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?

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