The Ten Commandments of Successful Language Instruction

stock-photo-child-with-rucksack-standing-on-a-stack-of-books-64626691Throughout 2016, I’ve read a lot about how much the current ELT practice flies in the face of SLA research findings. I usually dismiss these assumptions straight away – probably because personally, I’ve never felt too guilty as an ELT practitioner. I mean, I think I know something about the contribution of the SLA research to developments in TESOL over the last five decades, and I do my best not to be blind to it. Although in my teaching context, which I would describe as standardized education (meaning standardized level, pace, and path of learning), my hands are tied to a certain extent, I don’t despair.

The other day, I came across this article by Rod Ellis called Principles of Instructed Language Learning, in which he shares a set of generalizations which, he believes, might serve as the basis for language teacher education. When reading the text, I lit up. It’s not all that bad after all given the limitations I have to deal with on a daily basis, of which the lack of time is the worst of all shortcomings. I can conclude now that there’s not a single principle I would consciously ignore.

Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence. 

Although I don’t avoid the focus-on-forms approach, I believe that my instruction is not exclusively directed at developing rule-based competence through the systematic teaching of pre-selected structures. My students would probably confirm (with a slight sneer on their face) that I’m moderately obsessed with grammar and totally obsessed with formulaic chunks.

Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. 

I’m well aware of the fact that to meet this principle, task-based approach to language teaching is one of the prerequisites. Also, it is important that instruction provides opportunities for learners to focus on semantic meaning (meanings of lexical items or of specific grammatical structures) as well as pragmatic meaning (the highly contextualized meanings that arise in acts of communication) and, as Ellis argues, it is pragmatic meaning that is crucial to language learning. Although I do try to incorporate communicative tasks into my lessons whenever possible, I’d say that TBL approach is something I still tend to circumvent. Why? It’s a question for another post.

Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form. 

This, among other things, involves a response to the errors each learner makes. In my context, I often practice this through collected feedback, i.e. feedback I give a group of students on selected linguistic issues I spot in their writing/speaking. I like this approach as it’s individualized and emergent.

Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. 

Ellis argues that instruction needs to be directed at developing both implicit and explicit knowledge, giving priority to the former (because we don’t know how easily/if at all explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge). While the benefits of explicit knowledge are somewhat controversial, there is a consensus among researchers that learners need the opportunity to participate in communicative activities to develop implicit knowledge. Thus, communicative tasks need to play a central role in instruction directed at implicit knowledge. I can boldly claim that communicative activities have always been central to my classes. It was only recently when I started gravitating towards a slightly more focus-on-form approach as I was no longer comfortable with the zero grammar strategy.

Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. 

One way to do this is to ensure that learners are developmentally ready to acquire a specific target feature. Like the zero grammar approach, this is not very feasible in my teaching context. There is a national curriculum I need to follow plus I’m also required to assess my students formally. So I give those students who struggle with specific linguistic features other opportunities to succeed (little tasks, extra projects, etc.) since I know most of them will finally catch up on all the required skills and knowledge.

Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input.

This is a real stumbling block. With three or four 45-minute lessons a week you’d have to be a magician if you wanted to help your students march out of the classroom with native-like proficiency.  So I assume it’s more about showing them how to make it on their own – about giving tips for online places to go, books to read, methods to apply, etc. Because if you are supposed to a) give them tasks, b) present lots of chunks of language and some grammar, c) provide opportunities for meaningful communication, then there’s not much time left for extensive input while in class. Fortunately, these days it is practically impossible to avoid English in everyday life so most students will probably manage quite well when left to their own devices.

Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output.

While I’m somewhat concerned about the previous principle, I’m very confident about number 7 – simply because I know my students produce a lot of language in the classroom. As I said, my students come with bits and pieces they pick outside of school, which we can then work with and elaborate on.

Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.

Ellis maintains that we can achieve this by a) creating contexts of language use where students have a reason to attend to language, b) providing opportunities for learners to use the language to express their own personal meanings, c) helping students to participate in language-related activities that are beyond their current level of proficiency and c) offering a full range of contexts that cater for a ‘full performance’ in the language. The last one is something I feel I need to focus on a bit more. I suspect that it is closely related to TBL, which, as stated above, I need to apply more in my teaching.

Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

This is a problematic one, especially in a standardized teaching context, as discussed above. However, I can still do (and I think I do) a lot as a teacher: pair/group students up in a manner that fosters cooperation, find ways to motivate weaker/slower students (especially intrinsically) and find as many opportunities leading to success as possible.

Principle 10: In assessing learners’ L2 proficiency, it is important to examine free as well as controlled production

At times it seems that it’s much easier to assess controlled production. However, I’ve recently come across many poorly designed tests, which, for example, accept one correct answer for each question when there are more appropriate alternatives. One may argue that it opens some space for discussion, but I think that at the same time, it discredits the test itself. Assessing free practice is primarily about acknowledging the fact that the student managed to get the message across. In such a case, he or she always deserves a decent grade regardless of grammatical mistakes, for example.

What about your instruction? Is it based on solid research or folksy wisdom? 🙂

An excerpt from a new (revolutionary) coursebook

Unit 1  – Meeting people

At the café

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Hana Tichá, a non-native teacher of English, enters the room merrily: Hi, everybody! How are you?”

Mike Cattlin, a slightly older northern Brit (according to his own words), greets Hana enthusiastically, waving his hand: “Hi, Hana! I’m fine.” 

Michael Griffin, an American currently based in South Korea, looks up from his black coffee and smiles broadly: Hi, Hana. I’m good. Nice to see you again.”

Anthony Ash, a Brit from the north of England, turns to Michael, a little concerned: Oh, what’s the problem, Mike?”

Michael G.: Nothing. Why?” 

Anthony.: Well, I thought you meant life sucks cause you just said: ‘I’m good’.”

Hugh Dellar, also British, shakes his head: No, no. It’s a perfectly standard expression meaning ‘I’m fine’.” 

Joanna Tsiolakis, from sunny Greece, sips her café latte happily and nods in agreement: “Absolutely. A typical response.”

Bruno Leys, from the land of chocolate and lovely beer, adds confidently: Yeah! I can hear myself saying it a lot.” 

Katy Fagan, from the eastern US, reacts somewhat cautiously: Well, it actually sounds a tiny bit awkward to me when responding to a greeting, but …”

Michal Siegel, a former student of Hana, overhears the conversation on his way from the restroom. Being a keen linguist, he can’t help jumping in: “Excuse me, but as far as I know, ‘I’m good’ is being used when something, e. g. an accident, happens and the person is okay. Then he says ‘Don’t worry, I’m good!’ But to the question ‘How are you?’ he should say ‘I’m fine, thank you!'”

Hana: Wait, guys. It gets a little confusing now.  I’m an EFL teacher, you know. What am I supposed to tell my students? They want to know *the right* answers … 

Oh, look, that’s my former boss over there at the bar. I haven’t seen him for ages. Hi, Petr!” 

Petr: “Hi, Hana. How are you?” 

Hana: Erm….. I’m ……”

Marc Jones, a young Brit based in Japan, quickly whispers to Hana’s ear: It’s your *boss*. Not a *mate* of yours, right? So you should say: ‘I’m fine’.”  

Hana: I’m fine. And you, Petr?” 

Petr, slowly emptying his glass of vodka: I’m good. Kill me now!” 

 

Hana: Well, erm, I‘d better catch the waiter’s eye. I bet you’re all starving?”

…….. 60 minutes later

 

Hana: “Would you like anything else before I foot the bill?” 

Katy: I’m good. Thanks.” 

Mike C.: “No, thanks. I’m fine.” 

Peter Skillen, a fellow from Canada: No, thank you, I’m good.” 

Hana (to herself, somewhat desperately): Damn it! Do they really mean what they are saying? Or do they mean the opposite? How on earth should I know what these people are thinking?”  

 

Some of you probably know where this post came from. 🙂  I’d like to thank all my Facebook friends who kindly and patiently answered my questions regarding this linguistic issue. Their diverse responses inspired this article (which, of course, is not an excerpt from a new, revolutionary coursebook) and showed, once again, that English is evolving much faster than we realize. By the way, I hope I got all the nationalities right. If not, let me know.

An important note: My former boss, Petr, never drinks vodka and you can never come across him at a bar. 🙂

 

 

 

A little *thank you*

I’ve recently learned from my WordPress statistics tracker that the largest proportion of visitors on my blog is based in the Czech Republic. This discovery was a big surprise for me because most of the interaction that happens here is initiated by teachers outside of the Czech Republic. Apparently, Czechs like to be what I call ‘bystanders’ – they visit my blog but rarely feel the need to leave a comment.

 

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The little orange spot in the middle of Europe is my native land

 

The truth is, though, that I’ve lately had several face-to-face conversations with fellow teachers, friends, and former students, who told me that they visited my blog regularly. I was really excited to hear this since I gathered that my blog was exclusively read by my online community and complete strangers.

However, this finding also had an unusual effect on me – I suddenly felt more responsibility for the content of my blog. I mean, these people know me personally so what if they feel my writing doesn’t quite correspond with reality or with what I actually do. What if my posts give the wrong impression? Or even worse, what if something I share offends somebody? The thing is that I sometimes exaggerate and overstate to make a point so my articles may not always be interpreted correctly.

Nevertheless, I was very pleased the other day when a colleague of mine described how she felt after reading one of my somewhat controversial posts. Her description perfectly matched the effect I had intended when writing it. She uncovered all the layers, appreciated the humor but the overall impression, as she put it, was sadness. Then she gave me some valuable feedback and asked me lots of questions, such as how long it usually takes me to write a post or if I consider it a kind of therapy. Needless to say, she hit the nail on the head; blogging is a wonderful way of relaxation.

So, it seems there are two types of interaction here on my blog – with the people who drop a line now and then and with those who talk to me in person. Both audiences are very dear to me and this post is a way to thank them for being here for me and with me. Finally, I’d also like to thank all those ‘invisible’ viewers, who I only know about from my statistics tracker, and who, for whatever reason, took the time to click the link …

Learning more than the content ….

20160928_113031This is an ordinary post – no point, no climax. Just a description of what happened in class.

The other day my youngest students were doing a project called My Favourite Animal/My Pet. I asked them to include lots of text and some hand-made illustrations or other visuals. I handed out two types of bilingual dictionaries and I also encouraged them to feel free to come to my table and use my PC if they struggled to find some words in the paper dictionaries. On the computer, I opened two tabs – a bilingual dictionary and Google.

Very few actually ended up using the paper dictionaries; there was a long queue in front of my computer instead. I noticed that some of the students had trouble working with the online bilingual dictionary so I tried to help whenever I could. For example, I showed them that they can listen to a word’s pronunciation and thus remember it better. Honestly, I had assumed that they were familiar with such things already but apparently, I was wrong.

One girl wanted to find the English equivalent for a Czech word (a name of an animal). We used all the bilingual dictionaries but found no entries of such a word. Then I revealed a trick I sometimes use with names of animals and plants – I look up the Latin expression first and then it’s much easier to find the English one. With this method, we finally managed to find the word okapi.

Some students used the Google option a lot, mostly to look up pictures of animals they were planning to draw. One boy, however, came up with a tweak. He opened the Google Translate tab to look up longer expressions. The thing is that I’d forgotten to tell the students that it’s difficult to find two-word expressions in a bilingual dictionary so some of them ended up a little confused. However, the boy immediately gave a hand to everybody who’d failed to find a phrase or a longer expression. Ironically, this boy is often criticized for using his mobile too much – during breaks as well as in lessons. The truth is though that he proved to be more tech savvy than the rest of the class, which, of course, is the result of him spending a lot of time online.

So apart from practicing their English, especially their writing skills, the students hopefully learned some other important skills, which they can use later in the course.

My hopes and fears

Some of you may know that I’ve recently posted this on Facebook:

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I was astonished by the enormous support I instantly got from my PLN and friends from all around the world.

Strangely enough, it was not long ago (precisely October 28) when I wrote about the reasons behind my refusal to become a conference presenter. In today’s post, I’d like to share some of my fears and hopes I have now that I’ve finally accepted the offer. So here goes.

What if …

my topic is not interesting enough to attract an audience? I’ve been attending local conferences for some time now and I know that their regular attendees have already heard and seen loads of interesting stuff. Also, the teachers come on a Saturday, many of them from far away places, to be inspired. This obviously makes me feel a lot of responsibility.

I don’t appear interesting enough to attract an audience? Well, I may be the same old face on social media but that doesn’t mean that local folks know my name. So while some of my PLN would definitely turn up (out of sheer curiosity or to support a newbie presenter), the people who attend this conference may not feel like wasting their precious time listening to some secondary school teacher slash blogger.

things go wrong? I’ve been a teacher for more than two decades so I know all too well that there are lessons which go wrong for no specific reason. It just happens and it always fills me with bitter disappointment. Surprisingly, this sometimes happens when I ovedo it or when I overprepare. By the way, as this is my first workshop, I’m definitely planning to go low-tech. And I think I’ll actually go very ‘light’ in all respects.

my timing is all wrong? The workshops last for an hour. This may turn out totally unimportant, but over time, my brain has adjusted to slightly shorter units – of 45 minutes. Also, as I have no idea whatsoever how many people will finally turn up for my workshop (the attendees don’t register for the individual workshops in advance, which, by the way, I always considered an advantage), I can’t tailor make the content to a specific number of attendees. This leaves me with a number of unknown variables, such as the number of photocopies, the number of chairs, the shape of the seating arrangement and the shape of the activities themselves (pairs, groups, mingling, etc.). This may easily disconcert me and eventually add more pressure or even cause some confusion during the workshop.

I make mistakes? I know this sounds almost ridiculous, but yes, this is also one of my concerns. The sky won’t fall in if you make a mistake in a regular class (your mischievous students will let you know instantly anyway), but it must be terribly embarrassing when it happens to a conference presenter (cause conference presenters are supposed to be flawless, right? 😀 ).

Anyway, I’m an optimist and I think I can make it because

  • I have plenty of experience with classroom management and teaching in general so I can improvise and multitask.
  • Conference audiences are usually very enthusiastic, compassionate and understanding. (I’m convinced that teenagers, for example, are much more challenging).
  • I know the place very well and I know how things work there – at least from the outside.
  • There will be lots of familiar faces, which is one of the highlights for me.

What do you think? Are my concerns justified? Did you feel the same before your first workshop/webinar? Thanks for reading and all the support.