One of the fifty ways to put me off

No offense to anybody, but I’ve recently noticed that there’s a type of title which invariably puts me off reading; it’s actually any title including or starting with a number (of how-to tips). In case you still don’t know, I’m talking about those ten-ways-to-be-happy or the-top-ten-ways-to-teach-grammar posts. Surely, such articles are written with good intentions – to help the less experienced folks out there or, and I don’t have a problem with that, the authors simply feel the need to share some valuable information. I might have written a post like that too. So what is it that bugs me then?

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Any number used in a title the way I mention above immediately indicates to me that the stuff will be pretty superficial in the sense that the authors will provide a list of tips with little elaboration on each entry. Any number bigger than 10 makes me suspect that the article will be a drag because the list is just too long (unless it’s a terribly interesting topic or something written in a tongue-in-the-cheek way). So I’ll be biased right from the start because it’s unlikely that I, the reader, will absorb, let alone put to practice, all the information from a long list of suggestions (unless their aim is to merely entertain me). I could obviously bookmark these articles and refer to them later if need be – except that I never do.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that providing the reader with a well-arranged list of tips is very considerate of the author. Unfortunately, articles like that are unbearably predictable – it’s often enough to skim through the headings. Plus the element of surprise and creativity which I like so much about reading is missing in such a type of writing (I’m at number 5 so there are 5 more tips left – BORING!).

Also, I’ve noticed that people like to round numbers off. I might be wrong (apart from a quick corpus search, I have no evidence to back up my claim) but I suspect that it’s because a post called Nine ways to teach vocabulary may be a little less clickbait-y than the one called Ten ways to teach vocabulary. So, inevitably, in the former case, the writer will have to add one more bullet point by either repeating themselves (very cautiously, so that the reader doesn’t notice) or by making things up (secretly hoping that the reader won’t check). Needless to say, the quality of such a piece will suffer and in the end, the reader will feel deceived.

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But those were just minor issues. What I really can’t stand is the feeling that articles with titles including a number of how-to tips are inherently patronizing. The top ten ways to XY. Ten tips on how to XY.  The ten common XY to avoid. Who says it’s the top ten? For whom is it the top ten? By telling me that the author (or some imaginary bunch of people) has already voted for the top ten, they automatically deny me, the reader, the opportunity to judge for myself. The information is presented as a set of facts rather than food for thought. Also, I feel that titles like this are more suitable for articles in the tabloid press, for example, which nobody takes too seriously anyway, so sorry, but such a piece of writing then looks as if running counter to what it intends to be – informative and reliable.

 

 

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What vocabulary to teach?

IMG_20170720_154242In the title of the post, I deliberately ask a question I’m actually not going to answer. The reason why I’m not going to do so is that it’s not easy. However, by answering a slightly different question (and by throwing in more questions), I think I will partially satisfy the somewhat disappointed reader (presumably an ELT teacher) who was originally expecting to get some valuable insights into vocabulary teaching.

Now that I think about it, I’m not even going to speak from the perspective of a teacher most of the time but rather from the experience of an autonomous language learner. Let me stress first that I believe that creating autonomous learners is one of the most important goals (if not the most important one) of any educator because once you achieve this, your job is actually done.

Ironically, we English teachers can’t take the full credit for the fact that our students become autonomous learners. These days, most of our students are exposed to English outside the classroom all the time, and thus they, totally unaware of any research into SLA, learn it exactly the way which is most desirable – they focus on meaning and communication and thus they unwittingly create opportunities for incidental learning.

I think I can hazard a guess that fully autonomous L2 learners know what they need. Before I go on, I’d like to draw attention to the dichotomy of what one wants and what one needs. When I was younger, one of my ultimate goals was to reach a native-like proficiency in English – not because I thought it was something everybody should strive for but because I believed that the more one knew as a teacher, the better. However, I’ve recently become more realistic and practical in terms of my expectations; I’ve come to a conclusion that achieving a native-like proficiency is actually not what I need. I simply don’t need to know every English word to be able to teach English effectively. By the same token, I don’t need to know everything about the language to enjoy my life as a blogger.

What I’m trying to say is that over time, I’ve become very selective as far as vocabulary learning is concerned. In the past, while still on the hunt for a native-like proficiency, I would jot down every unknown word I’d come across (which inevitably made me feel depressed in the end), but now I only concentrate on the bits of language I think I’m going to need in my own context, i. e. in my writing and/or in the classroom. So when I come across a word I’ve never seen before, I don’t panic anymore – I quickly look it up and then go on. Only if I happen to see the same expression used again in a context I’m interested in, I keep my eyes open. In other words, over time, I’ve learned to ignore the enormous amount of what I don’t know and instead I started to focus on the relevant and achievable. This discovery has some significant implications for my teaching.

Also, I no longer have to rack my brains in order to solve the question of sequencing in the learning of vocabulary because my needs analysis was done a long time ago. By myself. I simply learn stuff as it emerges. In other words, I learn what I need to know as (or if) I encounter it. Needless to say, this observation also has some implications for my teaching.

Having said that, one important question still remains open: What happens before one becomes an autonomous (or proficient-enough) user of the L2? I’m driving at my experience with teaching adult beginners, who tend to feel very insecure when language is NOT treated as object, as well as with very young learners who, on the other hand, don’t look at an L2 as something outside of them and thus treating the language strictly as a means of communication seems to perfectly suit their stage of development. In any case, is there any core vocabulary to be learned/taught? How can you navigate through the vast land of the English language (or any L2) when you know next to nothing of it? What teaching approach is suitable then? Might treating the language as object be legitimate at a particular stage?

 

 

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Lots of questions with no definite answers

questions-2212771_960_720Have you, as a non-native teacher of English (or whatever foreign language), ever caught yourself hesitating for a second before uttering the following statement while in class?

That’s not how they say XY in English (or in whatever foreign language). 

What I mean is that depending on my mood, I sometimes feel like substituting the pronoun they with we:

That’s not how we say XY in English.

What makes me hesitate and what makes me prefer the former to the latter and the other way around?

From one point of view, it might have to do with language ownership. In other words, the *we* might indicate some kind of linguistic superiority on my part, i.e. I AM the knowledgeable teacher who knows how they (native speakers) say it in English and that’s why I AM one of them. And you’d better listen if you want to be included too.

In a similar vein, if a native-speaker of English tells a class of non-native speakers that this is the way they (native speakers) say it in English, it may also imply some kind of linguistic dominance.

However, in my case, it probably has to do with the fact that although I come from the Expanding Circle (that’s why the occasional choice of *they* referring to the Inner Circle) I no longer perceive English as a language totally foreign to me in the sense that it’s the language of the Other (that’s why the use of *we*).

Anyway, I don’t believe that one can own a language or that there are some linguistic barricades – imaginary or real – one has to overcome. At times, I just feel like part of a bigger whole and by using we I actually mean to include my students as well. In this case, the *we* means we users of English as a foreign language. But again, who is this we? We users of ELF here in the Czech Republic or all users of ELF?

Having said that, it’s a little different when I want to draw attention to the fact that there are varieties of English. Then I add a geographical term such as:

They say XY in Canada.

or

A Scotsman would probably say XY.

I could obviously bypass the problem by using a passive structure:

This expression is not used in English the way you’ve just used it. 

The trouble is that although the passive form is used to indicate that the agent is not in the center of attention, it’s still inherently there. So by whom is the expression not used in English?

I guess a Scotsman could, with some degree of certainty, claim that this or that phrase is not used in English (and he would probably mean it’s not used locally, where he lives). But for a Czech EFL teacher, it will always be pretty risky to claim that XY is not used in English since in English is actually a very broad term. And what if it actually *is* used somewhere? Does it mean that it’s acceptable and correct? But correct and acceptable by whom?

 

 

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What does this all have to do with me?

IMG_20170709_155935Whenever I start reading a post in which my fellow blogger ardently complains about the somewhat unsatisfactory situation in the ELT industry, I catch myself thinking: Well, I see the point but this doesn’t really concern me; I have my safe and relatively well-paid job (if not compared to other professions!) in the State sector of education here in the Czech Republic, and despite being a female non-native speaker, I’ve never been a victim of discrimination. So I’m sorry but I don’t really know what all these freelancers are talking about. It sounds too ‘political’ to me anyway.

But I keep reading and it often happens that due to an argument which somehow strikes a chord, I reconsider my way of thinking. That’s the moment when I realize that what I’m reading was written for the common good, not just for a select few.

Revolutionaries like to encourage us to subvert the current state of affairs by undermining the power of the established system – in this case, the ELT industry. It seems to me like biting off more than they can chew. But then I remember who I am now in comparison with what I was like before I heard those ‘putschists’ speak for the first time. I remember the time when I regarded certain people out there in the ELT world to be real superstars. I automatically held these authorities in high esteem just because I was told to by other authorities. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with that; having someone to look up to is normal at a certain stage of development. For example, there’s nothing wrong with teenagers admiring their celebrities unconditionally. Most of them grow out of it anyway and one day, blind admiration vanishes or changes into well-deserved respect.

So I also like to think that I’ve gradually grown out of my blind authority-worshipping. The truth is though that I’m not the one who should be credited. In fact, I’ve always been surrounded by people who weren’t afraid to air their views and slowly, their rants sensible counter-arguments undermined my old, almost fossilized convictions.

This all happened very slowly and nonviolently, and the new mindset was strengthened by some of my own discoveries. For example, when I went to a local conference, a talk given by a lesser-known person was often as good and useful, sometimes even better (from my perspective), as a plenary speech given by a big ELT name.

Also, and this is why I can’t deny anymore that it does indeed concern me directly, people are willing to listen to what *I* have to say. The miracle of me being given a voice happened in the realm of the ever-expanding blogosphere, originally on this very blog, a place which for me subsequently became a great source of professional and personal development as well as unique opportunities. And some of these opportunities have already become reality: for example, I was asked to write articles outside of this blog and I was invited to give a conference talk based on the posts I’d written.

I doubt that any of the above would have been possible 20 years ago – at the time when all we teachers could do was to obediently listen to what the big names had to say. If I had been a well-established academic, then yes, I may have had a say. But otherwise? In any case, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to even imagine the things as they are now – I was too small a potato and small potatoes don’t believe they really matter in the big world.

But confidence is the key to it all. The confidence of a regular teacher like me can be built with the help of all those brave people out there, who either provide support openly or serve as examples to follow. And then the sky is the limit. So I say it out loud again: it does actually concern me – because it’s all about us.

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Is this bloggable?

I recently came across a word that instantly grabbed my attention; it was used in an article called Connected Development – Why blogging still matters, where David Dodgson talks about bloggable moments. I don’t think I’d ever used or even seen the expression before so I assumed at first that it must be one of those neologisms, like blogosphere or googleable.

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The fact that I found no entry for bloggable in the Online Etymology Dictionary confirmed my assumption that it’s a newly coined word and I decided to explore it a little further on the internet – the place of its birth. I stumbled upon this blog conveniently called My Bloggable Day. On the author’s About page, I ran across the following line:

I decided to make every day ‘bloggable’ or worthy of a blog post.

Out of context, the sentence looks a little ambiguous to me; does it mean that the author decided to live each day in a way that it would then be worth blogging about or did she decide to look for something blogworthy in the days lived? In other words, does she believe there’s always something bloggable (read: worth appreciating) about our everyday moments – we just need to see/look for it?

Like David Dodgson, Sydney Salter uses the expression bloggable moments in her book called Swoon at Your Own Risk:

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And on this website, the author teaches us how to recognize bloggable moments by putting on super-hero blogging glasses that allow you to see your world in a new way.

Well, it seems I’ve just discovered something that’s been around for a while – the online world is full of little bloggable moments.

It may well happen that the word bloggable will soon be used in a figurative sense, i. e. it will become synonymous with amazing, such as in “Oh, what a bloggable party!”

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As I considered the linguistic aspects of bloggable, it occurred to me how easy it is in English to derive a new expression from an existing one. If I wanted to translate bloggable into Czech, there’s no one-word equivalent for it. I’d have to circumscribe it using many words and the shortest chunk would probably be worth writing an article for my blog.

It’s also interesting to look at the way new words are derived. By coincidence, I read this tweet by Nathan Hall:

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A thought-provoking question, I thought. I’d add that not only verbs are regular but also newly derived adjectives seem to behave in a very ‘regular’ way. Regarding spelling, it could have been blogable (with jus one ‘g’), right? But it’s not due to the CVC patternIn a similar vein, if I wanted to make a comparative adjective, I’d say more bloggable, because it’s a three-syllable adjective.

At least, there’s some comforting regularity in this volatile world where linguistic inventions threaten the comfort of a conservative language user.

 

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Learning vs. teaching

IMG_20170702_165122Learning and teaching have a lot in common, such as the –ing form or the fact that both activities as we usually know them happen at school. Well, now that I think about it, I’m not so sure. While teaching does indeed mostly happen at school, a bulk of learning may well happen outside the classroom even though it originally started there.

While in the context of education teaching usually means the process of carrying instruction on a regular basis, learning is defined as the process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, experiencing, or being taught.

We can look at both activities as processes stripped off the results they usually yield, i.e. in the case of teaching, hypothetically, you can be giving lessons without a single student learning anything at all (still, you are teaching), and learning can be seen as an attempt to remember information or learn a skill without actually making it (but you say you were learning).

However, to teach somebody something may also mean that you’ve been successful as a professional, i.e. that thanks to you, your student has actually acquired some knowledge. And when you learn something (such as the skill of riding a bike), it means that you can actually do it now.

We EFL teachers are lucky because, as a quick Google search reveals, there are plenty of methodology books which tell us how to teach English well. But do they always tell us how our students learn? One of the best publications I’ve ever held in my hands is called Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. It is a detailed survey of research and theory on the teaching and learning of vocabulary with the aim of providing pedagogical suggestions for both teachers and learners. Although this publication embraces both concepts (learning, and teaching) and thus it may well have been called Teaching and Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, the title indicates that the author chose to zoom in on learning. My guess is that the reason behind this is that we, teachers, primarily need to know how students learn if we want to teach effectively. 

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There is a question I often ponder: I teach English as a foreign language to students in the IMG_20170627_100516State sector of education here in the Czech Republic, but does it mean that it was me who’s taught them something when they finally prove they can communicate fluently in English? In other words, did they learn from my instruction or did they learn most of the knowledge/skills on their own, outside of my classes (through watching movies, playing PC games, listening to music, etc)?

The reason why I’m asking is that four lessons of English a week seem to be too little of exposure to a foreign language for somebody to be able to use it the way some of my students do. So it may sound a little crazy but I sometimes wish I could measure the amount of knowledge/skill they’ve learned (or I should probably say ‘acquired’) as opposed to the amount I’ve taught them.

To conclude, I should stress that teaching actually means enabling learning to happen. So these two activities overlap to such an extent that it’s impossible to make them measurable in the way I indicated above.

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Taboo and Behind the Board (two activities from my low-prep bank)

In this post, I’d like to share two new-ish low-prep activities I did with my students at the end of the school year. The aim of the activities was to revise some material (in this case, vocabulary), as well as to practice ways of communicating a message clearly and effectively. The students were actively involved from the first minute since they had partial control over the content.

1) Taboo vocabulary game (the describe-guess type, 45 minutes). In a random order, this activity involves a game-like element, speaking practice, listening practice, vocabulary revision, pair work, and group work.

You can get a real version of the game in Czech, but since it is too culture-related, I find it quite challenging. This, and the fact that I needed a more tailor-made set of cards made me believe that there’s no point in trying to get the original version in English, which would probably cost a fortune anyway, and I decided to go the DIY way. I soon realized, though, it’s pretty time-consuming to create a sufficient number of cards for one group so I asked my students to help me out. Needless to say, I was a good move.

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The words in red are examples of what I call ‘main’ words and they represent the material to be revised through this activity. They are the words students actually describe. The other four words below, to the contrary, are items that must be avoided during the description stage; let’s call them ‘taboo words’. You can have as many taboo words as you wish, but I’d suggest 3-5.

The process of creating the cards usually takes about 25 minutes. It works best when each pair is assigned a specific section from the word list at the back of their workbooks, for example (to avoid duplicates within the group and to make sure that we’ll have covered as many words as possible). Each pair creates 10 cards.

In my teaching context, I usually have about 16 students in a group so the 8 pairs are able to create up to 80 cards altogether. When we are done, I put Ss into groups of 4. I shuffle the cards and I hand out 20 random cards to each group. The cards are placed face down on the desk. The students take turns in their groups as follows: S1 describes the main word while S2 keeps an eye on her/him, i.e. S2 can see the card too but only has to watch out. If S1 accidentally uses one of the taboo words (or the stem/part of the main word), S2 grabs the card. If not, S3 and S4 try to guess the word and the faster one gets the card. If you happen to end up with a group of 3, there’s simply no ‘guard’ in it – S1 describes the word and the other students try to guess. The winner is the student with most cards. To prolong the activity, you can ask the groups to swap the words. The cards can obviously be recycled with other classes in the future depending on the extent of ‘tailor-made-ness’ of a particular set.

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Some observations I’ve made so far: The process of selecting the main words from the given vocabulary list is a very valuable revision activity itself. Also, when inventing the taboo words, students are actually forced to imagine how *they* would best describe the main word. I always advise them to assume that their future opponents will probably come up with similar descriptions in their heads so putting good taboo words on the card will make the game more challenging.

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2) Behind the board (the describe-guess type, 45 minutes). This activity involves a game-like element, speaking practice, listening practice, vocabulary revision, collaboration.

In my class, I have this type of board which opens up in the middle and creates two ‘wings’ at the sides.

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Board

It has some advantages; I can examine three students at one go: two of them stand behind the wings writing the answers while the third one faces the middle part of the board. This results in none of the three students seeing the other two students’ answers. Such a type of board is also useful when you have fast finishers – you can keep them busy by asking them to share their answers in advance, but these can remain concealed until it’s time reveal them to the rest of the class. The activity I call Behind the Board could obviously be done even if you don’t have the same equipment (you can simply use two pieces of paper instead). 
The minimum of students for the activity would be 4, the ideal number would be 8, but I usually do it with 16 students. With bigger numbers, it may get a little chaotic but it’s still manageable. Divide your class into two teams (A and B). Team A chooses 20 vocabulary items for team B (from a given set/list of vocabulary items) and puts them on one of the wings (on the inner part). Team B picks 20 words for Team A and writes them on the other wing. Don’t forget to tell your students that Team A and Team B are rivals. But tell them *beforehand* that Team A will have to describe the words Team B has chosen for them and vice versa. 
When all the vocabulary is on the board, ask Team A (or whichever team will want to start) to split into two groups (Group 1 and Group 2). Group 1 will see the vocabulary items Team B chose for them and they will describe them to Group 2. Group 1 and Group 2 are NOT rivals because they belong to the same team. They should cooperate effectively. Their task is to describe and guess as many words as possible within a certain time limit (I recommend 10 minutes). Then it’s Team B’s turn to make two groups. I don’t usually tell the teams how to split or who should be in charge of speaking – they can choose their roles. 
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Some observations: At first, I was a little worried that since Team B is not involved when Team A is in action (and vice versa), they will get bored. To my surprise, even the noisiest groups sat quietly, paying attention to what was happening in the class. 
The chances are that some difficult vocabulary items will be dealt with through this game because the teams always tend to give each other a hard time. But since this is a collaborative activity, there will always be somebody who ‘knows the answer’. 

There’s one danger related to this, though. The stronger students may take over the activity completely because they obviously want their team to win at all costs. You can prevent this by telling the group at the board they must take turns.

Thanks for reading!

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