member of the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University (Brno), published a collection called English or Czenglish?. The volume became quite popular over here and later, quite rightfully, appeared in the list of compulsory study materials for BA students of English. I found the book fascinating and I still use it in classes now and then because I find it both valid and useful. Obviously, as the language has evolved since, there are items which are disputable now but overall, things haven’t changed a great deal – probably because L1 will always have its distinct impact on L2 regardless of the subtle changes taking place in both languages.

Figure 1

It’s no surprise that at the time when Sparling published his book, I had no idea what a corpus was. All I had was a good monolingual dictionary and the recent edition of a popular grammar book. What was written there was absolute truth. Nowadays I’m not so credulous, though. When correcting my students’ assignments, I always check a suspiciously looking language item against a corpus to see if there is a teeny tiny possibility that it could be used in a particular context. I don’t wish to dismiss something just because I’ve never used or seen it myself. Let me illustrate this with the following examples; according to Sparling, one of the typical mistakes Czech students are infamous for is the wrong position of enough in a sentence, such as not have time enough to do something.

Figure 2

The simple rule we teach in English classes is that enough comes after adjectives and adverbs but it comes before nouns. The rule is crystal clear; the trouble is that in Czech enough usually comes first, regardless of the word it determines (one exception would be I’ve had enough (of it)). A quick look at the British National Corpus reveals, however, that the ‘incorrect’ version have time enough has been used in written books and periodicals a couple of times, even by native speakers of English (see Figure 1). This may open up a very interesting discussion in an EFL class which will eventually lead us to the conclusion that time+enough+to+verb is possible but it sounds archaic and odd nowadays. Nevertheless, for an L2 learner it suffices to know that have enough time is more frequent and it’s wiser to use what’s commonly accepted (see Figure 2).

Another example would be the famous case of happy end vs. happy ending. Some of the reasons why we tend to use end instead of ending may be 1) the lack of exposure to the right collocation 2) the fact that it’s the direct translation of the Czech phrase, but also 3) the fact that movies used to close with the final The End title screen and so the visual is etched in our minds. Here the corpus shows that the gap between Czenglish and English is much wider, i.e. happy end is much less frequent than happy ending. My inference is that if I use happy end, I will be understood, but I guess I won’t sound very native-like.

Figure 3

If I search happy end via Google, I’ll see that Czechs really love the phrase – I’ll find a Happy End comedy movie made in the former Czechoslovakia, there are music bands, e-shops, companies, restaurants, clubs and bars called Happy End. Happy Endings, on the other hand, is a name of a US TV series and there’s also a My Happy Ending song, written by Avril Lavigne, a Canadian artist. I’m sure there are typical ‘Czech’ mistakes, clearly influenced by the way our mother tongue is structured and used, but overall, I’m sure that many of the errors in Sparling book can be found all over the world, and they are even uttered by native speakers of English, as corpora reveal.

Figure 4

My final message to the English learner:

Dear English learner,
Study grammar rules diligently but don’t panic if you say something incorrectly because the native speaker might not even notice and/or care as long as you are understood. And remember that there are as many Englishes as there are speakers of English. Your English is unique and dynamic – exactly like you.

From household chores to lesson planning

I must finally confess to the world and to myself that I hate doing housework. I can’t stand dusting, sweeping, ironing, vacuuming, mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms or changing bed sheets, and I suffer when I have to do anything ‘agricultural’ in the garden, such as weeding. My list of unpopular household chores is endless. I basically envy three groups of people: those who don’t care about untidiness, those who do housework regularly and happily, and those who don’t have to do it. Unfortunately, as I don’t have a housemaid or an assistant of any kind, I must do all the chores on my own. Naturally, I feel frustrated when there’s a heap of dirty socks (believe me, five pairs of feet do make a heap very quickly).

My frustration reaches its peak when I come home from a holiday and see the loads of housework ahead of me – the chores that I had left behind undone, the jobs that didn’t get done when I was away, and even more tasks that I’ve voluntarily brought home from the holiday. It’s the time when I start thinking about planning, and I set myself goals and objectives: By the end of the week all the laundry will have been washed, the floors will have been mopped up and the carpets vacuumed, and the windows will have been cleaned. 

I’ve admitted many times on this blog and elsewhere that I don’t like planning, especially the long-term kind. It simply stresses me out. I love living in the present moment and I solve what needs to be solved on the spot, creatively and intuitively. Well, the truth is that I’m not very good at planning and setting myself goals, which may be one of the reasons for my aversion and all my excuses. But there are times, in my personal as well as my professional life, when I realize that the act of planning itself brings peace and comfort. It evokes an atmosphere of safety and a feeling of system and structure. Anyway, while pondering my reluctance towards housework, it occurred to me that if planning to achieve goals each at a time has such a calming effect for me as a housewife, it must be similar in a teaching context. By the way, I really liked the Master Household Chore List, which gave me a few ideas for planning in general, such as the need for cooperation and distribution of tasks, or the idea that big goals always need to be broken down into small ones if we want them to have the desired soothing effect and efficiency. And I love this Household Chores Checklist idea which can be easily applied to any classroom environment, even as an L2 classroom activity. It’s amusing that I see potential classroom activities wherever I look.

So is the need for safety the reason why we make thorough lesson plans? Is it why we create curricula? Obviously, one of the aims of the national curriculum, for example, is to show us the direction. The expected outcomes of our teaching and students’ learning are clearly stated so that we get familiar with the ultimate goals of education. But to me they are more than that – they’re actually the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s up to individual schools and us teachers to plan the way through the tunnel, breaking it into small stretches to make things more feasible. This creative and cooperative process of planning makes us feel involved and as a result we feel much safer even before we set off.

But planning is useful even in case the plans finally fall through. Even if things don’t go according to plan, we know where we are at each stage and we can check the deviation against the original aim. We can decide whether it’s better to get back on track or whether we can afford a short detour. Sometimes it’s good to return, reset and start anew.

However, it’s necessary to have meaningful plans in mind and set ourselves reasonable objectives. Sadly enough, sometimes we are encouraged to make plans for the inspecting bodies or the administrators. These plans have been manipulated and distorted to look meaningful but in fact they are totally useless; they are worthless documents occupying the precious hard disc space. What’s more, the process of making such plans is far from involving; it’s irritating and often time-consuming.

I believe that teachers should be offered the choice very early in their profession – the choice to plan or not to plan. Sooner or later they’ll discover that it’s better to make some sort of plans but until then they should be free to find their own way. The requirement of teacher training programmes for detailed, minute-by-minute lesson planning seems ridiculous to me. This is not the way we plan in life – at least not all of us. This kind of planning is not comforting but frustrating, especially if we are novices in the teaching profession unable to improvise if something goes wrong. Based on my own experience, the more detailed the plan is, the more can go amiss during the actual lesson. I remember, when much younger, I was able to create thorough lesson plans but ironically, when somebody asked me what my long-term objectives were, I was lost. So most importantly, young teachers should be trained to look far ahead. They’re often encouraged to see just the fragments, not the whole picture; they are turned into skilful ‘classroom managers’ with blurred or no vision of the light at the end of the tunnel. If this approach changes, I believe we will eventually all grow fond of planning and our teaching will become more meaningful and effective right from the start.

Through writing towards L2 development

When looking at the list of published posts, I can see that my blog is virtually a hotchpotch of ELT-related stuff. Although I don’t ‘specialize’ in one particular area, I’ve recently come to realize that quite a few of my posts revolve about writing. That’s why I’ve decided to organize my scattered ideas into one coherent post. However, this is by no means a summary or a how-to type of post. I consider this to be a reflection with bits of revision and lots of extension.

Before I launched this blog, I didn’t really bother about writing very much. More precisely, I didn’t incorporate writing practice into my teaching as much as I should have. I think it was because I didn’t fully appreciate its potential. It was after I started writing in a foreign language when I realized how difficult it can actually be at times. And it got me thinking; it made me ponder ways of applying my personal experience to my teaching context. After a year of publishing in English, I’ve come to believe that through regular writing practice L2 learners will improve the target language in many different areas.

First, they’ll learn to work with various types of paper and online dictionaries. Also, as I described in one of my previous posts, the dreaded corpora can finally become invaluable allies in the process of language learning. The constant need for synonyms, antonyms and other alternative ways of expression will direct the learner to online tools such as Synonym Finder or Thesaurus.com. Apart from the words they searched, they will come across many they didn’t originally look for and thus incidentally learn lots of new vocabulary.

In order to express ideas clearly and succinctly, the learner will inevitably need to think about grammar issues. An incorrect use of comma in a relative clause or wrong word order can complicate the message or can even hinder understanding. In addition, learners will occasionally have to think about the differences between L1 and L2. L1 interference is clearly evident in inappropriate choices of collocates. Google with its auto-complete device comes in handy but I find collocation dictionaries are much safer.

Another area which improves dramatically through lots of writing practice is, quite obviously, spelling. However, by having to write a word down and use it in a specific context, the learner is made to zoom in on every aspect of the given vocabulary item; not just its correct spelling. If it’s a noun, does it require a definite, indefinite or zero article? Is it countable or uncountable; what is the appropriate quantifier? If it’s the past tense of a verb, is it regular, irregular or can it be both? Is it an absolute adjective? Here grammar, vocabulary and spelling overlap quiet a deal, which is only to the good.

The degree of formality will become a useful concept as well. Unfortunately this is not a popular topic, at least in general English courses I’ve experienced. Yet whenever one is deciding which word to use, they need to take formality into account, depending on the style and purpose of the writing. Good dictionaries will be helpful in such a situation. This brings me to the frequency issue, another neglected area of English teaching. When producing a more advanced piece of writing, it’s sometimes desirable to use a low frequency word instead of its more frequent alternative. L2 learners often lack the native speaker intuitions which would help them judge which word is more appropriate. Luckily, they can find information about frequency in Longman Communication 3000, or in any recent edition of a paper dictionary. More advanced learners can turn to corpora if they have been instructed how to use them. For academic writing purposes it’s good to be familiar with the Academic Vocabulary List and have it constantly at one’s disposal.

I think it’s a great bonus if somebody reads what the learner produces and responds to it in some way, be it the teacher or a classmate. This will lead to the need for even more clarity. One simply has to keep the reader in mind all the time when writing for an audience. The use of figurative language is an efficient way to spice up the learner’s writing, but it can cause all sorts of misunderstanding, especially if the reader and the writer don’t share the same mother tongue or if they’re not on the same wavelength. Moreover, it’s not easy to find an appropriate idiom, simile or metaphor because these are often expressed in totally different ways in L1 and L2. It’s proved useful for me to keep a separate record of figurative language items and store them online, such as on Quizlet. I don’t have a bi-lingual dictionary of idioms so when looking for an L2 alternative of an L1 idiom, for instance, I search it via the key word or sometimes I simply type in the precise English translation of a Czech idiom in the Google search box and it usually comes up with the correct English version (hat down would be the direct translation of hats off, so if I type in hat down, Google automatically comes up with hats off). This is a kind of trial and error procedure but it’s fun and some incidental learning may happen along the way.

Finally, due to the ambition to become more and more proficient, the learner will automatically want to study the style of other writers and thus will deliberately or incidentally adopt some useful expressions and techniques. It is a lot of quality input one needs in order to create quality output after all.

Good writing obviously involves more than just correct grammar and extensive vocabulary, but these are the stepping stones to success and subsequent increase in motivation. Writing can bring a satisfying and exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and I believe this can ultimately lead to noticeable language development. Why not bring this virtuous circle to the language classroom and exploit it to the full?

Old teaching habits die hard

While on holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of daily teaching life, I have plenty of time to reflect. This opportunity brings about some useful insights. One of the things I’ve recently noticed is that I’m a slave to my habits. In the morning I switch on my laptop instead of doing a short workout first. When I’m tired I have a cup of coffee instead of making myself green tea or just going out. I do these things in spite of the burdensome feeling that I shouldn’t be doing them – either because I consider them unhealthy or damaging.

This realization made me ponder my teaching ‘habits’. Are they good or are they automatic and thus it’s difficult to judge their effectiveness? By no means am I talking about classroom routines which are born out of well-thought planning. I’m talking about habits which have taken control over the way I teach.

A teacher’s extensive experience is undeniably a great thing but I believe it can also hinder effectiveness of instruction. Let me give an example; an experienced colleague of mine always checks students’ homework at the beginning of class. He does so because he believes revision should come first in the lesson. The consequence of this is that some of his students regularly skip the first minutes of the class and if you ask, these students admit that they usually turn up late for one obvious reason – they haven’t done their homework again and want to avoid the feeling of embarrassment. It’s difficult to judge whether this is a useful classroom routine or if it’s just a habit on the teacher’s part which subsequently creates bad habits on the students’ part. I suppose it depends on the perspective.

But I also have my special classroom wonts. For example, I always plan a test for the beginning of a lesson. I don’t think about it very much now but I definitely started doing so for a specific reason; I didn’t want to stress my students for longer than necessary. As I haven’t really challenged this routine since, I can’t say that it’s justifiable any more. It’s become another habit which I tend to stick to because I once believed it was useful.

I have a habit of answering a student’s question in more detail than necessary. I hate it when people do this in everyday conversation so why do I do it myself in the classroom? Perhaps I want to make sure everybody understands, but is it really necessary? Sometimes it can turn out counterproductive because the student stops listening to me once she gets it and the rest is often just a redundant babble taking away the precious time.

I’m not saying that old habits are inherently bad but I can say with certainty that they die hard. But first things first: one needs to detect a bad habit to be able to deal with it. Thus it’s good to stop and analyze from time to time. Classroom observation or video recording are ideal: your attention is drawn to nuances you’re no more aware of. But if you are the observant and reflective type of person, you can easily tell by your students’ reactions that you’ve just done something they are allergic to – a word, a phrase or a gesture. These can be part of your identity but they can become pretty irritating. Habits are a source of safety but they can bring about boredom as well (and malicious laughter and imitation, for that matter).

What are some of the classroom practices that need to be challenged – the things you’ve been doing for so long that you no more think about their effectiveness or even harmful effects? Have you ever caught yourself doing something really ridiculous only to realize that you actually do it all the time? How did you find out and what did you do about it? I believe these are the questions a teacher needs to ask regularly in order to continue developing as a professional.

Using corpora in class (the simple way)

Using corpora in language teaching has many advantages. Corpora are collections of genuine samples of written and spoken language, thus they can come in handy in courses which focus on communicative competence. They show the learner what is natural, rather than what is deemed correct by grammarians. This may turn into a disadvantage because corpora also contain less frequent and unusual examples of the language and the learner needs to develop an ability to distinguish the appropriate from the totally inappropriate/unacceptable. However, the opportunity to discover provides a valuable piece of experience. Although I don’t like the discourse promoting the distinction between NNS and NS English teachers, I can’t but admit that working with a corpus can be highly beneficial for less proficient non-native speakers of the language. Their contact with the target language is minimal in comparison with native speakers, who have usually been exposed to it since birth, which inevitably affects their intuition about what is natural and what is not.

Based on my teaching and learning experience, it’s not easy to incorporate corpora practice into everyday instruction. The learner simply needs some linguistic knowledge to be able to navigate through the environment. A quick survey at the secondary school where I teach showed that students know next to nothing about corpora or corpus linguistics. English teachers are usually familiar with the concepts but they mostly use corpora for their own purposes, never in the classroom.

Yet there are simple techniques which can be introduced at fairly early stages of learning a language. I’d like to share one of them, which is simple and doesn’t require a lot of language knowledge on the learner’s part. It does, however, need the teacher’s guidance. My favourite corpus query system is Sketch Engine. It’s a web-based programme which takes as its input a corpus of any language with an appropriate level of linguistic mark-up. It’s not completely free but there are some links which guarantee free access, such as the ones to Brown corpus and British Academic Written English Corpus. As a former student of Masaryk University, Brno, I have an unlimited access to Sketch Engine with all its functions.

On to the practical part. What I basically do with my intermediate students is collocation work. One of the possible ways to find frequent collocates is via Word Sketch. Let’s say I want to demonstrate in class how my students can spice up their written work. I tell them that it’s fine to say ‘the reason why...’ but it’s more effective to use the word reason with a collocate. What I need to do first is to click the British Academic Written English Corpus, for example. I select Word Sketch in the left-hand menu (figure 1) and type the word in the query box. Before I hit the Show Word Sketch button, I need to specify which part of speech the word is (Figure 2). In this case it is a noun I’m focusing on.

Figure 1

Figure 2

I’ looking for the left collocates which are, in other words, modifiers (see Figure 3). As you can see, some of the most frequent modifiers are main and possible. But there is a number of other less frequent collocates which students can choose from when writing an essay, for example.

Figure 3

There’s no need to go into more detail if you don’t want to scare or discourage your students. If you teach at a more advanced level, you can demonstrate how to work with concordances, but this is another subject. I must confess that I haven’t found an efficient way of using concordances in classes I currently teach. However, I’ve been pondering the idea of using a graded readers corpus, which would be more feasible.

A short (personal) intermezzo

Only recently did I fully realize the real value of social media, specifically online communication. I can’t remember how many times I’ve deleted an inappropriate or even sarcastic remark of mine before I posted it. And I’m really happy for that. As a rule of thumb I think twice before I respond, especially when I feel offended, but I always react spontaneously when I feel respect, admiration, or awe. There is a difference between what you think and what you actually say or do. A nasty word aimed at a person will stay with them forever, especially if it’s written down in ink, while your negative thought can ultimately be changed into a positive one and nobody will ever know you once had a grudge against that person. And thus there will be nothing to regret.

The online community I’m part of is so supportive and encouraging that it feels like a punch in the face when somebody is not as polite as the ones I’m used to interacting with. The power of virtual discourse is enormous. There is a danger that any utterance can be misinterpreted and a light sarcasm can change into a huge insult in the eyes of the reader. Thus I believe a person should be twice as nice as in a normal face-to-face communication to make sure they get the right message across.

I admit that my style of writing may sometimes appear confusing. The trouble is that while expressing my ideas, I love to use metaphors and figurative language in general; I like to alter and exaggerate the usual meaning of concepts. I do so because I hate to sound dogmatic and I believe there are as many truths as there are people, so by using figurative language I feel I give the reader some space for their own interpretation. Yes, my writing may lack clarity sometimes but by no means do I want to confuse the reader. And I don’t mind if their truth turns out to be different from mine. But I’ve come to realize this can turn against me, the writer; people who do not want to understand will misuse the little space I’ve innocently provided. Those people listen to respond and win a point, not to understand what I have to say. And sometimes they will even blame me for their inability to understand. I’m aware of the fact that the literal interpretation of figurative language may not make sense at first sight but it’s up to the reader to make an effort to understand, in case they truly wish to engage in genuine communication.

People hurt others in many different ways; some use a cane, while others use words, maybe unwittingly. This is sad. On the other hand, a gap in understanding can be painful but it is a natural part of human interaction. And I believe that our task is to bridge this gap, not to deepen it.

I’m sorry if it sounds like a quiet sob of a spoiled girl. But I’m really grateful for this sudden insight because it will help me tremendously in my profession. Also, this is one of the messages I intend to pass on as a teacher …. Thanks for being here and listening.