Standard Non-Conformity

As I’ve blogged about before, language standards are somewhat problematic: my definition of right can vary significantly from your definition of right, and the term “standard” is very often a lazy discriminatory euphemism for prestige: essentially “if you don’t speak like the rich and powerful, then there’s something wrong with you.” Language is a bugger to control, particularly when the standard being sold is fairly arbitrary, like the finally disappearing rule of not splitting infinitives. To dictate a specific form requires a belief in absolute definitions, incontrovertible rules, even while these things become quickly abandoned by most people using the language. Even leaving aside the question of who makes the decisions, and the power issues involved there, in order to persist, the rules have to function for all the users of that language.

Now, I have to admit to being a bit of a contrary devil when it comes to standards: there’s something about the concept of “standard” that makes me want to push back, or at least to question. Tell me to not split an infinitive and, in the face of a continued absence of evidence, I’ll split them down the middle at every available opportunity. I replace a /t/ with a glottal stop whenever I can, mainly to annoy people, and, like, I’ll be like, “like is perfectly ok” whenever asked. So when it comes to standards in teaching, I have the urge to resist just as much, mainly out of habit. Even something as relatively genial as the professional standards from the Education and Training Foundation made me want to pick them apart. I get the same reaction when confronted with “best practice” or checklists of things to do to embed whatever thing we’ve been asked to embed.  I think it’s the way that these things draw a line in the sand, on one side is good, the other is not good. Such things often leave little room for “but what about…” discussions, and, despite anything the originators claim, make clear statements about what should and shouldn’t happen in the classroom.

Part of this, I have to be honest, comes of being a teacher of adults, and a teacher of ESOL, in a setting where general standards of good practice are based not in a part time, adult learning context, but in a vocational / academic full time learning for people between 16 and 19. Factor in the language barriers of an ESOL setting, and whole swathes of what is deemed best practice in FE can often be abandoned as irrelevant or unworkable. Things like stretch and challenge through higher order questions where higher order questions require a much greater command of grammar? Tell me how that works with low level second language learners, again. Things like writing learning outcomes using Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomies language learning takes place across several levels of the taxonomy at the same time at all levels. Things like trying to apply goal setting theory through SMART targets when this is an entirely language based process, with scant first language evidence, and where students find it hard to conceptualise what they need to do (because to understand what you can’t do in terms of grammar and vocabulary, for example, requires knowing what said grammar and vocabulary is in the first place.) Punitive lateness measures in a community centre class where most of the students are parents who have to leave their children at the crèche, but the crèche doesn’t open until the same time the class begins? Banning everything but water in class for all students, despite the fact that said students have been at work all day, finished at half five, and have just arrived at 6, after a 25 minute journey in the rain? A push for blended learning where many learners have limited skills or limited access to technology in order to participate with it (even though when they do they engage with it far more enthusiastically than young people). The problem is that stuff which is relevant for young people, studying in their mother tongue, in preparation for work is not necessarily relevant for adults on a part time course which may or may not be employment related. (Let’s just assume I’ve won that argument about whether all FE is about employability, and say that it isn’t.) This situation is exacerbated when the students are doing it a language they are also learning.

I get told quite a lot that I’m “too much” of a specialist, but I have long since stopped caring. Sure, being a specialist may not get you far in terms of career progression, because career progression in FE inevitably means becoming more of a generalist, but I have no eye on the greasy pole. I like, and am proud of being a specialist in ESOL, and working with adults, and I like that adult learning teachers are often asking difficult questions like “yes, but how does that work for me, in my context?” I suspect that adult learning and especially ESOL teachers have a bit of a reputation in wider FE circles as being awkward, always asking for things to be done differently and challenging standards. Good. This is exactly as it should be. A general FE institution has a responsibility for the education of all aspects of its community, but a clear political government emphasis on employability and apprenticeships for under 19s means that adult learning can get a bit lost. So now, more than ever, adult learning and ESOL need to be strident, difficult voices not only nationally and politically, but also within our own workplaces. If there is a standard or a system in the workplace that doesn’t suit our context, then while we should perhaps not reject it a upright, neither should we immediately contort our own practices to conform. Rather, we should challenge that system.  I have a suspicion that some standards and systems exists not for the benefit of those who have to apply and make use of them, but for those who set the standards and devise the systems, so we should ask questions, find out why these things are is there, and if they can be altered, if not rejected outright.

I am absolutely sure, however, that this doesn’t just apply to adult learning. I have no doubt that colleagues in foundation learning, in creative industries, and those quick vocational stereotypes of the FE sector, hair and beauty and motor vehicle engineering, would often want to level the same accusations. It is just that adult learners in an FE setting have different needs, different contexts, and are a very different fit, and so the need for challenging standards is at its most acute, perhaps. The desire is not to be different for the sake of being different, but to do the best for our learners. If standards do not benefit our learners and their learning in our classrooms, then we should always be pushing for change, always be challenging, and always, always, be awkward.



Discrimination as a foreign language

I saw something which shocked me a little last week, which, given my tendency towards the placid, is quite an achievement. The offending item was a website for students containing spoken examples of language for “guys about girls” and “girls about guys”. It was quite astonishing really, that a publicly available website for the benefit of learning English would include examples of language which appear to have originated in the less attractive corners of a men’s changing room. I wondered if the “girls on guys” section might be a nice balance, but no, girls linguistic needs when it comes to relationships are apparently centred around their need for a sensitive man.

Let’s not pretend, however, that these attitudes don’t exist out there. I’ve encountered plenty of students with similar or worse attitudes, not to mention the occasionally medieval mindset when it comes to race. Which begs a question, really: if we are “just” teachers of language, do we have a duty to explore the language which allows our students to express all their views, even if they are offensive or discriminatory? After all, “student led” is the order of the day, and we are on hand to teach students the language they need to fulfil their ambitions, live their lives, and if our students’ ambitions and needs are to be bigoted asshats, then who are we to argue?

I’m going to leave aside the easy answer to this: that as someone who teaches in a publicly funded college in the UK, I have a legal duty to promote equality and diversity. This is too glib, too lazy, and fails, as is so often the case with top-down arguments, to really explain anything properly. As an explanation, it’s barely better than “because I say so.” I have a legal duty, so what? It doesn’t necessarily make the problem go away. And anyway, there’s a much more interesting argument here.

At the root of it all is simply the notion that language is one of the primary carriers of culture and therefore social attitudes. It’s how we rage against the machine (and the dying of the light). It’s the key weapon in a politician’s armoury. And it’s the way we share our values and our ethics. Whether language is inherently discriminatory is a complex discussion, but whether or not language embodies social attitudes in and of itself, it is definitely the means of expression. Even if language is not in and of itself offensive, it can easily be weaponised to hurt.

This places responsibility on the users of that language, and on those who would teach that language. It’s s not just how you say something, but what you say, and indeed why you say it. Many owners of bigoted views know that what they believe is not generally seen as acceptable, and know to moderate expressions of that view, and it is this side of things where language teachers come into it. We probably can’t change students attitudes or morals, but we can remind them that those attitudes are likely to cause censure in the wider language community. To learn a language is also to buy into the values of the people who use that language, which, even in a setting of English as International Language, is dominated by what we might loosely call liberal western ideologies.

I make no claim to know what these are, beyond my own instinctive reactions, and that, at the end of the day is all we really have to draw on. I am shocked by the discrimination inherent in those resources above (there are more, by the way: “Who would you take, Jessica Simpson or Liv Tyler?” and “I like obedient girls” particularly stood out for sheer awfulness) and as such would never consider allowing students to talk about others in those terms, regardless of what they wanted. While there are almost certainly pockets of male-dominated nastiness in every society and at every level of society, that doesn’t make it right by my standards, and by the standards of a public majority. At the core of all discourse around equality is simple respect, and “She needs to go on a diet” is entirely lacking in that. 

Things you could do instead of learning styles 

I understand. I do. You did all that training and all that reading and you heard all about how everyone has an individual learning style, and maybe you have since heard that learning styles is a bunch of old scheisse. Perhaps, however, you are reluctant to let go because you think that even if the miniscule amount of evidence is decidedly shaky, it is important to think about the individual needs of the students, and it is still important to get learners to think about the ways that they learn. And perhaps you use incense, homeopathy and students’ zodiac signs to help support and inform your students’ learning.

This was, I have to admit, the thought process going through my head the other day when two colleagues were discussing whether to use a learning styles assessment and that non-justification was exactly the argument that one of them used to justify it. I was very good, and kept my sneering to a jokey minimum, but actually it does highlight two of the main three justifications used by people hanging onto the learning styles myth. These justifications are:

  1. we need to meet individual learning needs
  2. students benefit from thinking about effective ways to learn
  3. classroom activities should mix a range of different types – visual, kinaesthetic and auditory

They are all fairly reasonable points that are hard to disagree with, and indeed, those who are more rabidly hanging onto learning styles are likely to accuse you of being opposed to all three of them, as if somehow using a stupid learning styles assessment is going to make all of these things happen.

However, my intention wasn’t to have yet another dig at LS, because I could literally do this all day given a willing audience. Instead, I want to suggest some things you could be doing with your students that meet all of these points and which might actually benefit your students.

1. Meeting Individual Needs

The real problem with LS here is that they provide a teacher with a quick and not too challenging way of pretending to meet individual learning needs. It doesn’t take too much in a lesson context form to say “I’ve used different types of activity, therefore I’ve met individual needs and done me some differentiation.” Unfortunately this is tosh, and lazy tosh at that, because meeting individual needs involves actually thinking about your students. There may, for example, be students with special educational needs which need to be taken into consideration. This is, I’d argue, less likely to apply to all classes, and is, I’m afraid, something I’m not familiar with. What I am more familiar with,, however, is meeting needs through differentiation. You can call it stretch and challenge if you prefer, but basically adapting your planning so that everyone is challenged at just the right level for them to maximise the opportunities for learning. It might be altering your expectations of the different students at different stages of the lesson, or thinking about how you could make sure that those high flying students are not knocking out their work then twiddling their thumbs, while at the same time making sure that those students who are struggling with the more basic elements are given the structured activities and support they need to make sure they achieve that much. It doesn’t have to be complicated, as I’ve written before, but it does involve effort, unlike, say, doing a sorting activity using cards and saying you’re meeting the needs of the kinaesthetic learners. 

2. Students benefit from thinking about how they learn

Well, yes. Particularly for those of us teaching part time students, enabling students to develop learning skills in and out of the classroom is valuable. The most consistently successful students I’ve taught are the ones who make a concentrated effort to study outside the classroom, and those who have the opportunity to focus on language learning outside the classroom, for example through consciously having to use it at work. But pretending they are visual reflectors (I’ve got some of those on my bike…) or whatever is useless. What would that mean, even if it did actually link to how brains work and how learning happens? That they don’t bother working if the work is non-reflective, auditory work? No, what we need is to equip learners with techniques and strategies to help them make the most of their learning. Things like vocabulary or spelling learning strategies, or habits they might want to develop as learners (even, yes, target setting, for vocabulary learning). You could also get students to explore notions like interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced practice. There are a lot of things you can do with students to help them to become better learners, but giving them a dumb learning styles questionnaire is not one of them.

3. Classroom activities should be a range of different types

I’ve left this til last because it’s the most ludicrous, idiotic, lazy justification for doing a learning styles evaluation that I think I’ve heard. Classroom activities should be different not because they are meeting learning styles needs, but because it is interesting for students. Especially in an ESOL class where students need to practice the language as well as be exposed to and make a conscious effort to learn it. So do activities with manipulatives and flash cards, and move students round the room. Use discussions, word games, visual presentations and displays. Use audio, give short talks and spoken explanations. Use technology, don’t use technology. Allow time for reflection and action. In short, mix it up. It’s more interesting, more engaging, because it changes pace and focus, and while it’s no guarantee, the chances are that an interested, engaged student is more likely to learn than one who isn’t.  


So please, as you start your new academic year, ditch the learning styles assessment. You have literally no excuse, no excuse at all, to be perpetuating such idle, badly evidenced, pointless codswallop with your students. Get rid of that lesson on learning styles that you’ve been rolling out for the last million years, and do something useful instead. 

Blooming learning outcomes

Go to any discussion among teachers about good practice, whatever one of those is, and at some point the conversation will get round to learning outcomes. “teachers need to set clear outcomes so they can assess what learning is happening,” for example, and “students need clear outcomes so that they know what they are working towards”. Very often, someone will mention Bloom’s Taxonomy and the attendant verbs connected to the “lower” and “higher” order “thinking skills”. Needless to say, as well, at about this time, someone will raise the dread zombie of SMART and so we develop “best practice” learning outcomes like “use present simple to write 4 simple sentences about daily routine” or “identify 6 details from a text”.

Trouble is, these are bollocks. Sorry to put it like that, but it’s the holidays, and anyway,  they are. They are bollocks for a number of reasons.

The first, and the biggest problem with them is down to SMART. I’ve been critical of SMART as a paradigm for any kind of learning aim, (I do it properly in Language Issues, 27.2) be it the lesson or the individual goal, because:

a) when teaching discrete language items, they are simply used as proxy evidence of learning – what the teacher is really thinking, (and what the student is most likely thinking), is that “use present simple to write 4 sentences” means “learn about, and practice, present simple”; and:

b) if the outcomes are taken at face value, then the tightly drawn nature of the outcome/target suggests to teacher and learner that said language skill, or that that structural or lexical learning is now complete, and multiply applicable – that they can now read any text and identify any four details from that text, use present simple in any context or setting automatically. What does it actually mean? – a question which takes us back to point a).

Bloom’s taxonomy makes all this even worse. I work in FE in the UK, and as such Bloom’s Taxonomy and the variations on the lists of verbs are so often presented as “go to” lists for teachers to use when structuring their learning outcomes. Gianfranco Conti does a brilliant, and utterly recommended explanation of why Bloom is problematic at best, misleading at worst (in the context of language teaching here: (And don’t, just don’t, bloody start the “ESOL is more than just language teaching” crap here, because a) it doesn’t matter, and b) define, please, language teaching). I strongly recommend you read it, but his argument is that essentially language learning doesn’t sit at just one level of the hierarchy suggested in Bloom, but rather spreads across a whole range. In my putative present simple lesson, I would not not only be expecting students to carry out “lower order” tasks such as identify and categorise the ways in which the present simple is formed, while at the same time, depending on how I was teaching the grammar point, expecting students to hypothesise about the structures involved and how they worked, and perhaps synthesise this awareness with other language, perhaps comparing the form with other language they already know. I would later ask students to demonstrate their hypothesis through practice activities, and later, perhaps, to apply that language knowledge in a less controlled way. In one section of a two hour lesson, then, we have visited several layers of Bloom’s taxonomy, sometimes simultaneously. Like I said, however, the link above does this argument so much better than me!

The other challenge for me with the lists of verbs we are usually given (here, look, enjoy) is that lots and lots of them, in the quest for “evidenceablity” of learning, are language bound: explain, describe, repeat, state, dramatize, translate, review, rewrite, give examples, compare, contrast, tell, write, argue, appraise, justify, summarise – I could go on. These are things which are done through language, and which, if we were talking in a foreign language context, where students and teacher shared a common language, then the problem would be pedagogical and psychological, relating to what these mean. But where the language of instruction and the thing being learned are one and the same thing, then the language-focussed nature of such verbs means that the language learning is obscured by the often more challenging linguistic demands of evidencing that learning.

In the very best case, the unholy duality of Bloom & SMART makes for a set of “outcomes” which are no more than descriptions of the tasks students will do in the class, albeit obscured by removing reference to the context of the lesson. But at worst, the whole business misleads teacher and students into a false representation of what is happening in the classroom, and what processes are going on.

But wait, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, at least not entirely, Most of the baby can go too, if I’m honest, but there is a core of rightness here – we need to get rid of the performativity and accountability that SMART and Bloom imply, but we need to keep some focus to the lesson. There’s a time and a place for the unplugged lesson, and we should absolutely treasure, encourage and exploit emergent, learner led language. At the same time, however, I don’t think we can do this all the time. It’s hard on students, hard on the teacher, and just not always workable. It’s great, and I use tasks which develop and rely on learner language a lot. At the same time, however, I also do “straight” lessons where I go in and teach some new stuff to students. I have no grand justification for this except that it keeps the emergent language stuff fresh and new, and, well, I just like to do things differently sometimes. And so there is often a case for having an aim or objective in mind  a focus. Today we are going to practise reading for gist / detail, we are going to learn about present simple, find out about words to do with travel and transport. No need here for measurable outcomes, because the benefit of the measurability, as I’ve already said, is either pointless or spurious. 

 And before you start thinking that this is a fine academic discussion which we can all digest over the summer – it’s not. The use and abuse of learning outcomes is wielded as a stick by observers and inspectors. Are students aware of the outcomes, are they displayed for all to see? Can the teacher assess the learning based on these outcomes? Are there opportunities for stretch and challenge in the learning outcomes? While the first point is simply a question of practice, the latter points are rendered obsolete by pointlessness and spuriosity.  If the outcome doesn’t represent the nature of the learning, as a Bloomy-SMART outcome would suggest, then assessment is similarly unrepresentative, and differentiation is merely a question of luck and instinct. 

Do we need to lose the outcome? Yes, and no. We need to lose Bloom and SMART, yes, absolutely. They don’t help us in developing the focus for a lesson. Instead of a single, meaningless outcome, a better model might be the division of the outcome into the intention and the assessment. The assessment doesn’t belong in the outcome at all: it belongs in the lesson, and in the mind of the teacher. The intention of the lesson is a much more valid concept (nods to Dylan Wiliam), and allows us both honesty and accuracy on our representation of learning. Students are exposed to language, and will have had a chance to practice that language, or develop the skill of reading for gist, listening for detail, whatever. This is the learning intention.

The added bonus of this separation is that there is now more room for emergent language. If language arises, as it does, then there is capacity here for capturing, sharing and evaluating that language, which a closed list of learning outcomes on the Bloom-SMART model simply does not allow for. As a model, the separation of aim and assessment allows for aims to evolve and grow, and reminds us to think about how we are checking for learning, insofar as this is possible, of both planned and unplanned language. Which, really, is no bad thing at all. 

#NATECLA Day 2, vol 2: Democracy & Britishness 

My apologies. It’s been a little over a week and I’ve been sitting on this post that whole time. But bear with me – I hope it’s worth the wait.

It is probably unnecessary to report back on the NATECLA AGM, which, I have to admit, I have only ever attended once before, and that because the lovely people at the Ruth Hayman Trust were going to say thank you for raising money for them (which I strongly urge you to do as well,  because as far as I know they are the only charity that do the kind of work they do to support migrants in the UK). I have to also admit that I can’t decide if I find the whole business of proposing, seconding and voting on motions to be either charmingly democratic, or just a teensy bit archaic. Sorry: I think I am a bit of a dictator at heart, and if I did apply to be co-chair of NATECLA, I worry that I would probably turn out to be a bit like Chancellor Palpatine. Mild gags aside, what really struck me was how much influence NATECLA has gathered in recent years against a backdrop not only of funding cuts to ESOL but also of a worryingly convincing anti-immigrant discourse both politically and socially.

However, business duly done and it was time for what can only be called the graveyard shift at a conference. Almost inevitably things tend to thin out at this time of day as people head home a little early, and all the exhibitors have packed away and gone. I’ll admit that I’ve done this before, but for this one I stayed, because the final workshop I attended was on a theme which intrigues me and I was interested to see what was being said. The session was on “brokering Britain” and the notion of ESOL teachers as “mediators of Britishness.”

It was less of an input, and more of a discussion, starting with an introduction to a book on the theme that Melanie Cooke and Rob Peutrell (with others) were working on, and to which we were contributing, sort of , some of the final chapter. Certainly, the discussion is one which has appeared in this blog before: the responsibility and function of an ESOL teacher as more than just a language teacher, but also as brokers of the dominant social and cultural context in which English occurs in the UK. It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve always been uncomfortable with as a direct “duty”, for example under the Prevent programme, and yet despite this, something which I’ve engaged with in the sense of encouraging active citizenship. This distinction was one which was raised at the beginning of the session: between getting students to engage with democratic processes and to be pro-active in their communities, social activism, tempered with the discomfort of ESOL teaching as a tool of the state, of teaching language as a “social proxy”, perpetrators of the notion that language is a measure of ones loyalty: you cannot be British if you can’t speak English. In that sense at least we are both gatekeepers and prison wardens: “I judge that your language is not yet to standard, therefore you are not ready for the appropriate exam.” This, coupled with the unrealistic learning expectations of students, which I wrote about recently, can taint the relationship between student and teacher.

In our group the discussion hinged around the nature of the texts we bring into class. As a frequent user of authentic texts, it certainly got me thinking about the political edge which we bring to the ESOL class perhaps subconsciously: my sources of choice are newspapers of the left and the centre left (Guardian & Independent), and occasionally to the better quality end of the right wing broadsheets (the Telegraph) or (nominally) politically neutral sources like the BBC. Certainly the choices I make are texts which reflect my own political stance, which was another question we discussed.

One of these discussions that has stuck with me was around the extent to which we admit our own political views in class. I am usually fairly open about my politics in class, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer, along the lines of: “You are welcome to disagree, but…”. That said, I don’t start with my stance or allow it to dominate, at least not consciously, but students are often curious and will ask. An honest question deserves, I think, an honest answer: I’m not a politician garnering votes. And anyway, I’m open, even didactic in my opinion of less contentious issues than Brexit or General Elections. I once based the text analysis in a reading lesson on the way that the writer referred to the participants in a car accident in a way that dehumanises people in favour of the car (“a pedestrian was hit by a VW Golf” rather than the less deft but more accurate “a person was hit by another person in a car.”) The choice of text and theme was linked very closely to an aspect of personal politics, as it were, as well as being an interesting exercise in textual referencing and critical reading. Certainly I would hope that it would encourage the students to start to read about a more personal context more critically, in the way that migration to the UK is reported.

There was more to the discussion than that, of course – the notion of being an outsider to the whole citizenship question, for example, not just as a student but also from the perspective of a teacher who was born elsewhere. I wonder as well if we are brokers of not only Britishness, but also of belonging – agents not of integration and conformity, but rather brokers of our communities. I know that I sometimes feel “outside” the communities that perhaps my own students work and live within: I have yet to work in the city I live in, for example, which grants a sense of distance from the towns and communities I work in – I rarely, if ever, see my learners outside of the working week, and my knowledge of the social geography of their communities is deeply limited. I build on this distance, with comments like “Platform 8 [where I catch my train home]” is my usual answer to “What is your favourite place in the town?”

Needless to say, of course, the notion of the dreaded British Values was raised, but this really cemented that distinction between the view of citizenship as an officially sanctioned status, rather than the more liberal stance – while few, if any, would criticise the Values, per se, there is always that question of whether they are specifically “British” and whether they supersede any other sets of values you may care to mention, not to mention the key question, really, of whether we are just teachers of a language, or whether we are much more than that. I personally would say that we are much more than just language teachers, but that the Britishness we “teach” should rarely be explicit, if at all. Active, progressive, social interactivity and engagement, yes, but preaching whitewashed, nostalgic and officially sanctioned Britishness? No.



#NATECLA Day 2, Vol. 1: guilt, games and gambits

The trouble I have during conferences is that I don’t always sleep well. It’s not a reflection on the place or quality of the accommodation, so I always feel a little spaced out first thing in the morning, and need some rather epic mounts of caffeine to survive. However, this year’s coffee consumption has been a little less than normal, which I think is a fairly positive reflection.

IIn the morning, feeling buoyed up by the first cup of coffee and a plentiful breakfast, was keynote #2 from Rachael Roberts on the theme of guilty secrets of the ELT classroom. Like Russ Mayne a couple of years ago, to was a session more or less geared to make me happy: starting with zombie learning theories and truthiness (the notion that something sounds like it’s right, even though it’s deeply spurious) and then a review of things which people feel bad about. Now, I’ve got to be honest and say I don’t generally feel too guilty about things like dictation, or a little bit of translation, and have had some new ideas and reminders to try abandoned older ideas in these area which is always a good thing.

However, I’m not convinced by reading aloud as a practice, and I enjoyed Rachael’s skewering of the usual justifications, but was interested to think about reading aloud after the students have understood the text so that they are focusing on pronunciation and sound-symbol relationships, and not on understanding the text. She also took on the notionn of sharing learning outcomes on the board, and WALT and WILF: all apparently uncontroversial and pretty much standard practice, but critically viewed from surprising range of quarters, including the originator of WALT and WILF.  I sometimes worry that in post-compulsory education we are too often half a leg behind school education in these things, with a remarkable propensity to start adopting stuff just as schools are beginning to abandon them: we are not good at resisting zombies.

The rest of the day was spent in practical workshops: I’m wary of passing on ideas that belong to others, particularly where those ideas have been freely shared: it feels somehow cheeky and a little disrespectful, so instead here, in purely chronological order, are a few of the things I’m going to be taking away.

In the first session of the day, I went to Michael Fennel’s session on “Set Phrase English”. Like some of the dictation ideas that Rachael mentioned, there was a lot here which reminded me of older ideas, and put a new spin on them – drilling, back-chaining, and some simple yet effective ideas on how to embed some useful conversation gambits (remember the book?) into classes. The idea which stuck with me most was the first one we explored. Michael elicited from us the various question words (and reminded me that I always forget “whose” when I cover this language). Each question word is then turned into full questions about personal things. Michael invited us to ask him the questions first three times each, and each time answered with some slightly different information, before asking the “class” (i.e. us) to summarise what he had said. Thus a handful of simple questions became an opportunity to practice listening and then forming fairly comolex sentences and utterances, and the whole activity was definitely something I could see myself using in a lesson next year.

The second session was on using Socratic Dialogue in teaching. This was, perhaps, a little more esoteric, less obviously groundable in simple classroom activities, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The core notion, if I have this right, is that a small group starts by identifying a global issue (“Is first language in the classroom good?”) then identifying individual, first person examples and issues. These first person examples are then discussed and analysed respectfully, before being used to inform the main issue. This reminded me in many ways of the community of enquiry concept, where participants think of questions around a specific theme, and then decided which of the questions should be discussed. I’ve taken part in these and found them to be very useful. In terms of practical applications, I think that there is a lot of use in an ESOL class around things like class rules, for example, or even, for a suitably mature and high level group, negotiating a syllabus. It also has some interesting possible uses from a teacher development perspective – having a group of teachers discuss and analyse, say stretch and challenge or learning outcomes in order to get a better understanding of what it means and come up with useful solutions and ideas.

After lunch I was worried. I was full of good sandwiches and I could feel the ghost of sleeplessness leaning on my eyelids. Luckily, however, the session I attended was practical, energetic and did a grand job of exorcising the ghost until I could get ten minutes nap in the sunshine before the NATECLA agm. This was around ideas for using phones in class, and even though it covered familiar ground (QR codes, Kahoot) it was still good, as it always is, to kick ideas around with different colleagues, and to properly get to grips with some newer ideas, like Quizlet. Certainly QR codes are something I’d forgotten about a little, and the idea of getting students up and scanning them with their phones is something which has languished in the depths of my memory for a bit too long. It was also nice to be reminded that I MUST go and investigate Plickers.

There is much, much more to be written about what happened after my doze in the sun, but that may have to wait until later, particularly as it involved lots of thought provoking thinking about citizenship and the role of the ESOL teacher as servant of the state, which is a topic I could spend hours writing about. And right now, it’s sunny, and I have a dog who needs walking.

#NATECLA Day 1, Vol. 2: Multilingual Realities

It is perhaps, a small reflection on me, that there is something inherently joyful in the phrase “trans-semiotic translanguaging”. This wasn’t the main focus of the evening talk given by Melanie Cooke and James Simpson (researchers into ESOL since ages, astonishingly clever people and co authors of Still The Best Book On ESOL) but it was a phrase which came up and which has lodged itself into my head quite rigidly. If I get time I might even tell you what it means.

No, the talk was entitled Recognising Multilingual Realities in ESOL and centred around tackling that great classroom taboo: students first languages. Or rather, the “features of [their] multilingual repertoire that centre around” their first languages: this was the focus of the first half of the talk. Drawing on findings from the TLANG project , Dr Simpson (also of ESOL-Research JISC mail list fame) discussed the nature of individuals’ languages as translanguaging. People who we might consider to be multilingual are not users of several discrete lumps of language, which is processed and used in separate ways, but rather they are users of a linguistic repertoire which includes features of many languages, and can (and do) draw on these as needs require, or as personal preference dictates. This is, I thought, also bound up in notions of individual and social identity, as in the mutual pride and interest shown in one of the examples given of a teenager wanting her (primarily Czech speaking) Mum to correct , albeit in the form of a text. Given that the vast majority of people globally, and a large proportion of people in the UK are plurilingual in some form or another, it does raise questions of how this pride in linguistic heritage can be twisted into notions of cultural and political linguistic dominance: immigrants should learn English and use it in favour of their other languages, rather than as an addition to their range of languages.

Speaking as an ESOL teacher, it would be easy to take umbrage at something which might appear, on the face of it, to be critical of the work that ESOL teachers do: implying that we are the minions of a dominating state. However, it’s worth remembering that outside the sphere of these politics; at a social, familial and personal level, English language learning is important, but what we need to consider is that our students’ other languages are as important as their English. Our job is not to over-write and over-rule those languages, but to extend the repertoire to enable wider and more useful interactions in an English dominated setting. Sure, it helps us to superficially, perhaps, buy into the discourse of integration and cultural assimilation as promoted by our governments because that leads to helpful things like funding from said governments. And I like being paid. Sorry.

But what of the implications of this from a classroom perspective? This is where the second half of the talk came in, from Dr Cooke (there were so many Doctors going round at one point, I was half expecting John Hurt to arrive in a TARDIS) talking about findings from the DALS project, (sadly, I can’t find a link…). This tied much of the translanguaging practice to the more contentious issue of the use of students other languages in the classroom. As was pointed out later, standard practice is to avoid other languages in the classroom, but the findings from the DALS project suggested otherwise: students could use their own languages through activities to explore and negotiate meaning in English. Students were actively encouraged to use their first languages, rather than avoid them, with counterintuitive results: richer, more expressive and, most importantly, perhaps, more meangful language emerged from the shared multilingual intercourse. Students’ other languages were also used to find shared experiences, showing that rather than being a hindrance, other languages than English can be a help. Now, I have to admit to an English only policy, at least on paper, although in practice I am fairly laid back – when I think of my Level 1 / 2 group this year, I recall using aspects of translanguaging and seeing it as students from a shared linguistic and cultural background (Congolese French speakers) interacted at times to negotiate meaning, as, at times, did I, with my own rusty and very limited French. On paper, it would appear to be somewhat excluding of other students, but in reality it was incidental to a wider discourse which did revolve around English.

In the study, of course, students were asked to reflect on their feelings about their other languages in the classroom, with interesting results: students enjoyed some aspects of it: speed, convenience, efficiency, but also felt very strongly that using English in class was important, if not necessary.

The question, then, is why we have this monolingual focus to ESOL continues, despite the reality of a multilingual environment. Certainly it is treated as the standard practice (“best” practice?) in training (honourable mention for CELTA, perhaps?), in most coursebooks and materials, and it would get frowned upon in any lesson observation I’m aware of. And despite to critical view of it, I think I would still want to insist on if not English only, then at least English mainly in a class. James and Melanie were coming from a sociolinguistic perspective, but this does, perhaps, also need to be reviewed against understanding from second language acquisition, although I’m a bit rusty on this, to be fair, and certainly want to go back to review it, bearing this in mind.

And that’s the point of any kind of talk like this, to challenge and force you to analyse your own practice and beliefs, and however much you might agree or disagree, this can be no bad thing at all.