Does technology make learning and teaching easier?

As a teacher, I’m on a constant lookout for ways of helping my students to improve their level of English, especially at the time when they (think they) are plateauing, which is at around CEFR B1/B2 level. However, this sometimes proves to be quite challenging. The thing is … how can you measurably achieve improvement in language learning?

Let’s take writing, for example. Writing is a skill where the measurability of progress is relatively achievable, especially with all the tech tools available these days. For instance, during the online teaching period, I was able to run my students’ electronic versions of their writings through various text analysing tools, which in the pre-covid times was off the table since they would ususally submit the handwritten versions. Anyway, it turned out that my senior students, regardless of my preconceptions of their writing abilities, had invariably reached the B2+ level, according to this GSE text analyser. So although some students’ writings were clearly better than others, they were all labelled as B2+. This was actually great news because, in my teaching context, the students only aim to achieve level B1/B2, i.e. this level is sufficient for them to pass their state exam in English.

I must admit, though, that the uniform results made me a bit suspicious so for the sake of comparison, I decided to run some other texts through the same profiler; I took an excerpt from my own blog and excerpts from two other blog posts written by native speakers and/or professional bloggers. To make my investigation even more thorough, I looked for samples of writing by examinees aspiring to the C2 level. In addition, I used an academic text. Finally, I chose two pieces of texts written by renowned novelists. To my utter surprise, all the samples were labelled as B2+.

To a layperson, it may seem strange that no matter who the author was, the majority of the words used in those texts were the A1 words. For example, my best student’s essay comprised 57 per cent of words at A1. Compared to the renowned novelist, the ratio was not very different (see below).

My student

A famous novelist

One of the obvious conclusions may be that to come off as a decent writer you just need to throw in lots of A1 words plus a sprinkle of C2 expressions (and some in between these two levels, of course). In this regard, my student did really well and as far as the choice of vocabulary is concerned, there is not much he could do to make his writing look better. Obviously, next time, he could look for synonyms to replace some of the lower-level expressions, plus he could add a few C2 words into the mix, but will this make his essays better? And what does ‘better’ even mean? Does it mean more readable, more complex or more concise? And what do we want to achieve in the first place when we are talking about improving our students’ level of proficiency? Is it our job to spoon feed our students with low-frequency expressions in order to move them up the imaginary ladder? Or is it something else?

You know, the problem with the CEFR scale is that it is linear. Plus, we (and our students) naturally desire to constantly move upwards. A C1 language user is deemed attractive in the eyes of an A2 user, not the other way around. But is a C2 essay better than a B2 one? In the same vein, I could ask if being able to speak at the C1 level is better than being able to hold a conversation at the B2 level. The answer is obvious: it depends on the situation. A lower-level student can make do with what they know and they can convey their message just fine. All things considered, I believe it is not necessarily wise to ceaselessly push our students up towards the highest levels of proficiency. They might get the impression that once they reach the C2 level, they will have achieved the ultimate goal and that’s that. But is it really the terminus? I mean, you can feel stuck on the intermediate plateau for years and still be learning tons of new things. There are loads of language items you can work on incorporating into your language toolkit. And apart from vocabulary and grammar, you can keep refining other language areas and skills.

I do admit my theory has one flaw; I’m only discussing productive skills. Obviously, an L2 student’s productive skills will always be at a lower level than their receptive skills. In other words, in any language, even your mother tongue, you usually understand more than you can actually say/write. So I’m not saying it’s not worth constantly investing your (the student’s) time and energy into enlarging their vocabulary because, to put it simply, knowing more high-level words is useful because you understand more, learn more and can consequently produce more. Based on my experience, from the B2 level onwards, it mainly boils down to the range and amount of vocabulary you know. There aren’t many grammatical structures that will puzzle you or impede your understanding of a text at this level. But not knowing more than 2% of the words in a text you are trying to understand can prove tricky.

So what are some of the ways to help our students navigate the journey? As an L2 learner myself, I find the English Vocabulary Profile Online handy. Personally, I only focus on the C1-C2 words, especially phrases, and in my mind’s eye, I sort them out into three categories: the ones I know and use, the ones I know passively but don’t know properly, and the ones I don’t know. This is a great way to revise and/or fill in the gaps in my knowledge. There’s a similar tool – The English Grammar Profile -which I also sometimes use, but mainly as a teacher. And I advise my students to explore it as well, especially if they need to prepare for an exam because this is a more focused way of studying than, say, watching and listening to random stuff.

Apparently, learning and teaching a foreign language are both equally challenging and complex processes. We all know that. Technology is great but it doesn’t always make things easier. The more advances there are, the more questions emerge – for the teacher as well for the learner (for me anyway). Add to that the plethora of research findings about how languages are best taught and you may end up pretty frustrated, right? Well, let’s take one step at a time. By researching, doing, and reflecting on the doing (in the form of this post, for example), I’ve taken that one little step. We’ll see what the next one will be.

On plateaus and coursebooks

One of the problems I’ve frequently addressed in my mind over the past few years are the coursebooks we use in our school. In the eight-year programme we offer (which the students can start attending at the age of 12), we work with two different sets of coursebooks consecutively. We start with level 2 of the first coursebook (elementary, A1-A2) and finish with level 5 (pre-intermediate, B1), which is the last level in the series. Then we switch to a different coursebook – more suitable for teenagers and more appropriate in terms of the goal we need to reach at the end of the programme, i.e. students being able to pass the final state exam. So, we switch to the pre-intermediate level (B1) and wind up with the other coursebook’s intermediate level (B2).

As you can see, in grade 5 of the programme, the students actually repeat the same level. In other words, while they’ve so far been going one level up each year, in grade 5, they stop and they are made to plateau for one year before we let them move a level up again. I’m not going to explain the reasoning behind this layout here and now because it’s not important for my case plus it would make the post too long.

Anyway, I realize that what I’ve said in the previous paragraph sounds a bit like the rules of a board game, which learning a foreign language is certainly not, and it definitely appears highly questionable, especially the use of ‘repeat’, ‘plateau’ and ‘let’.

In ELT terminology, the plateau stage often occurs at the intermediate level and refers to a period during which the learner “stops learning”.  Yi (2007) has described it as follows:

… as the learning process goes on, the learner finds it harder and harder to take in new language data. The teacher also finds that his input, no matter how much he or she tries to make it interesting, is no longer as easily taken in by the learners as it used to be. The students are more and more discouraged by the fact that their ambition of mastering English as a means of communication turns out to be a false assumption. They find that they know a lot about the English language, but they can hardly say they know English.

Although the process occurs naturally and automatically, and thus, it is an inevitable phase of learning, it has a rather negative connotation as well as detrimental effects, one of which is that this is the time when students’ motivation and the level of enthusiasm may drop dramatically.

Right, back to the coursebook issue. The problem I’m trying to address here is that while the final level of the first coursebook (B1) is quite dense content-wise (in terms of new grammar and vocabulary), the B1 level of the other coursebook may suddenly seem like a step back, especially to an ambitious student who wants to see a permanent rising trajectory of their L2 learning. So, while it would be quite natural and unsurprising for a student to plateau around grade 5 anyway, no matter the level of the coursebook, we practically intensify the effect by arranging for them to use a coursebook which actually makes it blatantly obvious that they are plateauing.

Now, I wonder whether it is totally bad or if, by any chance, there may be some positive side to it. What if we chose a higher level of the coursebook for the grade five students? Would it make a huge difference? Going back to the quote above, it probably wouldn’t because as we already know, when plateauing, the learner finds it harder and harder to take in new language data and the teacher also finds that his input, no matter how much he or she tries to make it interesting, is no longer as easily taken in by the learners as it used to be.

So, it’s probably not about the level of the coursebook anyway because repetition and recycling are not the enemies here. It’s about increasing students’ motivation and most of all, changing the optical illusion. In other words, it is the idea of the plateau ahead of you that is the problem. And since it’s not really possible to avoid or skip the arduous way through the plain, teachers should do their best to distract their students as much as possible. Let’s make the journey enjoyable. This stalling period may actually be the best opportunity to supplement the coursebook with interesting materials of your own choice and spice the lessons up with engaging tasks and projects you’ve always wanted to introduce but haven’t had time to. And if you are the type of teacher who would like to ditch the coursebook completely but can’t, you can finally enjoy yourself to the fullest. After all, you have plenty of time before you find yourself at the foot of another hill you’ll have to climb. Why not use it to your advantage?

References:

Yi, F. (2007) Yi, F. Plateau of EFL Learning: A Psycholinguistic and Pedagogical Study.

Richards, J.C, (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau, CUP

The real level of language proficiency

100420153730Every teacher would probably agree that the classroom should be a safe environment free of stress and anxiety. A lot has been written about ways of minimizing stress that interferes with learning. However, I believe that our attempts to keep stress at a zero level can sometimes be counter-productive.

A long, challenging week of the final state examinations is finally over in the school where I work, and I can announce with a great relief that none of our students failed the English part. My colleague and I examined 34 students in five days. During their oral English exam, the students were supposed to react to the examiner’s questions promptly, and they were expected to speak fluently and elaborately on various topics ranging from very personal ones to factual ones. We had to make sure that each performance was exactly 15 minutes long, which added to the stressfulness of the experience. I was the assessor, whose job was to listen carefully, note down errors as well as positive points, and grade each performance. My colleague, their English teacher, read the instructions, asked the questions and reacted to the examinee’s answers. We only had five minutes to agree on the final score before it was the next student’s turn.

It was obviously very stressful – both for us and the students. Unfortunately, this is the type of  situation you can never really prepare your students for. You can provide them with all the language input and the content they need to pass the exam, but you can never rehearse for the actual performance in advance simply because there is one aspect that you can’t simulate – stress. This, however, is one of the variables that have a huge impact on the quality of the student’s performance.

Under stress, your B2 students suddenly and miraculously turn into A2 learners – they make errors they never made in a relaxed atmosphere of the language classroom, where they cheerfully chattered about the burning problems of today’s world. During their final exam, students repeat the same low-level words again and again because they can’t remember the synonyms they are expected to use at their current level. They can’t remember the word ‘equipment’, for example, so they keep saying ‘things’ throughout the exam, which drives the examiner – their English teacher – crazy. Now and then, a fairly advanced student forgets to add an -s to the third person singular verbs but keeps using advanced fillers and linking devices, which proves his real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, points will finally have to be subtracted for these little failures, no matter how sorry you feel for your students and how well you know what they can actually do.

But what is the real level of proficiency? Is is what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere of an L2 classroom or is it the way you perform during a stressful situation? One way or the other, I believe there’s a certain core – the knowledge nobody can take away from you; the facts, data and skills resistant to any level of stress. Just above the core, there’s another layer, which, under certain circumstances, can be very unstable and vulnerable. This layer of knowledge needs to be consolidated before it becomes part of the safe and stable core.

It turned out that some of the knowledge and skills we expected during the examination were still in the unstable state, even though we believed that the students had already mastered them perfectly before. The question is whether (and how) we can find out what our students can really do. Can we find out in the rather unnatural (or inauthentic) setting of the L2 classroom at all?

Errors in disguise

A colleague of mine has a very weak student in class and she’s worried that he might fail his final English exam, which he’s taking in May. Now and then, during our regular coffee chats, she comes up with a little rant. Last time she looked really frustrated when she told me that the student, who should by now be somewhere around the B1-B2 level, can’t use basic grammatical structures correctly. I should stress that my friend does her best to help this particular student and she has spent lots of extra hours with him after school explaining stuff.

Nevertheless, she is desperate that, for example, the student uses the present simple tense when talking about past events. So instead of saying: The other day I went to Prague … he says: The other day I go to Prague …. I couldn’t but agree that this could be a real problem during his state exam, but then I thought of the last conference I went to, and I remembered Piotr Steinbrich’s plenary speech, in which he mentioned the fact that although the present simple is considered one of the most basic grammatical structures, i.e. A1 structures as described by CEFR, it can actually indicate a fairly advanced level of English when it’s used for talking about past events. So in an attempt to console my friend, I told her humorously that during the actual exam we can pretend that the student uses the structures on purpose.

My colleague smiled faintly but immediately went on to tell me another example of the student’s ignorance. “Just imagine, I asked him something about dinner and he started describing his typical lunch at the school canteen. I couldn’t believe my ears!” I sympathised with her but then I remembered another conference, particularly Nikki Fořtová’s workshop, during which she talked about differences in lexis across various cultures. She told us, for example, that *pond* is not what Czech people think it is and that *dinner* may actually be *lunch* in a particular cultural context. So again, I tried to lift my friend’s spirits by telling her that if this happens, we can pretend that the boy is actually on topic.

Now, this chat I had with my friend got me thinking. We have all sorts of errors, such as typos, slips of the tongue, errors related to interlanguage, random errors, systematic errors, etc. But sometimes students use structures which may be correct under certain circumstances but as their regular teacher you know that they use them because they can’t use the ones you expect them to use. I mean, the student mentioned above does not know that dinner may be lunch or that present simple can be used for past events. He simply messes things up and his teacher knows it because otherwise he makes mistakes which imply that his level is not that high. The question is whether and/or how to penalise those errors in disguise.

I face a similar dilemma when teaching reported speech or the past perfect tense. The rules are not always clear-cut and as a fairly advanced user of English I know that it’s not always necessary or even desirable to use a more complex structure, simply because it’s not natural.

The obvious conclusion is that as long as the student is understood, everything’s fine. On the other hand, our students are required to take exams which are designed to test their level of proficiency, and we teachers need to take this into consideration when assessing a student’s performance. On a more learner-centred note, maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to push our students to acquire the more complex structures, even though we know they will easily do without them, because without this extended linguistic knowledge they might not be able to come back to the simple structures and use the language naturally. I might be completely wrong but that’s how I feel it being an L2 learner myself.