Perspectives – EFL and secondary

An early post this month, to pre-empt what will surely be a busy run to Christmas. So a year and a half term or so into my new career, it is as good a time as any to take stock. I have been reflecting of late about whether my teaching has changed for the better or not as a result of being in the new environment – a large international school for children (as opposed to the adults with whom I spent my early career in education).

For the first nine months or so I had the vague sense that I missed my old EFL classroom. I missed there being structure-based learning outcomes, I missed only having to raise a paw for silence, I missed meeting new and interesting adults from different cultures. I also missed my old colleagues; my old workplace was held to be the best in the world in that respect, or at least they all still maintain so!

Then, last May or so, as the academic year was beginning to wind down, I began to enjoy my new career in and of itself. It had in some senses been the annus exhaustis – my second son had been born, we had moved house twice, I was still trying to do publishing work, and there were some family issues on top. At my new school, after a good period of trial and mostly error, I think I was just beginning to tune into the teen mind and outlook. I had that key bank of activities that worked in the sense of both appealing to the students and resulting in progress. I had timed my assessments better. I had modulated and refined my task-based learning lessons. I had, in a word, learned.

This academic year, it has all changed. It seems that now I am on a default wavelength of sorts that runs those lessons now for teens rather than for adults. Again I have only really my own reflective feedback to give, but I think when I put a good deal of effort and consideration into my planning, I am able to go some way to catering for teens’ limited attention spans (and corresponding need for variation in pace and activity), teach cognitive improvements as well as skills, provide differentiated tasks and outcomes and enjoy those lessons at the same time. I am also feeling mentally stimulated in a way I didn’t always feel in EFL, perhaps because of the literature element. I’m (still) learning: in the spirit again of the developing teacher, one is still very conscious of how much one has still to master, assimilate, perfect and improve yet further, but there is cause for optimism. This is in no small part due to my classes this year, which are generally full of engaged and engaging little humans.

So how does that reflect back on my carefully crafted near-decade in EFL teaching? As may be inevitable when changing gear in a career, there can be a tendency either to look up to or look down on one’s previous incarnation. The former perspective means that you think EFL teachers have it made; they have time and energy to experiment pedagogically; that they have excellent fun in and out of the class; that they can rely on and luxuriate in the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of their tiny class. The latter means you think EFL isn’t ‘real’ teaching; ‘real’ teaching is a million times more work; ‘real’ teachers are the only sort worth the label; you may sniff at teaching form and function when ‘real’ beauty is to be found in poetry and prose.

To which, of course, the answer is that neither is true; there’s a healthy dollop of the ‘grass being greener’ in at least one of those viewpoints. But in academic terms, to employ a metaphor, I am now in the foothills of a mountain, having come from a low base camp. I used to be at or near the top of a hill. To extend that metaphor to encompass my future career, it may be that from the hill one can see other pastures – I am interested one day to return perhaps to adult training, though it is unlikely to be in EFL. But for now, the mountain is magnificent – occasionally vertiginous, but full of majesty and excitement.

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Don’t tell me what to do!

Through the idiosyncrasies of the curriculum they are beholden to, one of my classes is currently studying the topic of ‘places and forms of power’. Beholden as I am, I must link this rather vague yet absolutely vast field of inquiry to the English language. Amongst other mini-topics, thus, we are looking at how language exerts power in the public sphere.

Which got me thinking about public information. As distinct from advertising insofar as it has no profit motive, it could be said to have no motive at all, except the admonishment or correction or encouragement of certain behaviour from members of the public. I have sometimes written about the language of advertising, which remains an area of interest because of its existential need to be effective. But public information, not driven by that profit prerequisite, holds a kind of Kafkaesque intrigue – a faceless pronouncement, with an apparently beneficent or altruistic end goal of a (slightly) better society.

So in research for this post, these are the ones I have come across:

British Rail public information film from the 1990s

Hospital – home bike speeding poster

‘No smoking’

‘This is your park, please respect it’

Bin it your way (chewing gum)

‘I reported illegally dumped waste because I love where I live’ (seen on a Brent waste disposal lorry)

The above are in a certain order – they range from the positively dark at the top, to the saccharine positivity at the bottom. The British Rail film, or something very like it, was shown to primary school children of my age not so long ago, and it engendered a very real fear of the railway line. In that, therefore, it can be said to have been effective; I suspect a more contemporary question would be to ask why children of the era felt the need to play on or near railway lines and what could have been done to distract the distrait youth instead.

The hospital-home poster follows a similar line of thought, presumably: with a good dose of shock, remind the public that what they are doing is potentially fatal – that should jolt them out of their complacency or reverie! One is reminded of the graphic images on cigarette packaging. I would suppose that with time and/or exposure, the intended reader becomes desensitised to the shock of the message, and its effectiveness decreases accordingly.

As for the once-ubiquitous No Smoking: I quite like its blandness and its lack of compromise. The exhortation brooks no debate or question. I think it may have been a victim of its own success, though: as I write, on a train, I can see no ‘No smoking’ signs. But was it the sign on every Tube carriage window that did that? As ever, one must beware of correlation and causation – other legal and societal factors may well contribute to smoking’s not being acceptable in today’s Britain.

This is your park, please respect it: in another post, I would be writing about the comma splice here. But content-wise, we could look at its pragmatic intent – to welcome the reader in with a sense of camaraderie or perhaps even an appeal to a base pride in ownership. Once that is gained, cognitively, the next request comes easily. It’s yours, treat it well. In a different sense it encourages a sense of community; the reader may understand well that it isn’t only theirs, and that as well as the right to the park, they also have responsibilities to it.

There is something similar in ‘bin it your way’ – a welcoming-in of the target reader, and an acknowledgement of their individuality. Is there an age group targeted as well here? Teens may be the most ardent chewers of gum and are of an age where an appeal to a burgeoning sense of independent behaviour could well be successful. The picture accompanying suggests a back flip into a bin; this could be designed to elicit thoughts of parkour, perhaps, or creativity. To an aged reader like me, it reminds me of my teen tendency to attempt to spit gum into bins from over-ambitious distances.

It is not as childlike, however, as ‘I reported illegally dumped waste because I love where I live’. This brings out my inner dislike of snitches, I’m afraid. I can see what it is intending to do – much the same as above in its appeal to a sense of community spirit for the sake of the municipal environment – but it leaves me cold and also slightly resentful that I am being encouraged to be a nimby or grass someone up. Moreover, it is wordy, and the use of ‘love’ is saccharine and oddly meaningless. That might say more about me than it does the sign. I examine myself critically because of this reaction, but I cannot be alone in responding that way, and I wonder about its effectiveness as a result.

So what do we learn? I would say that the reaction to these signs, and therefore the barometer of their success, lies exclusively with the individual reader. Their background, age, education, even gender and attitudes would affect their response to any or all public service exhortations. The irksome thing for the makers of these signs must be that those who are most in need of ‘encouragement’ or, worse, ‘correction’ are those who are also probably least likely to pay attention to or follow the instructions given. At least in this cultural and linguistic context, it seems quite clear that a failsafe language formula for getting people to do what you want for the sake of the community is yet to be devised.

The wheel that breaks the butterfly

Have you ever had a bad day? Of course you have. Everyone has.

But I’m not sure that everyone has, say, three bad days in a row. Or the sensation, with the mind and the pulse racing, that one is working through the night of each of those days, too. No, hang on a sec; that happens even on the ok days.

Imagine that you have not just one massive project on the go, but four or five. Imagine also that each of these contains 20 or so mini-projects. The success of every single one of these 100 is, in its own terms but also in the mission statement of every single responsible employer in your industry, literally the most valuable thing in the world.

Now add in 30 hours a week of administration, meetings, additional support and other tasks or jobs deemed necessary. Note the emails that arrive as late as 1am and as early as 5am and invite you to collaborate, setting that pulse off again. Factor in the troublesome kids, the ones that don’t achieve, the ones that are listless, that bother you even when you are not actually teaching them. Replay all the silly little incidents in your class repeatedly, to check how you could have handled them better. As you make your mind to leave the school building, suspect that colleagues in other departments, not really understanding what it is you do or how you do it, mock you walking out the door. Your physical presence may not be required any more that day, but you have made something like 1500 decisions already since 7am.

This is the life of a teacher.

Mental health. It is difficult to know whether it is the modishness of outing oneself (and the laudable increasing openness in society towards talking about it) on one hand or genuinely the first time you are suffering from something slight, but I have spent some time recently noticing my mental health. I feel under some pressure; not, I think, due for the most part to the above obligations, but largely self-imposed as I strive to be better at my job. Of course, if a teacher should have personal or relationship issues into the bargain, then that would of course exacerbate it all.

For me personally, the pressure morphs into what I suppose is a type of anxiety. At the worst times I do not sleep; I am very restless and unable to concentrate on books or TV. I become over-reliant on caffeine. I find that alcohol does its negative-publicity impression and depresses. I am loth to go out. I am.short-tempered with my loved ones and then mawkishly remorseful. Other teachers I know have it worse. Some merely become humourless. I find myself wondering what my own teachers at school were really like as people, as human beings, away from the stresses and strains they were under when I knew them.

I am lucky in that I have coping mechanisms on a personal level, but also on a professional one. There are regular mindfulness classes available for me and my colleagues, and access to counsellors. The school will work us hard, as they should, but I think they understand the possible repercussions.

I think those who have it hardest are those who have less support. Those at schools in poorer areas. Those who have bigger classes, with more of those crucial mini-projects. Those whose failure would mean not just the failure of the mini-project in one class in one year, but something much bigger: I, your teacher, have failed you, my student, in what was your big shot. In some schools, in this city, that is the reality.

So if you are a non-teacher, maybe that goes some way to explaining why they find the jibes about holidays so unfunny

Book review – The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

The summer holidays allow time for one to ‘read shop’, as it were; not feeling as though the English language is immersing my brain, I can actually enjoy reading about it. The choice this time is the grandly titled ‘The Etymologicon’ by Mark Forsyth.

Etymology should interest you. I think English, with its many sources and many contributive streams, has a very intriguing history (though whether it is more interesting than your bog standard European Latin creole, I couldn’t possibly say. Does anyone know why my wordpress home site is now in French, by the way?)

Forsyth is a language commentator of some note – contributor to national media, writer and blogger at inkyfool.com. He has written a few books on language. This one is a collection of chapters which, broadly speaking, investigate and demonstrate the provenance of individual words and sometimes phrases, remarking on the often bizarre links between apparently unrelated words.

In his preface, Forsyth gives a foretaste of the book, reproducing a probably imaginary conversation with a lone biscuit-eater who happens to ask Forsyth what the etymology of ‘biscuit’ is. Forsyth first explains in polite brevity, and then, with virtually no encouragement from the cookie consumer, proceeds on an esoteric verbal journey in which he details the etymology of all the links he can make with the word ‘biscuit’ – prefix provenance, suffix provenance, inventor of the word, et cetera et cetera, ad nauseam. We see that at the end of Forsyth’s lecture scenario, the biscuit-eater is on the verge of suicide.

Now I am no writer, but I think it unwise in the preface of a book to explain to the layperson that ‘this book is like this, and if you find that dull, you are going to hate this book.’ He also, perhaps inadvisedly, tells us that the book consists of a collection of blog articles. Even for an avowed language and food nerd like me, much as if someone tells you the meal they have just cooked for you has been done before and it’s not that great anyway) the negative expectation management does rather put the dampeners on what you are about to consume.

And it is as such that I found the early parts of The Etymologicon. A frankly wearying journey without apparent direction or thread. Is it a book for 21st-century attention spans, aimed at those infuriating people who can’t or won’t discuss a complex idea in any depth because they have already been distracted by something else? A typical chapter ender, a cliffhanger, is: ‘before the next link, can you guess what butterflies have to do with psychology and pasta?’, like an annoyingly obscure pub quiz. At first I found it hard to read, especially before bed, as my mind was struggling to cope with the speed at which we were seeing fascinating sights on our ‘circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language.’

But then, as it invariably does on holiday, the mind starts to relax and let go. I saw ideas that I had already come across, like the ‘buffalo Buffalo buffalo’ thing and the fact that Bredon Hill means ‘hill hill hill’, and I skimmed a lot of historical by-product that could be considered extraneous detail. More than that, I began to learn – I was fascinated by snippets, for example, that email spam comes from a Monty Python sketch about the canned meat product; and that one’s eyes’ pupils are called thus etymologically because if you gaze into someone’s eyes you will see a small version of yourself – a pupa, or pupil. I could go on. There are hundreds of such ‘Oh, really?’ moments in this book. Thousands.

And the most satisfying moment is successfully guessing what is coming. In the chapter A Punch of Drinks, I knew somewhere in the deeper recesses of the Podmore brain that, somewhat counterintuitively, the word alcohol has an Arabic root. But by the time we got to the chapter California, I was already guessing that the forthcoming pages would either contain reference to the Caliphate or fornication, or possibly both. To find out which it is, you’ll have to read the book.

It is, in sum, a very comprehensive book containing a great deal of incredible information about the origins of words and phrases. Given the breadth of the material, it is perhaps understandable that it can come across a little slapdash, and that a thread or narrative of any sort is virtually impossible to discern. That doesn’t mean, though, that I will stop my impressed sighs whenever I pick the book up. Hell, I think it’s quite likely that in the pub of a rainy Sunday, I’ll be recalling bits and pieces and boring my own biscuit-eaters to death…

‘Correcting’ Americanisms

A veritable flurry of posts, lately, because I am intending to have most of July at least untainted by work of any sort after what has been an utterly exhausting year. Apart from welcoming a baby, starting a new job career and moving house twice, I have become a Duke of Edinburgh supervisor, finished co-editing two textbooks for publication, am working on becoming a Google Certified Educator and found time to perform an admittedly amateur version of Jumpin’ Jack Flash in front of around 200 people. There is also the small matter of a blog post or two…

But the thing is – with a passion for language, you don’t really switch off. Even watching the TV at the end of a long day, you hear usages or colloquialisms that are new to you – that provoke, that fascinate, that get the brain working again. That is what seems to have happened to Matthew Engel, who has written a book called That’s The Way It Crumbles. Except, apparently, in his case, the language other people use seems exclusively to do only the first of those – to wind him up.

Now I have not read Mr Engel’s book, so I am loth to criticise it. I am going, as often before, on Oliver Kamm’s column on usage in the Saturday Times. Kamm does lay into Engel – his chief argument is that as with many armchair linguists, who seem to think that their (journalistic) profession allows them to pass comment on any or all usage, Engel is furious about a perceived decline in standards. More precisely, it appears, Engel’s chief bugbear is the incursion of Americanisms into British English.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I invariably side with Kamm, and that his emphasis on description of usage as opposed to prescription of usage chimes more closely with my understanding of language study – in a nutshell, that there is little point telling people what language they should or should not use. Thus, my instinctive reaction here is to dismiss Engel’s argument, point out that diversity and flexibility has long been considered a strength of British English compared to its transatlantic sibling, and leave him to his impotent irascibility and the echo chamber of elderly white male colleagues and Radio 4 phone-ins.

But then. I am currently engaged in correcting students’ personal statements for university application. Many students seem to me to be using Americanisms – not exclusively in spelling, but also in lexis. (Even grammatically, there is a notable lack of mastery, or reluctance to use, the present perfect – perhaps American, but also perhaps due to other factors eg their L1, so no conclusions possible there). I am usually careful as a teacher not to rebuke American usage – aware of the pettiness and ludicrousness of one small British English user starting a pointless fight against a commonly-understood and widely-accepted international lingua franca.

The problem is that, without sounding too presumptuous, I suspect that it’s people like Engel who will be reading these personal statements. Ok, so maybe they aren’t exactly like him, but there are certainly attitudes that prevail in middle-class circles around usage; prescriptive attitudes that sniff at non-standard spelling, that mock malapropisms, that conflate a lack of formal written English genre mastery with sub-standard intelligence. Among these people you may find, to boot, a distinct anti-Americanism.

And so it is that, perhaps against my better judgement, I ‘correct’ those Americanisms. I ask my students to write in the way that academic power understands and appreciates because it is familiar. I ask them to rein in their individuality and internationalism to enhance their chances with a particular type of university. In doing so, some would argue, I am helping make their work clearer and more consistent. But I wonder whether what I am really doing is reinforcing prescriptive attitudes – this is the right way, that is the wrong way – at the cost of individual difference.

Or maybe, I shouldn’t worry so much – if it’s clear and engaging, let it go, and let that stuffy old professor turn down one of the best kids because she doesn’t write in the fusty way he expects. His loss. Ultimately, language prescriptivists will lose the argument, so we on the other side can afford to relax. But I have got to get these kids into a good uni this year, so …

A new TD programme and its rationale

Ever since I studied a module for my MA on teacher professional development, I have retained a solid interest in how teachers can improve their practice. Those readers with long memories may recall the first programme that the module engendered: a somewhat optimistic project to help my then colleagues expand their own language knowledge.

That one died a death; as I was coming to realise in the comment underneath the post, the project lacked coherent aims and collective will. I probably could have persevered with it, but I did get the sense that I was teaching them their own language, and that attendance was using up my goodwill credit at a rate of knots.

I did, however, proceed to observe my colleagues more as my responsibilities grew in that job. I can but hope that I was of use to those who I watched teach and gave feedback to – I was still learning how to give that feedback, and it is a very difficult skill to master, given all the sensitivities potentially involved. I like to believe that in one or two cases I could pass on some constructive tips, and in others I delivered one or two uncomfortable truths. But the major difference I noticed, post-observing, was to my own confidence and skill set when I taught my next lesson. I was almost involuntarily using a number of techniques and skills that I had seen being used by the teachers I had observed. In addition to that, I felt an added sense of confidence as a teacher. I now had a better idea of what was a good stage of a lesson and what was not; what helped students and what didn’t really; I had a sort of insight that my own reflection-on-action had not hitherto provided.

Fast forward three years, and I am at a different school. The pedagogical challenges we face are in some ways similar, but in others completely different. As always, the main question is – how can we as teachers deliver the most effective learning? The answers are theoretical and practical.

The problem is that, with experience and particularly after a long term, reference to the theoretical can become tiresome. I know what I am supposed to do. I know how I am supposed to react in that scenario. I know what I should be doing in terms of progress and assessment. But it can all be superseded by that daily grind of classroom management, administration, fatigue and the never-ending quest to engage learners effectively (so that the teacher’s role is reduced). I personally have this issue with one class, and another issue with its own minutiae in a different class. I don’t have the time or energy to peruse four manuals, often of varying quality, to find the answer.

So in a sense, my quest for improvement this time is purely practical. I want to know what other teachers do and how they do it. I want to learn from them. I also, selfishly perhaps, want that burst of confidence from knowing a technique that I use has concrete advantages over my colleague’s methodology in that one micro-situation. When put like this, it does seem very selfish. But if they get the same schadenfreude boost from watching me suffer in any given circumstance, and then they feel good during feedback because they can pass on one of those practical tips, and then I learn from that, who loses out? No one.

I guess what I want is that bad feedback. I read once, and it may be apocryphal, that the boss of a Silicon Valley multinational has hired someone whose job it is, purely, to deliver bad news. Without bad news, the thought process goes, you cannot improve. But it is so hard to get bad news about your teaching. I know that I am always on the lookout for perceived slights against my practice – and ready with a long list of defences in the case of attack. A sure sign of paranoia, a sure sign that deep down, I know something needs some work. Most teachers have this from time to time – a bunker mentality and defensiveness that goes with knowing that not all is going right in the classroom, but the kids are to blame, or the curriculum, or whatever, but it’s not the teacher’s fault. I reject this. I want things to be my fault, so that I can work on them.

In that spirit I am working on a project of general teacher development for the next academic year. It will consist in the first instance of a round of peer observations, during which the focus will be on three points – firstly, what the observee or department think they need to work on; secondly, the requirements of the school and the senior management; and thirdly, the requirements of external inspectors eg Ofsted or ISI. Then, the observee will be given a minimum of 20mins of one-to-one feedback. Finally, any outstanding issues from the observations will be collated and inform the composition of remedial TD sessions, to take place in the winter or spring term. It is hoped that there will be follow-up observations the following term.

I intend to persevere with this project – and I think it has clearer aims and will be of more use than my first attempt. Stay tuned for updates as it progresses in September.

The most effective way to progress in your second language…?

Reflecting on my own situation, and more importantly that of my students, I’ve had cause lately to think a lot about the way second languages are learned and automatised. Are my students learning to use English better, and if so, are there any correlations between their location and activity on the one hand and their rate of progress?

It sounds like a terribly simple question at first. Of course there must be correlations between where they are and their rate of progress. Chief among these would be the well-known and research-supported idea that study abroad immersion in the target language context is generally conducive to progress in that language. Within that, though, other questions raise themselves.

The students in my two classes of low-level English learners came to this country in September 2016. They were generally A1-A2 level, with one or two complete beginners. The context in which they live is artificial to some extent – although nominally international, the school is overwhelmingly composed of kids from their mother country, so their L1 is used not just in the corridor and the playground, but also, by policy, in something between 70 and 80% of their lessons. Invariably they live with parents or family who also speak the L1 at home, not English.

This means that my kids are not benefiting, perhaps, from the purest and most consistent exposure to English.(They also are supremely proficient with technology, and access videos and games in their mother tongue as diversion often.) This must have a quantifiable penalty effect on their rate of progress, one would imagine.  Yet they are living in England, in an area where very few people outside the school speak their L1. They will at least hear English a lot more than perhaps their compatriot who has stayed at home. It’s an interesting and dare I say perhaps unusual environment for language acquisition.

So what has happened, as far as I can tell? Well I would say that the exposure to English has had the most dramatic effect on their listening in general. The vast majority have no problem in understanding very slightly graded language now, as we are coming to the end of the year. For some, their speaking has improved drastically; for the majority, it has improved considerably. Other skills vary and it becomes difficult firstly to generalise, but also tough to establish causal links between environment and progress. It’s impossible to say whether there is any correlation between progress in reading and writing, say, and being in England but in this bubble.

What about those speakers? Well, the ones that have improved the most have either had tutors supplementing their 5 hours a week of English, or have been in host families. This would lead one to the tentative conclusion that exposure to language in a pure or natural form is superior to classroom-based instruction, even if that instruction is task-based and learner-centred. You might then also consider ideas like the Critical Period Hypothesis in child language acquisition, and wonder whether there is any point whatsoever in teaching children form and function, when the evidence seems to suggest that immersive environments trigger intrinsic learning in their programmed-to-learn-language, high-plasticity child brains.

But then you’d be jumping to a conclusion which connected correlation with causation. You’d be saying that this kid has a tutor and they have got better because of that, where it might also be connected to workrate, parental enthusiasm/support, extra-curricular activities, aptitude or literally any other factor or combination of those. You’d be subject to confirmation bias too: any improvement the kid demonstrates must of course be down to the tutor, when in fact it only takes a little think to realise that although this may be true, it is not ineluctably so.

I do think my teaching makes a difference, in conclusion. In particular I think it has made more of a difference since I’ve moved away from a presentation-practice-production model approach and towards a task-based, error correction model. I think this has been one consequence of learning to teach the child brain rather than the adult brain.

I also think that despite critically including the existence of other factors, an immersive environment or context (resulting in consistent exposure to the target language) has a demonstrable positive correlation with progress. The question then becomes one of motivation – how do we as educators make that environment a desirable one for each and every language learner, kids and adults?