Monday, 29 December 2014

So long 2014

This has been an interesting year. That, perhaps is an understatement. 

So here's my annual review of the year. 

This year 

There has been quite a bit of woo this year but a few victories as wellThe blog hit 100,000 views this year which just blows me away. Thanks to everyone who has read this stuff and put up with the typos. 

The number one spot is still the DELTA or MA post followed surprisingly by a book review about bad language. Number three is skimming and scanning and four is guessing from context. New entry at 5 is Philips Kerr's left brains and right brains in ELT

One thing I found quite interesting is that a video I made in April about how to pronounce pecha kucha has more views than even my third most viewed post. Maybe videos are the way to go? 

This is the year where blogging, talks, work and life in general caught up with me and I realised I just don't have enough time to do all the things I want to do. I've felt seriously squeezed and something has to give.  Last year I said I was going to try to write less and I managed to get from 33 down to 26 posts. I'm hoping next year this will be around 12 or so. 

In February I spoke at BALEAP, then IATEFL in April. The IATEFL talk led to six more offers of talks, an interview and other bits and bobs. Much to my amazement Philip Kerr and Mike Swan kindly allowed me to reproduce their work here. I can only hope next year is as interesting as this year has been. 

Next year 

Last year I made a resolution to start a 'try this it works' series but actually only managed to get one post out (well one and a half).Next year I'll try to post a few more of these. 

This year I wrote " I'd like to ask anyone who is an expert/knowledgeable in a particular field, be it motivation or vocab to get in touch. As I said earlier, it's impossible for anyone to know everything and with that in mind I'd really like to start having some guest bloggers, particularly those who can offer teachers practical advice based on research" And I can report that thus far a grand total of 'no one' has taken me up on this offer. If you can help, or know someone who might be able to, please get in touch (Glare)  

Also next year i hope to try to fulfill, a least one of Mike's Xmas wishes

I've spent a good deal of my Xmas reading about Chomsky, and so expect a series on him next year. Doesn't that sound thrilling?  

Ideally in 2015 will be more videos. Watch this space.  

I also currently have 50, count them 50, draft posts. I'm hoping some of these make it to publication, such as 'how to write better tests', 'is creativity teachable?' and 'the Nirvana fallacy'. 

Also in 2015 I will be speaking at IATEFL. This will be my 'difficult second album'. I'm presenting with the wonderful Nicola Prentis and I'm very excited about this because if the talk isn't very successful I can blame her. (pretty clever, huh?) 

Hope you all have a fantastic 2015. Thanks for reading. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

A note on meaning

The post on practice took a long time to write for two reasons. Firstly I couldn't work out whether or not the literature on SLA was saying grammar could be improved through practice or not. To be honest, (despite Geoff's best efforts) I'm still not entirely sure (hence the dodge in that particular post). 

The second reason was the concept of 'meaning'.  Most of the experts I read insisted that practice should be 'meaningful' and that mechanical practice was to be avoided. Only Swan and DeKeyser seemed to hint that this might not entirely be true. Swan noted that:
Students of the Violin typically mater double-stopping or positional playing by working in the context of a progressive syllabus, often in ways that are far removed from 'natural' performance. Trainee airline pilots and surgeons similarly follow progressive courses of instruction involving relatively 'artificial' activities. (one would perhaps not wish to travel on a plane whose pilot had been left to acquire the skills landing naturalistically...) (2012:97)

And Dekeyser, after noting how practice is somewhat shunned in ELT, writes:
Practice is by no means a dirty word in other domains of human endeavour, however. Parents dutifully take their kids to soccer practice, and professional athletes dutifully show up for team practice, sometimes even with recent injuries. Parents make their kids practise their piano skills at home, and the world’s most famous performers of classical music often practise for many hours a day, even if it makes their fingers hurt. If even idolized, spoiled, and highly paid celebrities are willing to put up with practice, why not language learners, teachers, or researchers (2008:1)
Despite these comments, I decided to bite the bullet and go with the majority view, after all, practice that is 'meaningful' certainly couldn't hurt.

The weekend after post was published I saw Jim Scrivener talking about Demand High. He argued that practice needn't be meaningful and could be entirely mechanical, and still effective. He didn't cite any sources to back this up but it did give me the uneasy feeling of cognitive dissonance. You see my own language learning experience makes me think practice can be entirely mechanical and yet effective. The second thing niggling away in my head was the question of what 'meaningful' means. 

On the face of it it seems pretty straightforward. A meaningful activity is presumably one that has some actual relevance for the student. So practising writing resumes in English would be meaningful for someone studying business English, whereas just writing out sentences about cats sitting on mats would not. But does this only work with activities students 'may' need in the future? What if they never write a CV? Do they only need to believe that the activity might be useful for them at some unspecified point in the future? 

But dig a little deeper and this becomes less clear. 'Meaningful' is not a well- defined term. If a student is keen to improve their spelling, for instance, and you have them write out certain words x times is this meaningful practice? This is the very definition of mechanical practice yet the student actually has problems with these specific words. A student who can't pronounce the /v/ sound may benefit from practising minimal pairs such as 'bat/vat, bent/vent' but should we put these words into a sentence or only choose words which are relevant for that particular students? It's not clear. At least not to me. 

According to a speech therapist friend of mine, the above exercise is actually fairly common procedure for kids with pronunciation issues. Another point is that  the information in that post came from not only TEFL sources but those in general education too, the word 'meaningful' only appeared in TEFL literature. So could it be that mechanical practice can work for athletes and musicians, but not for language learners? Is this a likely scenario? 

I talked to a prominent EAP academic about this and her reply surprised me a little. I expected her to list all the research data that supported the idea of 'meaningful' practice but instead she told me she thought it was 'basically just a metaphor', - something to signal a marked contrast between audio-lingual ideas of stimulus response and newer more fashionable notions of best practice. If true, this is a great example of ideology trumping evidence - something that I think is quite common in education in general. 

So what do you think? Does practice need to be meaningful? Does that word even mean anything? 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The importance of experience

I often talk about evidence on this blog (the name is a giveaway) but experience also has an important role. My various experiences as a language learner shape everything I do. Like most everyone, I generally get my opinions initially from my emotions, not from anything empirical. 

For example, I studied GCSE French in school because I used to love French in secondary school. I thought I was pretty good at it. Clearly my teachers disagreed. A few weeks into the course I found out I was in the bottom class and dropped out. I figured I'd never be any good at languages so I did music instead.

To this day, while the rational part of my brain tells me that levels are necessary and important my experiences makes me hate them. 
I studied a lot!

In summer 2000, I started my first teaching job in Japan with zero Japanese. In winter 2004 I passed the 1 kyu (now N1) Japanese test, the highest level of the test. This isn't to brag...well, OK, it is , yeah me! But it's also to say that everything about that experience colours my attitude toward teaching. I've done, what many of my students set out to do. I'm the "after" photo of slick advertising campaigns. and everything I do is filtered through the prism of being a language learner.

Firstly, I had no classes. I didn't attend a school, have a textbook or get a tutor. This makes me suspicious about the value of these things. That's right, I'm suspicious of the value of people like me. Research suggests that Instruction can aid language learning but It's also possible that teachers can potentially also do a lot of harm to students. So another conclusion from my experience is that an ineffectual but 'nice' teacher is much better than a teacher who bores students or embarrasses them. 

I also never found out what my 'learning style' was, I didn't know which was my dominant 'intelligence' nor did I meditate on the 'here and now'. What I DID do was study a lot of Japanese words with flash cards, listen to a ton of people talking and singing in Japanese and tried to speak (and drunkenly sing karaoke) as often as I could; Lots of input, lots of studying, lots of practice and high levels of motivation and encouragement.  

Every week I see articles extolling the virtues of the flipped classroom, reflective practice, discovery learning, Dogme and technology. Many of these posts are passionate, articulate and convincing but my experience tells me they are also often peripheral and "A balance is needed between ancillary concerns and the central language teaching priorities that they are ancillary to" (Swan, 2013:170). In order to learn a language students have to learn the language

The problem with all this is though is that experience, isn't always a great guide for what we should be doing. What worked form me may not work for someone else. I've seen some kids come out of 6 years of grammar translation classes with great English. Experience is powerful but it can also mislead us. We can see what we want to see, and also be unwilling to change our minds. And yet many teachers happily accept 'experience' as a good enough justification for just about anything. But this argument cuts both ways. 

I know many English teachers who, while claiming to know the best way to learn a language have failed to do so themselves, despite many years abroad. If 'experience' is going to be our benchmark then where does that leave teachers like this? Would anyone claim that these teachers are not as capable as those who have mastered a foreign language? And if it doesn't matter, why doesn't it matter? 


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Linguistic myth no. 5: Terminal decline

Like morality, and young people's manners the English language is in a terminal state of decline. If it isn't textspeak killing language it's imprecise and improper use of words. Every week brings a gloomy new article about the state of this once mighty tongue. And if it isn't young people ruining our pristine language it's management types with all their weird jargon.  Everyone has an opinion on good language use and what's more, they're all definitely 100% correct. And one thing that's not in question is that things used to be better, back in the 'olden days'.  

The 'olden days' are a magical place which hold a special place in people's hearts.
We all instinctively know that things were better in the 'olden days'; life was simpler, people were kinder, children were better behaved and most importantly, everyone knew how to use language properly. The problem with this magical era is that it never existed. In sceptical circles this is known as 'the golden age fallacy.'

And how do we know it never existed? If you try to pinpoint this glorious period of pristine shiny English, you'll quickly run into problems. We know it's not now, or even ten years ago, so when exactly was it? 

Obviously old English is too far back:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice

Middle English doesn't fair much better. 

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to

It's not until much later (16C) that we get something that starts to resemble the language we use today.
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come

But even this English isn't our English. For starters, no one uses words like 'thy' (second person possessive, -now 'your) or 'art'. So we're still not sure when the 'best' version of english existed but what we can see is that language has a habit of changing. 

If English hadn't changed, we'd still be speaking the language of Beowulf. Or, if you like we could go back to proto-germanic, or right back to proto-European. This may seem silly but why not? if we think language is 'getting worse' then surely 'original' version is the one we want to go for, but oddly no one is advocating that. 

In fact, language can only be said to be getting 'worse', if there is some objective measurable value we can hold it up to but this isn't the case. Dropped aitches may seem lazy to us, but they're all the rage in French. 'you was great' may seem sloppy, but Chinese verbs never conjugate at (I am, you am, he am, they am etc) so are the Chinese just very lazy people? Without objective value we're left with 'subjective' ideas of what makes a particular language at a particular time 'good'. 

And so if you pushed people to say when they think English was at its peak many would, I imagine, point to a time around the 18 or 19th century. We may conjure up ideas of the English used by well dressed, educated ladies and gents making witty pleasant conversation, not the, far more commonly heard English of the masses. In short we imagine Mr. Darcy, not Bill Sikes. So are people getting 'lazy' now or is it just one idealised variety of English we're thinking of? 

The irony is that during this 'golden era' people were complaining about exactly the same thing. Henry Hitchings (2011:80) notes that "the sense of slippage" was widespread" in the 18th century which explains why "ideas of correctness became an obsession". But complaining about the normal and natural change of language is as pointless as complaining about new fashions. They're not worse or better than before, they're just different, and you can guarantee the person complaining is wearing something that was once considered just as awful.

This period was not only a supposed linguistic high-point but also the height of the British empire. Children were seen and not heard, everyone knew their place and for every social activity and occasion there were prescriptive books of rules listing dos and don'ts in exquisite detail:

In crossing the street, a lady raises her dress a little above the ankle, holding together the folds of her gown and drawing them toward the right. Raising the dress with both hands exposes too much ankle, and is most vulgar.(source)

It's interesting that while social rules like the one above are now considered laughable, linguistic pronouncements made at the same time are still taken very seriously by many. 

When we really get down to it, these aren't really complaints about language at all but about morals. People don't speak properly anymore and this is not because language has changed but because they are feckless and lazy. They drop aitches and swear, not because everyone in their peer group does and they want to fit in or because their parents do, but because they just can't be bothered to put any effort into it. They no doubt do it on purpose! If only they'd get a job.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Try this it works! No.1: Practice makes perfect.

when I was a kid and trying to learn the guitar my dad used to tell me that if I practised something for half and hour, I'd be half an hour better at it than someone who didn't.

When I first started learning Japanese there were a bunch of other teachers who arrived at the same time. We all went off to different schools and met six months later for training. By that point my Japanese had improved the most. In that six months I had practised for one hour every morning before work. I practised in my lunch break and after work and I studied during my weekends and holidays and I spent most of my time with Japanese people. 

Being 'half an hour better' may not seem like much but over a week that's 3.5 more hours studied. After 6 months you're 84 hours better. 

Practice is very effective for language students. Although that might seem like 'lessons in the bleeding obvious' or what Gillum 2004 calls '"duh" observations' in EFL it's actually not that simple. 'practice', can be a dirty word in EFL. 'practice gets a raw deal in the field of applied linguistics' DeKeyser (2007:1) suggests citing its associations with the 'discredited' field of behaviourism. In a 2010 paper he notes:

[practice has] taken a beating in recent decades. Krashen claimed that "learning does not become acquisition" (1982 p.83), R, Ellis that "the results [of empirical research] are not very encouraging for practice" (1994)
The paper, titled 'don't throw out the baby with the bathwater' attempts to redress the balance and points out how much research evidence there is in EFL supporting practice. In fact, research into the benefits of practice for learning is some of the most compelling not only in EFL but also in mainstream education. Authors like Hattie, Willingham and Pashler all strongly recommend practice as a top intervention for improving learning outcomes. But what kind of practice should we be doing?

In order to be effective practice should meet certain criteria. Firstly it should ideally be meaningful. Lightbown who argued in 1985 that 'practice does not make perfect' noted that she was referring to mechanical drills and suggested that meaningful practice is 'clearly beneficial and even essential '(2000:243). Pashler et al (2013) agrees, noting in a study looking at foreign vocabulary retrieval 'repeat after me' activities are less effective than students trying to recall the vocabulary themselves.

Secondly repeated practice must occur over time (spaced) not crammed into one lesson (massed). In Hatties Visible Learning ‘spaced practice’ (2009:185) has an effect size of 0.7 which is the 12th most effective intervention he lists. Hattie also reiterates the idea that 'drill and kill' simply won't work. The exposure needs to be varied, with feedback and be related to various contexts. This, he argues, will 'enhance mastery [and] also fluency'. 

In a paper called 'inexpensive techniques to improve education' the authors list three strategies which are proven to be effective in the classroom and one of them is, you guessed it, 'spaced practice' while another is 'retrieval practice'. Similarly Dunlosky et al (2013) in a paper on the best evidence-based practice, note that spaced practice with around 24 hours between exposure was more effective than both going over the same material on the same day or leaving a much longer gap. And as with Pashler, they suggest that having students try to recall, rather than just being exposed again was the most effective. Willingham (2009:120) reiterates this point adding 'you can get away with less practice if you space it out than if you bunch it together.' 

In relation to the amount of time between exposures Nation notes, that if enough time passes between learning a word and seeing it again it then the ‘encounter is effectively not a repetition but is like a first encounter’ (2008:67). Whereas if the chance to retrieve the word is close enough to the original encounter, the knowledge of the word will be strengthened. 

What does this mean for your class? 

Practice can be useful for fluency in speech and reading, learning vocabulary, improving pronunciation, writing and spelling DeKeyser (2007, 2010). It can also help with receptive skills (Thornbury 2006:196). Whether or not it can help with grammar is a complex and controversial question and one which I neither have the confidence nor space to discuss here (I would point you here, if you're interested).

It's my feeling that practice is skimped on in a lot of classes. It certainly has been in many of mine. How often have I explained words and seen students write them into their notebooks (or as Swan calls them 'word cemeteries') only to noticed they've forgotten them by the end of the week,  or have students repeat a word a couple a times in class but never go back to it on another occasion. How many times have I spent five or ten minutes on something but then not reviewed it, except perhaps as homework? Even when I have reviewed it it was only once or twice, a number nowhere near enough for automaticity to occur. 

I remember an experience recently where I taught a certain phrase that was very important to a group of students. The next day I asked them to write down the phrase we'd practise and only one out of 15 students was able to do it. I asked them again three days later and this time around half the class could do it. I waited till the following week and it was still only about half of the class. It wasn't until the end of the second week that all but one student could write down this one single phrase.  

When I was learning Japanese and heard a new word I would walk around trying it out on everyone I met. 'Hey, I learnt a new word today'. 'Oh yeah? what's that?' 'danson johin!' or whatever. Invariably I'd mess it up and they'd correct me, but I was getting good quality practice; it was meaningful, it was spaced and it was me trying to recall (with feedback) not someone saying 'repeat after me'.

I've been teaching for over 10 years now and just this year I've realized how much repetition and practice I'll need to incorporate if what I'm doing isn't going to be completely futile. Worries about covering that day's material or doing 'boring' repetition/review perhaps blinded me to what the research and ironically my own experience as a language learner spelt out. Try practice, it works!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Teaching is an art, not a science!

One of the phrases that annoys me no end is the TTC stating that 'teaching is an art, not a science'. It annoys me for principally three reasons. The first is that it forces a false dichotomy. 'Do you think teaching can be a science like physics? No? then it's an art'. Fortunately we're not actually required to choose one or the other, after all, as Willingham notes, medicine isn't a science in the way physics is, but science can help to inform it. Likewise, science can help to inform education. 

The second is the overwhelming asymmetry in the number of claimants. that is, hardly anyone, anywhere, is claiming the opposite. Search online and you'll find It's really quite hard to find supporters of the 'actually, teaching is a science' position. 

The troops are massing, but the enemy is nowhere to be found. In fact I was only able to find one supporter. Daniel Lindley Jr wrote a paper in 1970 titled 'teaching is a science not an art'. Interestingly there are quite a few papers and blogs on this subject where the author will say 'some people claim teaching is a science' but almost never any citation or link to where I might find the people allegedly saying this. Sure, there are people who say teaching is both an art and a science, but no one fighting for a 'science only' vision of teaching.

The second interesting thing about this statement is exactly when it's used. As there is seemingly no one promoting the idea that 'teaching is a science' the phrase tends to appear to support a whole raft of unconnected propositions. For example, you can use it when attacking the 'broken' education system:

When criticising teacher grading:

When railing against common core

When railing against tests in general. 

When promoting the value of student placement. 

When warning against the deindividualization of students

when promoting...erm...'vital infusing core values'(?)

and of course when arguing that students 'are not fish'

It doesn't really seem to matter how disparate the ideas may be, you can, it seems, use this phrase as an all-purpose battle-cry. The notion that someone, somewhere is trying to 'sciencify' education seems to terrify some even though it's not entirely clear who is trying to do that. 

Among my reading of researchers and educators I have yet to come across anyone claiming that education should be, or can be an entirely scientific endeavour.  John Hattie (2009:2) calls teaching an 'art'. Tom Bennett, the director of researchED calls it a 'craft', as does Daniel Willingham. And Ben Goldacre in his paper on education notes that "being a good doctor, or teacher, or manager, isn't about robotically following the numerical output of randomised trials." In the EFL world, Rod Ellis writes that while research is important it is 'not capable of providing teachers with recipes for successful practice' (2008:xxiv). 

When so many people are railing against an imaginary foe, we have to wonder why? Science attempts to be objective and exact, art is a bit more subjective. Hattie (2009) notes that teachers operate on an 'anything goes' model of best-practice and insulate themselves against criticism with the unspoken law that "I'll leave you alone, if you leave me alone to teach my way"(2009:1). In other words, classrooms can be personal fiefdoms where a teacher the power to teach any way they like. Could it be that the notion of someone, somewhere trying to systematize some aspect of teaching, and make teachers' more accountable, threatens the convenient status quo?

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Questionnaires are hard

Q1. Have you ever illegally downloaded movies from the Internet or engaged in other forms of copyright infringement?   Yes/ No 
One of my favourite parts of teaching postgraduate students is helping them when they start planning their research. They almost always plump for questionnaires and then ask their friends to fill them in. Like many students, they seem to think this is the easy option. But actually questionnaires are somewhat like temples in Indiana Jones films. One false move and suddenly you're running in a blind panic as a large bolder tumbles after you, and a pit full of snakes opens at your feet. Metaphorically speaking. 

Many of my students look glum when I tell them that questionnaires can often have very poor response rates even dropping as low as 10%. This isn't really surprising, just ask yourself how often you willingly click on an online questionnaires (sure thing website, I'm happy to sit here and fill out your survey! Really! I've nothing better to do) 

When numbers get low there is a danger of non-response bias which means the non-responders outnumber the responders and therefore your result may not be representative. Even when people do respond their answer are subject to response bias. The question above, for example, asks about 'illegal downloading' and so the the likelihood people who see themselves as generally law-abiding, but yet who download movies may not answer truthfully. This is known as social desirability bias, and it's not the only response bias

Biases aside, question writing is a minefield. The question at the top is no good for a few reasons. firstly, it asks two questions which can be confusing. Secondly, it uses language which some respondents might not understand which may lead to them abandoning the whole thing. They might also do this if the survey is too long and boring, or if the answer options don't allow them to give the answer they want. It's also not a good idea to have leading questions, irritating questions, questions that use negatives (or double negatives) or even too many open ended questions.

I read a lot about surveys recently since I've been trying to write one with Nicola Prentis over the course the last 3 months and it only has about 10 questions. It had several pilots (and we still found flaws when we released it). One question in particular had endless rewrites -can you guess which one? Hopefully all this has whet your appetite! Go and take our survey here! 

Go on! 

right now! 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Woo watch: the minimal pair

I've always wanted there to be a good TEFL podcast on itunes, then two appeared at once. TEFLology and The Minimal Pair. Initially I was excited by this but recent episodes of the minimal pair have left me rather disappointed.  

Their most recent show touched on 'grammar snobs', something I have a keen interest in. From two university educators, I expected,  an enjoyable and thorough debunking of silly prescriptivist rules. Alas the hosts seemed keener to stress that people ought to 'know the rules before they break them' and further stressed how important it was for people to 'follow the rules'. There was never any discussion of why 'the rules' are rules or whether they should be rules at all. One of the hosts seemed a little distraught that Steven Pinker had recently suggested we don't need to worry that much about 'dangling modifiers' and said 'there goes my lesson plan for next week'. -A lesson on dangling modifiers? (O_o)

Oddly 'the pair' defined prescriptive grammar as 'the real technical rules' and descriptive grammar as 'just making yourself understood'. This to me showed something of a lack of understanding of these terms, particularly when one host spent much of the segment relating descriptive grammar to 'textspeak' and saying of it 'if you're in some sort of emergency state and you need to make yourself understood, then whatever'. 

Descriptive grammar (or more properly descriptive linguistics) is just recording  the way people actually communicate. Prescriptive grammar is the way one particular group believes everyone should communicate. One sentence can be viewed differently by both groups. 

For example, with my family I, like many British people, say things like 'where's me coat gone'. Descriptive linguistics would suggest that 'me' is used as a possessive by some people in some situations instead of the more standard 'my'. Prescriptive grammarians would tell you that 'me' is just 'wrong' here and you should stop saying it. Obviously there is a place for both of these approaches, but prescriptivism tends to be the one people take to heart. Humans, for reasons I can't work out, adore being told what 'the rules' are and enjoy even more the delicious thrill of telling others that they're 'getting it wrong'. 

This prescriptivism love-in though, would not normally be enough to land them in the woo watch column. In a later section, when 'the pair' discuss the pros and cons of using PowerPoint to teach, one of them notes how good PowerPoints can be guessed it...visual learners! Apparently, "some students just learn better when they have an image presented to them." It was with great dismay that I heard the host refer listeners back to a special they'd done on visual learners so back I went, and listen I did 

Now I've heard podcast episodes on learning styles before, but this went one further. They presented a segment on both audio learners and visual learners and promised an future episode on kinesthetic learners. were these really the same people who were suggested the use of PowerPoint to teach was controversial? 

So there you have it; prescriptivism and learning styles all in one podcast. Oh 'minimal pair' why must you taunt me!  Later in the episode one of the hosts noted how important it was to teach critical thinking. I couldn't agree more.