Déformation professionelle

This is a fun phrase that I first heard the other day when posting on Facebook. It was a picture of a poster, and on the poster we had something like “teas, coffees, and frappucino’s”. I am, for my sins, a bit of an apostrophe fascist, and my comment was less than complimentary. A French speaking friend told me then of this phrase, deformation professionelle, which means, roughly, that one tends to view the world through the eyes of your own profession, to the exclusion of all others. Wikipedia suggested that “distortion” might be a possible translation of deformation in this sense, and I rather think that is what we are dealing with. We spend so much of our waking lives engrossed in the discourses and attitudes of our profession that we filter everything through this. 

Take, for example, a thank you note that my wife received over the summer from a grateful client whose first language isn’t English. It was a very sweet message, full of praise and very complimentary about my wife’s skills. So she showed it to me, and I looked, and the first thing that popped into my head? “Entry 3, I reckon…” Naturally, I kept this to myself, but it goes to show how ingrained we are into our work, sometimes. 

I do it all the time. I have a folder on my computer full of links to articles that might make great reading activities, because I’ll be reading something on a Sunday morning and find myself thinking “this will fit in just great with the lessons I’m doing the week after next.” Or I’ll get a new £5 note and think “ooh, this would make a good stimulus for a lesson” (and it did, thanks for asking). 

On the one hand, this is generally a good thing. I have a finely tuned radar for resources, and can spot a potential worksheet a mile away. On the other hand, it’s not. For one, the incident with the lovely letter was pretty mean of me, even if it was only internal. This judging of the language of others, native and non-native speakers is, let’s face it, really quite annoying. Annoying not just for those who are judged, but also for me: two minutes on Facebook and I’m desperate to get my red pen out. 

Another drawback is when you have another area of interest which doesn’t always sit well with the first. So I once wrote a question on the end of a worksheet for maths which said something like this: “Anna rides a bike to work, it takes her 25 minutes to get there. Her brother drives an expensive Mercedes, and it takes him an hour to drive in the trafffic. Which person is the idiot?” (So the last question wasn’t quite that, but that was the overall thrust.) Or I’ll find an article on cycling in Poland which will get added as a possible text, even though no students are interested in cycling. Even an interest in language and language learning can be dangerous: I have a whole bank of activities around the hardest langauges to learn, the history of English, how people learn, lives of students, words from other languages and so on, but which are not necessarily interesting in and of themselves. I realise that for an English teaching professional this is hard to imagine (seriously, how is etymology not interesting?) but there you go. 

It’s not a serious condition, to be fair, except perhaps when it manifests itself as arrogance towards those in our institutions who do not teach. Sure teaching and learning is the primary business of a college, but without all those other people the whole place would be empty, dirty, and would, in time, quite literally fall apart. And sometimes, you know, it would be good to switch it off, and just get on with other stuff. From a mental well being perspective, it sure can’t be good to be continually flagging good articles, assessing writing, or proof reading texts for punctuation mistakes. 

Or indeed writing extensive blog posts on the subject.


Just recently I found myself looking up synonyms for “stooge”. So I found lackey, servant, vassal, and, my personal favourite: myrmidon. I liked it so much I almost named this post after it.  A stooge, or lackey, or myrmidon, for the record, is an unthinking, perhaps powerful, follower of a person or regime, often, but not always, “just doing their job” as in “the OFSTED inspector/immigration officer/storm trooper/concentration camp guard was just doing their job.” I wonder, sometimes, to what extent we could be considered government stooges: it’s hard not to think this when you reflect on things like the link between ESOL and terrorism through the Prevent strategy, for example, or the notion of British Values as a thing to be enforced (or embedded, exemplified, whatever. You say tomato…). Safeguarding aside, however, one perennially heartbreaking aspect of my work comes around this time of year when we are enrolling new students onto courses and the question of fees comes up.

I met two students this week, for example, really keen to fill places on two currently undersubscribed courses. They were, however, asylum seekers, and as such would have had to pay fees for their courses. And as asylum seekers from a less than wealthy background, the fees they would have had to pay was simply impossible.

I explained that they would have to pay fees, and managed to get the notion across to them. Naturally, their response was roughly “But why?”

Good question. Because let’s face it, I’d have happily let them join the course. I knew one of the students as a hard working, dedicated student, who had enjoyed funding in the previous year as a 16-18 student, and had really progressed.  Now, betrayed by age and a fairly arbitrary governmental line, no funding was available to support them.

So how to funnel this into post-beginner English? “You have to pay because the government won’t give us the money for your course.” Credit where credit is due, right? It’s still a crappy answer, mind you, because in many ways, when I’m interviewing and enrolling students, I am the government. When we interview students, screen them for suitability on the course, discuss the issue of whether or not they can or will have to pay, then we are another one of those faces, sympathetic or otherwise, that our learners must confront, along with the council clerk, police officer, solicitor, job centre adviser, and immigration officer. It’s a little stark, perhaps, to compare what we refer to as Information, Advice and Guidance to the mental brutality of the Home Office asylum interviews (not to mention the physical brutality of the police) but these contexts do sit on a continuum of official information exchange, of power and of control.

Indeed, it would be easy to think that I’m being a bit melodramatic, drawing a connection there. Perhaps I am. After all, the consequences of not being granted asylum are easily more severe than not getting onto an ESOL course, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, both processes involve a person wanting to achieve something that could have a profound impact on their futures, and sacrificing time and personal information in order to do so. And in this particular interaction, and as far as the other person is concerned, I am the one with the power over their future. Even where a person can access funding in some way to join a course, there is still a power play during initial assessment. However accurate and benign my intention, if I declare a student to be Entry 1, then I could be seen as restricting that student from progressing as quickly as they might want onto a vocational course, or from having a chance at passing the SELT for their imminent citizenship claim. I could be the one who stops that student from getting that job, from accurately filling in that benefits claim, or from understanding that court summons. Inability to access something as apparently minor as a part time English language course for adults could potentially be as damaging in the long term as a failed asylum claim. 

All of which goes some way to explain why, in these situations, it’s hard. At best you are merely the bearer of the message, at worst, and you believe the official lines you are fed, you are the lackey, the stooge, the seneschal at the gate, whose job is to filter out the unsuitables which your government, by setting limitations, has taken the decision to exclude.  

Because we have to

It’s that induction time again, meaning icebreakers, getting to know you activities, tours of college, diagnostic assessments, various cross college missives that need to be translated from edu-managementese into something that your entry 1 ESOL students can understand (any document with the word “inclusive” in it is likely to be anything but). This latter includes various policy statements: IT usage policy, behaviour standards, equality and diversity, and, of course, British Values.

I know I’ve blogged before about this topic, and my apologies for any repetition: but to summarise, basically, the notion of British Values comes from the Prevent strategy, a somewhat politically suspect attempt to cut off extremism and its consequences at the root. Of course Prevent by its very nature is unlikely to ever prove conclusively that it’s working: there is no way at all of knowing that a person identified under the Prevent strategy as being at risk would have gone on to become a terrorist, for example, because either the strategy worked and they didn’t, or the strategy didn’t work and they did. Or perhaps an individual wasn’t identified, was briefly drawn into something but then realised what they were doing and decided not to. Seriously, has nobody seen Minority Report?

Anyway, the fabled British Values are: democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and those of no faith, and individual liberty/freedom of speech. Said values are to be not only promoted but “exemplified” (tricky that one, as I fairly regularly break one or two laws). There are also issues with the “British” bit: it’s a word and a concept I find increasingly repellent, particularly with the post-Brexit rise in racially motivated attacks, and the claim that any of these values are peculiarly British, or that they should have precedence over any other general values, is frankly bizarre. So what if the French have the (admittedly euphonious) liberte, fraternite, egalite or the Americans “liberty, equality and self government”? Lucky them. These are all spurious nationalistic claims on a bunch of relatively accepted western values. They’re also so broad as to be pretty meaningless, not to mention totalitarian in their impetus (“to be a citizen, these are things you MUST believe…”)But that’s not the point.

No, what I’m really thinking about is how, given this kind of dislike, at best apathy towards the whole thing, these things are ever going to be effectively embedded into teaching practice. For something like this to really work, you’ve really got to believe in it. I believe, for example, in the notion of equality and the legal framework around the equality act, and that the 9 protected characteristics should absolutely be protected by law. I believe that embedding English and maths into teaching and learning is a good thing, and developing those skills in FE is important. So it’s easy to get behind these things: I’ll berate students for random sexism or racism, or I’ll try and explain “square kilometre” to an entry 1 ESOL student. But whenever I try to embed British Values, and refer to them explicitly (so that students can duly parrot them back to OFSTED at the appropriate time), I’m doing so with my fingers crossed behind my back. I just don’t believe. 

Belief is important. Teacher belief in an interventions worth or effectiveness (or not) is a powerful thing, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if it could even function as a kind of placebo to render ineffective practices effective. By the same measure, if you don’t believe that something is of value, then you are never going to convincingly put it across, regardless of how effective or valuable it is. So this is the challenge faced by promoting British Values. Unlike similarly top down initiatives like health and safety, safeguarding, and equality and diversity, British Values is starkly political in its origins and its purpose, and therefore is a much harder buy in: and if a teacher can’t buy in, then how can their students?

Another part of the problem, especially for me, is that I can’t help but want there to be a “proper” language learning aim. Teaching British Values, and to a lesser extent equality and diversity, is really just going to be a lesson on vocabulary, or reading, or speaking. Any British Values stuff is going to be a subordinate consideration: a happy accident. Students will read for gist and detail, focus on vocabulary in the text, develop speaking and listening skills, participate in a discussion. In the process, they might also learn about British Values, but that bit probably won’t go on my internal lesson plan. 

I guess, ultimately, this is about ownership. To what extent do teachers feel that they own British Values, and have had a say in developing them? Not a lot, I suspect. Like my official citizenship status, they are nominally “British” but I don’t recall anyone asking me about this. British values, more than anything else, are a top down imposition, and for that reason, more than anything else, I wonder whether they will ever move from “doing it because we have to” to “doing it because I believe it’s important”. 


I don’t enjoy marking. No, scrub that, I hate it. It’s tedious, takes time, is largely uncreative, and just generally meh. I used to mark papers for an exam board back in the day, and nothing filled me with dread more than a sheaf of writing exams, even for the princely sum of 50p a paper, or whatever it was. Marking is like cleaning out the fridge: you know it’s important (have you seen your fridge lately?), and when it’s done it feels like you’ve done something valuable and useful, but ultimately it’s still a chore. There’s no quick fix, either, you just have to bite the bullet and get on it. 

Ok, so there are some workarounds. Take reading and listening comprehension work, for example. I don’t think I’ve personally marked an in-class reading or listening activity for literally years, because I get the students to discuss their answers and compare before sharing any answers and getting students to self check. If it’s a case of right or wrong, or one word answer, and you’ve been checking the students while they compare answers to make sure everything is ok, then teacher marking after the fact is overkill, unless you have a more than usually psychopathic audit process requiring the teacher’s pen on everything.  The benefit for students is minimal in this particular context, particularly when measured against the learning benefits of the peer discussion itself.

That’s not to say that all marking is unnecessary, or bad, or pointless. Far from it. It will, of course, be an entirely pointless exercise if you just hand it back and it disappears into student folders or bags, never to be seen again. But if you set up routines that ensure the work is reviewed then useful, productive feedback on any work is useful for students, highlighting what they can do well, and what to do about any language areas they need to work on. (And no, that doesn’t mean setting targets in terms of use present perfect correctly in five sentences: much more useful and meaningful than abstract language goals would be actions for students, for example, saying things like “read page X of a grammar book”).

All of which is why I make sure students have time to review marked work in class. Making time in class also shows the students that reviewing marked work is a valuable process and part of learning. It’s perhaps optimistic of me to hope that this encourages students to review their work outside of class as well, but it’s a nice I do make a bit of a rod for my own back sometimes, mind you. I start marking a piece of writing for one student with all sorts of detailed comments. By the time I get to the sixth this complexity has faded off considerably. Certainly deciding in advance on the nature and quantity of feedback would make a lot of sense: just a marking code? Marking code and comments? Action points? Areas for personal improvement? There’s got to be a bit of a payoff here between time available, personal stamina and an honest evaluation of what, if anything the students are going to do with the feedback. 

Marking work, particularly productive written work, be it a couple of sentences or a couple of pages, is useful. It’s useful because it’s probably the main way as a language teacher you get to see students producing language that is combination of  their instinctive language produced without thought, and of the language forms that they have consciously been thinking about, perhaps even checking. Spoken language, for the most part, tends to rely on the “automatic” language, because it is produced on the fly. So a piece of writing gives you a lot of information about a student, and what language areas they are struggling with: marking forces you to analyse and categorise these errors, and this, in turn, should influence your teaching. Marking work constructively like this also helps students know what is wrong and what they could do about it, and making time for enforced error correction and review in class absolutely encourages students to engage with thinking about their personal weaknesses, and taking action to address them (even if it is just for that lesson). Hopefully it also encourages students to draft and review work before handing it in, although I suspect this is wishful thinking. 

However good all this is, mind you,  makes not a jot of difference to how I feel when faced with a heap of marking to do. But I still can’t stand doing it. Sorry, and all that, but I’m just not that noble. 

What I did on my holidays.

I have, for the first time in ages, been on holiday to Abroad. The lucky place was France, and in particular to the fine city of Paris, enabled through free movement within the EU, and an astonishingly swift train journey that took us from Leeds to Paris in mere hours. Naturally, of course, being the parent of two under-10s, a trip to Paris naturally meant a payoff of 6 days city, 1 day of Disneyland. It also meant a severe dusting down of the secondary school French, for which the word “rusty” doesn’t even come close: it wasn’t entirely moribund, but certainly took a lot of effort to revive. Very rarely is anyone truly monolingual, instead we have degrees of multilingualism: but my own language is distinctly towards the monolingual end of the spectrum. This rustiness and the general novelty of overseas travel (expense, hassle, and just not being all that bothered, if I’m brutally honest), meant that being in Paris was an instructive and illuminating experience,  particularly when filtered through my ESOL teacher brain. 

For one I was gratified to learn that lots of fragments kept coming back. This is not least in part down to the massive amounts of crossover between English and French. Vocabulary is an obvious candidate here: English and French have a large number of shared words, thanks mainly to the Normans and the Church, not to mention the global impact of English as an international language. There is also a lot of shared grammar: sentence level word order is broadly similar, and as a tourist your grammar doesn’t generally extend beyond simple present tenses and a lot of very functional structures: Je suis…. Nous avons… Avez vous…? Je voudrais… Ou est…? and so on. 

For me, most of these structures are now lexical chunks, rather than built out of systemic grammatical knowledge. I can just about parse some bits of present tense verbs etre and avoir but it’s a mental challenge, and mainly based on translation of similar lexical items rather than the application of a rule. Put simply, I remember that He is translates as Il est, rather that remembering the rule that the third person singular pronoun is il, and that the third person singular form of etre is est. My current productive knowledge of French is essentially just knowing which set of words to apply when, combined with a bit of first language transfer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and perhaps this is what it’s like to be a beginner: you simply don’t have the grammatical and lexical resources to draw upon in order to start making extensive grammatical connections, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do this at all. Certainly this technique enabled me to negotiate whether it was possible to extend a three zone metro Paris Visite pass into a five zone metro pass, roughly “J’ai un Paris Visite carte pour les zones une à trois, mais c’est possible acheter une carte pour zones quatre et cinq?” Not brilliant, and both carte and zone sound distinctly dodgy, but it was a fair stab at a compound sentence with an infinitive of purpose, and crucially, it worked. 

The was one rather massive problem. Having managed to express a fairly complex concept, and create, on the fly, a pretty decent chunk of second language, this then generated a reply. Who’d have thought that asking a question might result in a reply! Crazy stuff, no? The gentleman behind the counter forgave my dubious grammar and pronunciation, and proceeded to explain in a fair amount of detail not only that it was not possible to extended or to buy a two zone pass, and instead if I wanted to go to Disneyland I should use the pass to Vincennes or Nation stations, then leave the train and buy a ticket for the remainder of the journey. (I include this detail should you find yourself in a similar situation). Luckily for me, he picked up in my helplessly blank expression, and using far better English than my French, managed to negotiate meaning. 

So another thing I learned , then, is that listening is bloody difficult. Really really hard. Even in less challenging contexts where the language was slowly spoken and mostly within my very limited range, all it took was a couple of unknown words and I was thrown. And sure, there are skill elements to listening, but actually any misunderstanding on my part was down not to a lack of listening skill, but to a lack of grammar and vocabulary. Take, for example, travelling on the metro. French metro announcements are efficient and unburdened with superfluous information like being instructed to read safety notices, have a pleasant onward journey, or buy something overpriced and unpleasant. Rather there is a simple list of stations, and only the occasional section of information about, for example, the fact that the RER line A between La Defense and Nation is closed. (Again, handy travel info in case you are headed to Paris in the next couple of weeks.) I used some top down listening skills to work this out: predicting what vocabulary and grammar I should be hearing from the context I was in, and with the support of the written station names on the metro map, I was able to follow, if you like, the detail of the discourse, then to reapply this when travelling on an unfamiliar line. So far, so textbook. 

However, in more complex interactions, it was far far harder to keep up with what was being said and to apply any of this top down knowledge. After my masterpiece of functional French at the metro station, I was flummoxed by the reply, perhaps inevitably. However, even in a simple shop context I couldn’t always follow the numbers when told what the price was, relying instead on two pre-listening strategies: 1) read the till, and 2) try to add up the amount you are spending before you get to the till. Then there were things like being asked whether I wanted a bag not to mention various interactional elements that confident speakers put into functional conversations, d’accordbon, smiles, other incomprehensible bits. Mostly, however, the problem was that I simply didn’t have the bottom knowledge which you need in order to effectively process anything. Ye gods, I thought, is is what my beginners have to do every single day. 

Unlike many of the beginners I teach, however, I have a fair degree of literacy, and used this extensively to decode and support my understanding and application of spoken language. I am probably slightly stronger at reading French than I am at speaking, and certainly more confident at it, and could use simple written integrations to sidestep more complex spoken ones: maps, signs, and ticket machines, for example, until I worked out that these latter could be used in English. These strategies also reminded me of the the importance of affective factors when it comes to language use. I felt much more comfortable reading and interacting in a written format than I did in a face to face spoken setting simply because speaking to someone in a second language is terrifying. I’m generally quite shy, as well as acutely aware of the importance of at least having a go at using the language out of respect. My strategy, then, is to avoid situations wherever possible. An absence of personal confidence can be challenging at the best of times, but with the potential to be positively crippling in high stakes interactions involving your son’s very pressing need to use the toilet. 

What this all really bright home to me was the realisation that a second language is not a simply a dualistic process of reception and production, as it is often presented on training courses, and certainly how the skills are traditionally broken down for exams and so on. Rather it is a process of negotiation. When you enter into an interaction in a language you don’t fully understand or have full control of, both you and your interlocutor have various resources to draw on: your knowledge of their language, their knowledge of your language, shared knowledge of the world and how it works. A regular morning international relied firmly on contextual understanding that at least one person (me, the customer) wanted to get something from the conversation (4 croissants) and that the other person (the boulanger) was in a position to facilitate that in some way, but would also benefit from said interaction being successful (he got paid).You negotiate meaning through whichever resources you have at hand, whether they are “proper” target language resources, or “cheating” by using other methods. In this sense, a language classroom is an essentially false setting: we discourage first language use, and insist that learners use only the target language, when in reality this is not always how people function in a second language interaction. Even in a classroom setting, “real” language, that is language which occurs in the classroom because of the classroom context (instructions, explanations, clarifications, passing on of administrative information and so on)  is often similarly negotiated using various resources: first language between peers and sometimes teacher, a reduced form of the target language, and various metalinguistic strategies such as sign language, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. The target language is borne out of the essential falseness where the outside experiences and needs of the learners dictate language which cannot occur naturally in the classroom. So this falseness isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, a classroom is in many ways about creating a pretend language environment, but the reality should at least be acknowledged, rather than denied.


A slightly darker, sadder, postscript to this was that I very quickly also learned to understand the meaning of Votre sac, Monsieur? as we entered just about every shopping centre, museum, or major attraction. Due to terrorist events in France over the last year, security was on a particular high: armed police and soldiers were very visible and present, the base of the Eiffel Tower protected by a security fence and bag search upon entry (this is before the queues to actually pay to go up the tower), and one or two places, including the Louvre, had a full airport scanner for bags. By way of defiance to any kind of victory felt by terrorist organisations at this, this mild inconvenience in no way lessened our enjoyment of Paris. No, any sense of danger or fear was almost entirely due to the frankly terrifying Parisian motorists. 

New Literacy Standards, Old ESOL Problem.

What a difference 15 years makes. Prior to 2001 ESOL curriculum design was a bit of a straggly, weirdly funded, mess. Then along came Skills for Life, and as well as lots of money, came a rather enormous Core Curriculum. It’s an interesting thing to look at, charmingly dated (“Now, we are going to listen to a tape of Amir paying for a CD-ROM with a cheque.”) but otherwise it sort of almost works.

It was never brilliant. It was too tied to the Literacy Curriculum, for one, and was a bit of a botched attempt at shoehorning language learning descriptors onto a literacy framework, i.e. one designed for first language users learning and developing, mostly, reading and writing skills. It was a decision presumably made from a policy / funding perspective, rather than an educational one, and suffered as a result. Rather than using an already well defined standard, such as the CEFR, the policy decision was made to start this from scratch so that it could be more easily aligned with the funding for the other bits of Skills for Life.

All of this, however, is by the by, as the Education and Training Foundation have recently been running a consultation on a draft set of standards for literacy and numeracy. All of which looks familiar – numeracy, of course, is there, as is literacy, and, oh no, wait, English for speakers of other languages is notable by its continued absence in this. I’ve done my bit, and consulted via the survey on the web page, and I’d encourage you to do likewise, whether you teach ESOL or otherwise. It’s interesting to read the draft – as with the old adult literacy curriculum and the functional skills standards, we are not concerned with lexical development, grammatical complexity at word level, tenses, and the rest, but rather with the development of sentence complexity (clause structure, discourse markers, that sort of thing) and an understanding of text types, register and formality. Not that this sort of thing isn’t useful, nor that it isn’t necessary, just that there is a marked difference between the learning needs of a native speaker and a second language speaker. There are other things an ESOL learner has to learn which are specific to ESOL and these are simply not adequately covered in this sort of “one size fits both” document.

But if I was in charge, what would a “good” ESOL curriculum look like? That’s a huge question and by answering it I’ll no doubt raise even more questions, not to mention a whole heap of disagreements from everyone.

For one, it probably wouldn’t look much different, at least not superficially. Perhaps because I’ve worked with the current curriculum for so long, I’ve got used to it. As a means of level description for ESOL, however, I think I’d like to promote grammatical structure and lexical development to the forefront. This isn’t to say that I think these should be the primary consideration when designing a course plan, mind you, but for me at least, the assessment of a language course should be significantly based around the ability to handle the structural elements of language: grammar, lexis and phonology.

With these structural elements in place I would then want to look at the building up the skills elements. Being able to read for gist is all very well as a skill, but how do we select a text that an Entry 2 learner might be able to read for gist, if not by linguistic complexity? By the same token, we wouldn’t mark an Entry 3 learner down for inaccurately trying to use a third conditional in a piece of writing, but would be critical of a Level 2 learner failing to form a structurally accurate past simple question. However, both the old curriculum and the new are driven by these skills elements, with language relegated to a subheading, if at all, and this imbalance, to my mind, is what needs redressing.

Usually this rebalancing act is done by tutors when they design their course, or by exam boards looking for concrete distinctions between adjacent levels. These latter often place the responsibility for language item selection on the assessor by using conceptually fluid statements such as “language expected at Level 2“. I would expect, for example, a Level 2 learner to be able to use a second conditional with confidence, for example, but only if the context required it: I’d also expect them to know when not to use it. Present simple would qualify as “language expected at Level 2” if this were the most appropriate language for the job at hand. Either way, the only place we have is the list appended to the back of each section of the core curriculum document, and it is to this, I suspect, that the majority of teachers refer when designing their course content, if they refer to anything at all.

The impact of the skills-driven core curriculum is seen in other ways. Now, this is not another excuse to take a pop at the Skills for Life materials, although it is tempting, but certainly the general tenor of the ESOL core curriculum (and indeed the literacy and numeracy curricula) was one of deficit and disadvantage – the focus was, and is, on what the learner cannot do, rather than looking at what they are capable of and how best to expand upon that base. (Remember that this is a system which encourages us to start by “diagnosing” language needs, like not speaking English is an illness to be cured). There is that tendency in resource design by publishers, governments and teachers (I’m as guilty, to be honest) to cast learners in deficit roles, as passive consumers, as employees and patients, not professionals, not people with power. This is because we look at those contexts where learners are, rather than where they might be, or could aspire to be, and because we look at the skills they need now rather than the language that may enable them to move beyond that point.

OK, so that was a bit of a loose association, tenuous at best, but there is definitely something in that whole functional language / skills-driven curriculum which promotes the drive towards “practical” language, and this too easily situates learners into a deficit narrative.

I don’t think the new literacy standards are about to redress any of this, mind you. They are clearly, blatantly, written without ESOL learners in mind. And perhaps that is OK, because perhaps there will be a new ESOL curriculum developing soon. That’s a big perhaps, I know, but it might happen.



The comment I had from  the Education & Training Foundation seems to suggest that there might be something in the pipeline for ESOL, although I hope it’s more than “maths literacy” (not that that isn’t needed, mind). I’m also a little concerned by the vagueness of “support” for ESOL, rather than a promise to develop something specific. It’s a shame, really, because if we are talking about developing new curricula, then this is an ideal time to make a proper ESOL curriculum. Sure, ESOL is distinctly politically unpopular, now more than ever, but it’s still needed, and if there is a need for ESOL, then there is a need for a real ESOL curriculum.

The “Just Been to a Conference” Post

You know, this academic year I have attended a whole bunch of training. Some of it external, but much of it internal. Now, I have to admit that I don’t often get to engage with internal training events as a participant so I feel like I miss out sometimes. I’m a bit of a subject specific snob sometimes too – as soon as someone starts to share or discuss a technique which is highly linguistically demanding for learners then I’m afraid you have more or less lost me. I try, and I want to try, but you know, if I can’t see how I can apply the idea as is to my practice as soon as possible, then I’m really going to struggle to engage. Someone once observed that I was “too much of a specialist” but you know, I rather like being an ESOL specialist. It’s never going to score me much by way of a career, perhaps, both in and out of college, but I don’t think I really care. Becoming too generalised in mindset feels to me like selling out, in some weird, undefinable way.

So anyway, this all means that I rather like going to a subject specific conference, as I did on Saturday at the NATECLA National Conference, where I get to talk and think all things ESOL. There are a lot of people I on it ever see at these things, which is lovely, of course, but it’s also good when there is no need to filter concepts into an ESOL friendly format. Instead, I find myself taking on a whole bunch of new ideas and concepts, or realigning ideas, or just having ideas for simple classroom activities that I can do stuff with.

There were some recurring themes in the sessions I was able to attend, and indeed linked to my own. One of these themes was around reformulation. This is taking a learner’s inaccurate or incomplete utterance and repeating it back to the learner in the correct form. It is a fairly instinctive, natural method of error correction and functions as a sort of “on the fly” input for students

S: I make my homework.

T: I do my homework.

The session I attended by Richard Gallen from Tower Hamlets College was on that very theme, and around the ways in which classroom conversations can lead to specific learning, and fairly early on he established that the simple act of reformulation considered on its own is largely ineffective. I’m sure, as well, that this wasn’t news to me, but I can’t remember where i picked that up from.However, it does make sense to suggest that simply repeating back the language to the learners is unlikely to lead to anything useful – there’s nothing there to encourage the learner to act on the reformulation, there is no follow up for learners. No, the point is this: for reformulation to work, we need to make things explicit to the students – make sure that the learner notices the reformulation and actually attempts to assimilate it. The phrase that kept coming up during the session was language upgrades, which distinguished nicely for me this kind of conscious improving of language in situ rather than simply correcting errors. Richard suggested a number of ways to introduce this – recording the language on the board, then getting students to revisit the language in a follow up lesson, perhaps using a slightly different context. If you record all the language reformulations, you can then turn these into simple gap fills, for example, as an activity in the following lesson – to use my example above:

“I always ______ my homework after class.”

There were other things too. Timing is crucial for these language upgrades – it’s no good getting the upgrade too late – and it needs to be just at the periphery of awareness: conceptually familiar, perhaps, but not completely linguistically familiar.  In short, if you get the upgradewhen you need it “just in time” and “just right” then the language is more likely to stick.  Richard quoted here from Leo Van Lier: The Ecology & Semiotics of Language Learning, which I am adding to my reading list. There may be a confidence / fluency payoff here – such immediate upgrading is surely going to interrupt the flow of a learner’s speaking, but if it makes the language stick, is this a worthy sacrifice? To interrupt fluency like this is a tough call for a teacher whose main focus is often communicative effectiveness, of which fluency is a major part.The challenge, I guess, is making that judgement call in the lesson, and this would depend very much on the learners themselves. There were some interesting insights into learner practices – students who took on the new vocabulary offered in an exchange tended to use that language with some sort of qualifying definition or statement. It was a genuinely interesting thing to see the transcriptions of the classroom conversations, and I really did wonder how practical such a thing might be for me to try one day.

There were plentiful other insights from Richard, things like the notion that learners grouped by similar ability, rather than mixed ability is more likely to lead to learning because of the quality of upgrades they can offer: the lower level learner in a mixed pair is less likely to act on the upgrades offered, and is also unlikely to be able to offer appropriate upgrades to the higher level student.

What else? learners remember more lexical feedback than grammatical and in fact generally ask more questions about vocabulary, although this sort of questioning does tend to be at higher levels rather than lower. The other humdinger moment for me was the revelation that our learners should be aiming at developing around 12-15 words a lesson in order to progress appropriately.

So I found myself thinking, as one does at these times, about my own lessons. I reckon that I’m pretty good at reformulating and am definitely one for letting language emerge “on demand” in the lesson rather than being overtly dependent upon “input” language. I’m also fairly good at recording the language that arises, usually informally, I think: the day before the workshop I was revisiting an old IWB file with a colleague and found myself wondering how a whole bunch of words had appeared on the slide, which appeared to have only the most tenuous links to the main information. Where I know I need to do better, then, is the follow up work, the consolidation, if you like, something I want to be much much better at next year. I think I do it in the lesson, and I’ve noticed students doing this sort of conscious application of new language in the moment, but as was discussed in the workshop, teachers need to actively promote this kind of emergent, negotiated language in order to enhance learning  – students need to know that the language is there and do something with it.

This is, of course, going to appeal to me as a piece of research, and I guess when you sign up to sessions at a confenrence it is often a bit of an echo chamber – I’m unlikely to be going to sessions on, say, SMART targets, or engaging learners with learning outcomes, because I’d rather scoop out my hear with a spoon than listen to someone extolling cheap performance managed behaviourism, but I’m likely to be battering down the door to a workshop on conversation and emergent language. But then you go to conferences to find out more about things you are interested in, I guess: it’s not a comprehensive education, so to speak. I’d have been deeply disappointed to find out about Richard’s workshop second hand, whatever happened.

I’ve just seen the wordcount in the bottom corner creeping up towards 1500, so I think I should probably stop. This doesn’t mean I’ve nothing to say about storytelling from Jamie Keddie, just that this post is getting ridiculously long! In a lot of ways Jami’s talk on storytelling and ways to exploit videos in line with this was similar – after all, these kinds of activities often build on language that emerges in reaction to, or as part of the story – opportunities are presented for emergent language which can be capitalised upon and exploited in just the same way.

So it was a good day, and a good event – I’ve got a serious batch of ideas for next year, which is sort of the point, isn’t it?