Language

Forgetting pronunciation.

There is rarely a passionate debate about pronunciation. I mean, the whole explicit/implicit grammar teaching gets all ESOL and EFL teachers into a bit of a tizzy, and nobody every sidelines vocabulary teaching, but rarely do we, particularly in an ESOL uk setting, dare to venture into it. to be fair, it cold be just me, and perhaps lots of people in FE colleges and charities up and down the country are openly and explicitly teaching pron all the time, but my feeling is not. Certainly my own reflections are that I don’t, and I do wonder why. Here are my reasons/excuses

It’s embedded.

This is true, to an extent, particularly at a word level. We drill words for pron, for example, or at least I do, and to a lesser extent with grammar, but it’s there. But there are some aspects which sit outside the embeddable, like intonation, sentence stress as a general principle, that sort of thing, or at least which are too easily neglected when covering, for example, question forms. Indeed, this excuse too easily leads to glossing over pronunciation, and not really getting into it.

It’s not in the curriculum.

Ok, this is a bit of a straw man, but it’s a point: the esol core curriculum was always wary of breaking language down into its traditional component parts, preferring the glossing of the literacy curriculum, which had little need to consider fundamental issues of tense and word order at both sentence and phrase level, nor the subtleties of modal verbs and future forms, let alone things like “words” and “how to say them”. This mandated, or perhaps was a result of, a historical reluctance amongst a certain type of ESOL teacher that systemic elements like grammar and pronunciation shouldn’t be explicitly taught, lest the poor students start to worry about it. (For the record, they should worry about grammar and pronunciation, and they do, regardless of how much you try to wrap them up in your nice woolly cardigan). 

It’s got the phonemic chart. 
There is a kernel of truth to this: too often in an ESOL setting, learners have an issue with basic literacy, which the addition of what is effectively 44 new letters would only serve to exacerbate. But once there’s a grasp of the basic letters and their sound meanings, I’ve been known to chuck in a schwa at Entry 1, use the symbols for sh and th and break down x into /k/ and /s/. But then the other day I showed the phonemic chart to my level 1s and frankly blew their minds. (20 vowels? But we’ve learned the literacy way and there are only 5??????? Argh!) but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: the phonemic script is an excellent teaching tool to guide pronunciation, and is used almost universally in dictionaries for learners, including those marketed directly at beginners and ESOL students. I chose to move quickly past it, which I regret now, because I had the feeling of unearthing something new and different for the group, and which would potentially be a big help.

But which pronunciation to use?

Yes, sorry another rhetorically applied straw man. I have an accent with origins in Swindon and later the further reaches of the Thames and Cherwell valleys, but now live amongst the formerly dark satanic mills of Yorkshire. So this creates much amusement: according to most of my students I speak “properly” although to colleagues and in-laws it’s either “posh” or (more often) “stop muttering”. But which is reet / right / roight? I can’t make a judgement call, and can only best guess with my own usual accent, which is sort of RP-ish. But how do I deal with arguments about “bus/boos” etc.? Worse, am I doing a disservice to my students if I teach them a southern “bus” over a northern one? After all they have to go and live and work in that speech community. However, this is just fluff. Because in reality most ESOL students have enough problems with fairly universal pronunciations and being generally understood, so worrying about the “right” pronunciation is pretty pointless. Mind you, it still doesn’t stop me gritting my teeth at the very London-centric accents of many (most) widely produced ESOL materials, including the exam recordings. 

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There are other reasons that it gets avoided too: teachers, usually. Teachers are too often literacy focussed at the expense of speaking, and of pronunciation. Some of the blame for that lies at the double doors of accountability: the target and the learning outcome. It’s easy to produce externally accountable evidence of learning in the form of a written text, but much harder when it comes to pronunciation and speaking. Given that general faith in these accountability measures is (rightly) limited, it’s no surprise that for many teachers choose the path of least resistance. That’s not all, however. I think teachers  can be nervous of explicitly teaching pronunciation, even only as part of a lesson, and will avoid it as a result. The  metalanguage of grammar is widely understood and applied, the metalanguage of phonology less so. (This also applies, I think, for vocabulary: apart from phrasal verbs, for example, the notion of collocation is rarely noted on schemes of work that I’ve seen, and connotation was a complete shock for one level 1 group I once taught.). Part of this falls at the door of trainers and training courses, but also at the materials and resources available to teachers, and, as mentioned above the core curriculum. Exam boards are complicit in this as well, with a punitive and arguably unnecessary focus on dross like purpose of text which I teach solely because it comes up in exams, despite grave reservations over its general usefulness. 

It is this skills driven element, that causes the problem, and in many ways the lack of focus on pronunciation is a symptom of a downplaying in ESOL of structural elements of language in favour of the global skills. Everything is driven around the skills, both the qualifications and the curriculum, with systems being bolted onto the side, rather than recognised for the integral part they play. 

Mrs Khan went to the post office, the dentist, the bus stop, the sewing shop, the cafe….

I take it back, sort of. The criticisms are still there: the sometimes punitive over emphasis on “real life” for example, where observers and auditors of a particularly narrow mindset may criticise your planning for not linking to learners lives, as if this is the be all and end all; the notion that an ESOL for employment course should only link explicitly to employability skills; and the necessarily fake nature of some pedagogical dialogues. There are still issues with all these things. 

However, I did take the decision to go with a few “situational” sessions, but rather than using published materials, my first idea was to start with the crucial vocabulary. To this end, I took a walk down my local high street, taking pictures of a the various shops and services along that street. I live in a completely different area to where my students live and work, but focussed on my area for two main reasons. Firstly, I’m lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you have almost every local shop you could possibly need, and more: a couple of  cafes and restaurants, a small supermarket, an old fashioned greengrocer, a barbers with a rotating barber’s pole as the sign, a florist, a butcher, a small DIY shop, a brilliantly useful hardware/homeware shop that sells more or less everything, a couple of takeaways, a superfluity of hairdressers, nail bars and beauty salons, and, of course, a post office. As a range of potential situations and vocabulary, this was simply too rich to pass up. The second reason was far more pragmatic: I teach in a very large town, and the students are scattered across the various suburbs of the town, so the centre of the town is the only really mutual area that is familiar to all the students. I don’t know if you’ve been to a British town centre recently, but this one is stereotypically bland, with little to distinguish it either from other similar town centres (except the surpassing ugliness of one pedestrian precinct), or to distinguish the shop fronts visually from one another. Therefore, to find the same sort of easily identifiable range of shops would have taken something of a trek to find, whereas my own local area was a simple matter of walking home after taking the children to school. So yes, there was a slight stone-built cottagey tweeness to some of the pictures, but they worked as an effective stimulus for vocabulary. 

PowerPoint was king on this one. Each photo was loaded into a presentation, which was then used as a stimulus to get the students to name each shop. They worked in groups and wrote down the name on mini whiteboards, which meant I could check the ideas easily, and the students could peer check both word and spelling. After this eliciting stage, I have the students a  (black and white – austerity measures!) print out of the presentation, and asked the students to work individually to add the names of the places. This meant that a) they all had a practice in writing and spelling, and b) they all had a record of the key spellings. 

On the day, I followed this with a focus on functional language, and I wish I hadn’t. I typed up possible “things people say” for each place, and had the students work in groups to discuss which sentence went with which place. This was with a view to then writing up mini dialogues based on each sentence, and a focus on polite language. In practice, there wasn’t really time to move onto the functional language forms, and I rather wish I had simply revised present simple and adverbs of frequency with them and had the students talk about how often they went to the different places. Instead we finished the matching of utterance to place, and only really had enough time to do a bit of a spelling / vocab recap at the end. 

So as a follow up in the subsequent lessons I used a couple of different ideas. I still liked the idea of working with a dialogue, so accessed a couple of rather brilliant listening activity on the EsolNexus website. Some of the students are doing listening as part of their final exam, and really need to work on this. The first was a series of sounds from around the town, which was a nice revisit of some of the vocabulary from the day before, and students had to say where they thought it was, and then justify this using present continuous (“it is a playground. Children are playing.”) which was a nice chance to revisit that language. Then there was a listening based, of course, in a post office. I liked the listening though: it’s fast, for one, and includes a natural switch halfway through from a transactional conversation (sending a parcel) to an interactional one (“its busy in here today…”). It also had some complex bits of language that you might not expect at this level: a pointlessly applied reflexive pronoun, for example, and an unusually placed “anyway”, which provoked some discussion among the more able students in the group, although the biggest challenge, I thought, was the strong London accent, but in fact, the students coped admirably well with all this. 

So next up comes the functional language. I’ve cleared a lesson to concentrate on request forms, and hopefully will get to exploit the sentences from the first in this little trio of lessons. I probably should have done this as the second lesson, but I wanted the listening to provide a few more examples of some of the forms we might use in a transactional situation. I think I’ll go back to my sentences from lesson 1 and get the students to highlight which ones are questions, and then eliciti all the ways we can ask for something, before then getting the students to expand the sentences into role plays which they can then share and practice. 

So yes, Mrs Khan does indeed go to the post office in my lessons, just not all the time. 

Nobody Expects Dimples

This week I taught two lessons which reminded me of the richness that letting the students lead on the content can create. The first lesson was on Tuesday night – a Level 1/Level 2 group on the theme, broadly, of “life stages”. It was meant as a build up to a listening activity based around this recording from the BBC’s excellent Listening project, but took on a bit of a life of its own.

The activity was a variation on the game of consequences. At the top of the page I had printed “Be born”. Students worked in pairs and added the next thing that thought would happen. They then passed it to the next pair along who added another idea, and so on. I mixed things up a little, taking a lead from a chapter in 52 by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings and every now and again asked the students to put something bad as the next event.

Some of the language generated was fairly predictable: go to school, get a job, retire, etc. But once the class warmed up to the task, the list almost became small, occasionally tragic biographies: have a breakdown, have an affair, get expelled, drop out, recover, get kicked out, bring up children, and, my personal favourite, have a mid-life crisis prompted by a pair of students talking about men of a certain age. The students were trying to express an idea, lacked the necessary language to do so, and my job was simply to fill that gap.

Something similar occurred with another class, this time Entry 1. Like the life stages task, this was intended as a precursor to something else, but also grew beyond the bounds of the planned activity.This time, students were brainstorming / researching in dictionaries vocabulary to do with physical appearance. Each group had a sheet of A3 paper – one group used this to brainstorm words to do with hair, one with body, one with face and one with skin. I was a little nervous about the last one, what with the potential for racist overtones, but in fact this provoked arguably the most useful chunks of language: greasy skin, oily skindry skin, and sensitive skin. The face list also took me by surprise – one student pointed at her cheeks –

“What are these?”

“Cheeks.”

“No.” Irritated by her stupid teacher. “These.”

I looked more carefully, a little nervous about staring, and the penny dropped:

Dimples!

In both cases, the new vocabulary arose from the students needing specific sets of language to express a concept. The task gave a setting for the vocabulary, and linked it all together, but ultimately the words were the students’ own words. It would never have occurred to me to teach words like sensitive skin or dimples despite the students in question having both – sensitive skin in particular is useful for a student who is resident in the UK. Having a breakdown, an affair or a mid-life crisis is unlikely to make it into most teacher-selected syllabuses, but nevertheless arose because the students had a need to talk about them. And again, these are not unusual or unlikely phrases – you could find them in most newspapers, magazines or online with a fairly high degree of frequency. Both groups, took great delight in exploring the new language, playing with it, using it.  “I read about a man in Poland, he had a mid life crisis and…” “Can you have just one dimples?” “Do you know good [indicates rubbing cream into skin] for sensitive skin?” 

There is an element of luck to this, for sure: with another group on another day we might have just the expected language. This isn’t some form of “best practice” that can be packaged up and rolled out at a training event. There is an element of skill as well. This wasn’t dogme, unplugged teaching per se: the activities limited the range of emergent language into a reasonably predictable collection of terms. We weren’t about to start talking about finding a job or how to make chapati, after all. A little control, a little setting of boundaries, if judged carefully, can make for a surprisingly productive lesson. You need to judge, as well, if the language is going down a dead end, explain well, and, arguably most importantly of all, capture what has come out. In this case I had the A3 sheets, and the lists of vocabulary (many of which were copied or photographed). For the level 1 group we had key terms on the interactive whiteboard which I have turned into PDF handouts and sent out. I’m in the habit of recording new words and concepts on a regular whiteboard next to the interactive one, then taking a photo with my phone. The A3 sheets were photographed, uploaded to google drive, and on display on the interactive whiteboard in slightly less than a minute, with virtually no impact on the flow of the lesson. The emergent language was captured and shared. 

The language was practised as well. For the level 1 group I closed with a speaking task – asking have you ever..? in pairs using the consequences sheet. For the Entry 1 group, one  I had the photos on the board, I elicited the relevant structures (“I have got…” and “I am…”) and had the students tell each other about themselves before reporting back to the whole class using “he’s/she’s got” and “he/she is…”. I also think I missed an opportunity or two: the level 1 class could have written short fictional biographies, for example. The entry 1 class will be following it up properly: putting the descriptive language together with the work we did last week on daily routines, and creating a profile of an individual based on photographs and other images. 

There is, I think, always a place for teacher led decisions on language content in some lessons, and students like to have a little direction. They are, after all, not stupid, and can smell an unplanned, undirected lesson a mile away. But you can create an activity and the conditions for language to emerge within the lesson, while still giving the lesson a sense of structure and purpose. Sometimes, as well, specific forms are unlikely to ever simply “emerge” in this way, so a bit of teacher-led is necessary: while we are under pressure to get students to pass exams and achieve external curriculum aims, then there has to be a fair portion of teacher selected content. 

But there is still a lot of freedom there, of course, which means there is plenty of room for dimples. 

To Do

Möbius_stripI’m wary of writing to do lists. I can just about manage to write one for a given day, particularly on days like today, when I’ve not got a lot by way of teaching, but a bunch of other stuff that I need to get done, but beyond that they have a tendency not to be motivating reminders of tasks, but depressing records of your own personal failure, an uncrossed list mocking you with a smug reminder of what you haven’t done. Perhaps it’s the way I use them, I don’t know, but I sometimes struggle with the whole notion that life can be compressed into neat little tasks to be robotically ticked off, as if granting profound meaning to a stack of chores.

But at least a to do list works in theory. After all, you are dealing with concrete, measurable tasks leading to specific results, like “mark 15 functional ICT papers” or “email B about X” or indeed “plan lesson for tomorrow’s evening class”. This last, of course, is where I’m going with this. After all, we generally set our students a kind of “to do” list when we plan and share learning outcomes with them, and it’s part of the teachers job to know what is realistically achievable in that time, and to check that the “to do” list becomes a “have done” list.

Ah no, I hear you think, the learning outcomes are not a “to do” list at all. They are a “to learn” list. Really, you think that, do you? I disagree.

It’s all in the phrasing. We refer to learning outcomes, not aims. An outcome, in all its performance management glory, is usually talked about in terms of observable behaviours, and post observation teachers are usually grilled with interrogatives like “ah ha, but how do you know they learned?” Because really, imaginary observer, how do you know they didn’t? A focus on observable evidence means that all I can say that my students have done in a lesson is produce the evidence to meet the learning outcome, not necessarily learned the things inherent in that. I’m going to pitch this outside ESOL, too, because in ESOL pretty much any teacher in the world could tell you that “use present simple third person singular to write five sentences” is a cheap proxy for “learn present simple third person singular” but that it is very unlikely for that student to have learned such a thing in any convincing way. So if I think of a training session I ran only recently during which I aimed for teachers to “identify and evaluate methods of stretch and challenge”, what I actually wanted was for them to learn one of them and then to apply it. Achievement of the former is only gong to be an educated guess, and the latter something I would struggle ever to find out, short of fitting CCTV to classrooms.

So when we share learning outcomes with students, and ask them to measure their own performance against these outcomes, what are we asking students to do? Some students, perhaps, are knowledgeable enough learners to recognise the learning subtext of an outcome, while others when presented with with an outcome will be able to recognise this aspect of the learning outcome, while the rest is more or less meaningless. For others, perhaps, they read this achievement at face value and wonder what they are actually going to learn? When we share those learning outcomes and ask student to self assess against them, are we effectively peddling a lie to our students about what learning is?

Things get worse when we consider that we use the same methodology for composing individual goals on an ILP – what are we saying that a student has learned if they have achieved a personal target of “use present simple third person singular in five sentences”? A student covering that language point is unlikely to be able to understand it: so we resort to making it more meaningful “write five sentences about things my friend does every day” or something similar. At this point, any awareness of transferable language knowledge has been well and truly lost and we are left with a task, not an outcome. Even in the bizarre world where a student could develop the language ability to be able to meta-analyse grammar in this way, but at the same time not actually know that language point then what model of language learning are we following? I don’t think anyone believes that learning anything happens in neat, observable, evidenceable steps, aside from auditors and similar.

All we can say for sure about learning is that it’s an internal, individual process. It’s probably not even cyclical, really – it’s not that neat. I suspect we’re dealing with a kind of complex spiralling variation of a möbius band, where things are learned, then forgotten, then learned again. If we are using achievement of a learning outcome or individual target as a means of tracking learning, then we do have to wonder what it is we are tracking exactly: to my mind we are tracking performance, not learning – achievement of said target or outcome is simply an example of performance, and one which fails in terms of reliability and validity when considered as assessment.  and if it’s an example of performance, then a list of learning outcomes or ILP targets is indeed a simple to do list, and only loosely linked to learning.

There are other implications too. Achievement of observable behaviours in the form of learning outcomes, whether individual or classroom based, is a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts: we use this achievement as evidence of success for all sorts of classroom practice: “in study X, teachers applied technique Y and this was a success because students achieved the lesson’s stated outcomes” but if the measurement scale is questionable then what does this mean for evidence? I’m personally not sure we can dismiss evidence based practice on this justification, because something was achieved in those lessons, I just have questions as to exactly what that something was.

Even if we accept that the aim is genuine, but that the outcome is false, learning is not restricted to the teacher set, teacher driven, teacher shared learning goals. Students take all sorts from a formal lesson, and not all of it is predictable and measurable. Which makes me think. I have a lesson this week which is free from exams and the rest, so I might try something. I’m going to teach a lesson and not share the outcomes (I’m told this is bad practice, but never mind). But there will be things I have in mind for the learning in the lesson, call them outcomes if you like. Then, at the end of the lesson, I’ll ask the students to tell me what they are going to take away from the lesson, what they learned, what skills they practised, and see how much a) they can articulate these things, and b) how much their perceived achievements marry up with my aims/outcomes/whatever.

Better put that on my to do list.

Urban Myths & Comic Sans

I don’t hate comic sans. I don’t like it very much but I don’t hate it. It’s relative ugliness is not that big a deal, really, and, well, it’s a font, right? However, what does annoy me about it is the use of it in educational circles outside of primary schools (who generally use Sassoon or similar), and the reasons for this. This led, as is common with these things, to a bit of a staff room chat the other day.

The most common argument I’ve heard, apart from “I just like it,” is that it is easier to read for learners with dyslexia or those learners with lower levels of literacy. It’s worth clarifying at this point that dyslexia is not the same as having a low level of literacy. Someone who has a low level of literacy may or may not have dyslexia, (and indeed vice versa). These are complex things, and while there may be occasional correlations here, these do not mean they are the same.

So, anyway, I thought I might go and look it up in the Internet. As you do. And a little rummage found a couple of interesting pieces amongst the numerous “graphic designers hate comic sans” sites. The most telling and authoritative was the information from the British Dyslexia association‘s Tech blog, who you rather think should know what they are talking about. They suggsest that feedback from their users offers comic sans as a good font, but only because it is simple and sans serif, not for any reason tremendously unique to that specific font. Otherwise they are pretty ambivalent. It’s worth noting that they point out that not only is it “not considered professional in the publishing or academic worlds” but also that “some adults consider it looks childish.” On the same page they also suggest that the choice of font “may not be a burning issue” indicating that other factors (size, spacing, line length) are just as important. It’s worth noting that the main British Dyslexia Association site uses a fairly regular looking sans serif, Roman font as a standard, but, and this is a crucial observation, with the opportunity to reformat the site with a pretty extensive set of options in the “accessibility” link. On another site I found it refers to a study, (you can find the study here) which suggested that a font designed with dyslexia in mind fared badly. The study didn’t even look at Comic Sans, suggesting perhaps that the font didn’t particularly register as an appropriate font for analysis.

The other challenge here is that dyslexia is a complex concept which can manifest itself differently for different people. So even if the evidence for comic sans were conclusive, it might well be that the learner in your class with dyslexia may not in fact be helped by that particular adjustment. It would seem more useful, to my mind, to have some sort of open source document file format which allows for the content creator to fix the document so it is impossible to change the content, like a pdf, but allows the reader to change the font style, size, spacing, background colour and so on according to the individual needs of the reader. Now that would be awesome.

Either way, it’s not looking tremendously convincing for the use of Comic Sans as a help for learners with dyslexia. So what about literacy and language teaching? I should be on more comfortable ground here, this being my thing, so to speak.

Well, again, a little rummage around the Internet and I got, well, nothing much. As with dyslexia there wouldn’t appear to be much out there in terms of solid evidence, mostly there were lots of “literacy educators like it” comments. These pointed out the shape of the lower case a, and of the lower case g, but none of these are unique to Comic Sans. There are several others, including Century Gothic, which have the same sorts of shapes to the letters, although I personally find the roundness of Century Gothic a little tough going. There is a font I personally quite like called Andika. It was designed with literacy education in mind, and to me it looks like a sort of grown up version of Comic Sans, or perhaps the love child of Comic Sans and Calibri, I’m not sure. It looks the part though, somehow hitting lots of criteria for ease of reading but without looking like it was designed for five year olds.

That said, however, there is another issue with making all our texts so learner friendly in this way. The vast majority of fonts used in the real world are not governed by the needs of learners and the diktats of education, but rather the tastes and habits of typographers and designers. The upshot of this is that the lower case a that your learners encounter outside of class, even outside of your handouts, is likely to be the one with the funny hat on. Lower case g may have weird squiggling descenders on it. Typefaces come in all shapes and sizes, and really is it in the best interests of our learners to mollycoddle our learners in this way? Perhaps there’s a value where literacy in any language is low, but beyond Entry 1, I remain unconvinced.

My own habits tend towards a fairly large sized Calibri, because a) it’s sans serif and easy on the eye, and b) it’s the default and I’m lazy. But genuinely, I think it’s quite nice: curvier and more elegant than Arial, a bit less squat looking than Tahoma and Verdana. It ticks the boxes, and works well. I like Andika for learners at the lower end of the literacy scale.

But I avoid Comic Sans. Not perhaps to the extent that I would change something out of it, although I have done, but I don’t usually consciously use it. I find it infantile, annoying, unattractive and unprofessional. It’s good for cat posters, perhaps. The evidence is scanty at best, and the whole area is really not very well researched enough to make any great claims one way or the other.

However, like so much in education the “comic sans is good for dyslexia and literacy” idea has proven hard to shift in the face of this lack of evidence. This is a bit of a depressing habit, especially in FE, where all sorts of things hang on in spite of evidence, or in spite of an absence of evidence . It has become one of those things that “everyone knows”. As in “everyone knows you should use Comic Sans for dyslexia.”  It’s like a massive urban myth, the “friend of a friend told me” school of educational theory, and like many urban myths it has roots in a version of reality, but a very strained link to fact. So maybe next time you reach for the Comic Sans you might want to wait a minute and think.

Context context context

One of the things I remember being drummed into me on my Cert TESOL course back in 1999 was that when teaching grammar, context is all important. It’s all about the context, I now decry shrilly at annual crops of CELTA trainees, context, ho ho ho, Internet geek joke, context is king.

Context is important. It makes new language meaningful to the learners, it gives you a setting for the language to be practised in, and it provides opportunities to integrate skills and vocabulary into a lesson in a meaningful way. The first thing you learn after finishing courses like CELTA is that nobody in the universe teaches for just one hour, and that in any one session you are likely to do more than just teach the past simple, and so you need to have something either before or after, or even both.

Ideally, context should match something of interest to the learners. However, let me make something clear, here. This doesn’t mean fancying around making it useful to the learners. There’s a bit of an obsession amongst some ends of the UK ESOL community that all learning should be applicable to the learners lives, and that this means all language contexts must be contexts of dour functionality: ones where people go to the shops, get stuff done, pay bills, get jobs, zzzzzzzz. Yes, these contexts are important but come on, a group of level 2 learners who have “done” money several times with several teachers are likely to roll their eyes at you when you announce the context of money in order to review first and second conditionals. And, sometimes, these functional contexts are plain boring for one and all, or simply unrealistic, like shoehorning job related contexts into beginner ESOL classes because the learners are all Job Centre Plus referrals. Even worse, of course, is when 40-something teachers try to shoehorn “youth” themes and pop culture into 16-18 ESOL lessons. Even twenty years later I remember teachers doing this and I still cringe, although now it’s probably more sympathetic rather than at the sheer awfulness. Current affairs, events in the local area, nationally, internationally, can all provide good contexts for lessons and learning, and these are some of my favourite contexts, and often interest learners, but so can the totally disconnected contexts. There’s the text in Headway Elementary – the Man with Thirteen Jobs – which is great and often intrigues learners, but the context of a whisky drinking part time undertaker, hotelier, bus driver, shopkeeper, etc. on a remote Scottish Island is a world away from learners in a community centre in Dewsbury. Yet it’s fun, and you don’t need to link it to the learners job aspirations to make it engaging: nor should you feel obliged to. You only have to look at the awful “learner as powerless service user/consumer/Jobseeker/menial employee” contexts of the old ESOL core curriculum materials to see where this approach to context can end.

The answer, of course, is to talk to the learners. What contexts are they interested in, what are their reasons for being there. There will range from the predictable, especially at low levels, where language needs often sit at the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (health, food, roof over your head) to the more surprising (I want to become a prison officer. I want to write poems in English).

Increasingly, however, with my level 2 group especially, I’ve abandoned context. In my lesson recently on reported speech I used an idea I had developed before, where learners build a dialogue from a sentence, then direct speech from that dialogue which they then have to report to someone else, where the contexts evolved in the lesson based on the language. I did try and shoehorn a bit of context in later on, in order to link it to the previous lessons, mainly because it was likely to be an observed lesson, indeed it was formally observed, and one of the things which gets looked for is links across lessons and schemes. I understand that, and generally try to do it, but the time was right for a lesson on reported speech, the learners had identified it in a recent tutorial session, and this way of doing it is a nice, inductive, discovery led way which is engaging and intriguing for the learners, and in which the language is intrinsically interesting because they own the language being created. The lesson I taught afterwards on the same language, recapping and building on it, was equally decontextualised, where I prepared a series of cards, each pair with a statement in reported speech and direct speech, divided the statements equally between the learners, so that one group had different selections and so could peer check with minimal teacher input.

I used a similar approach this week for conditionals, but this time even barer of context. In order to review form and meaning, I prepared a series of conditional sentences, from the traditional zero-3rd variety and from the more mixed and unusual variations. These were prepared into postcard sized pieces of paper, and then sorted. First into real/unreal piles, then each pile was further sorted into past/present/future piles. (Kinaesthetic, innit!) The sentences were then discussed in terms of form and meaning in groups before a whole class plenary discussion where the learners fed back to me and I typed up their “findings” into a whole class document which I then printed and gave back to them as reference. We closed the lesson then with the more traditional discussion questions (“if you could be an animal, what would you be?” – that sort of thing) which again, wasn’t particularly themed or contextualised, but the themes just grew as the learners talked, and which gave me an opportunity to check that conditionals were being used and being used accurately. (For the record, 2 out of the 15 present were still not producing the more complex conditionals, but I also rather suspected this would be the case. Had there been a plan, the outcomes would have been differentiated therein).

So, yes, context can be important, and I will continue to infuriate trainees with an insistence that the lesson would have been less sucky had they set a clear context. This is because often the lessons would have been better in context, would have made more sense to the learners, all those things. Context can really help, especially when it’s linked to some external interest or need. However, sometimes it’s just as useful and interesting to let the contexts evolve in the classroom as well.

So, how long does it take to learn English, then?

Bad news, I’m afraid. I’m not going to answer the question, but rather I’m going to explain why I can’t answer it, why it probably can’t be answered, and what we could do about this. I’m also likely to get a load of people trying desperately to work this out for their own studies, so my sincere apologies, but I hope that you enjoy this nonetheless.

To set this in context, however, earlier this year those highly experienced educational experts (Oh, how I long for a sarcasm punctuation mark) at the Skills Funding Agency set out some apparently random rules that the courses they would fund are only those leading to an award (approx 50 hours) or a certificate (approx 100 hours). My numbers are rough, and as things stand it’s looking increasingly like for the next year at least things are unlikely to change too terribly, (probably because nobody had time to actually write the qualifications) but it gives us a clear idea as to where the government is going with this one. Either way, the implied fifty hours to move forward in speaking and listening seems arbitrary at the least: certainly, it’s not based in any kind of research or evidence. And just speaking and listening? As ever with UK ESOL policy the assumption is that all skills are equal, and that grammar and lexis are merely adjuncts to the skills. The systems of grammar and lexis needed to progress from level X to level Y are the same whether or not you demonstrate proficiency in those systems through speaking or writing, so to add 50 odd hours extra for reading and writing seems random to say the least.

There was a glamourously headlined article in the Guardian last year, How I Learned a Language in 22 Hours. It was interesting to read and I’ve no doubt that language teachers the world over had a good long read to see what the secret was. The secret, of course being that it’s not quite 22 hours. It doesn’t take much time before the essential lie of the headline writer becomes clear: the writer is referring not at all to learning a language but to learning only the most common 1000 words. This is rather different. It’s also only time spent using a particular online system, and doesn’t take into account wider factors in the writer’s non-online time, which may or may not have influenced things.

What is interesting here, from a policy influencing point of view, is that this article, with its frankly inaccurate headline, gives the impression of speedy progression from no language to language. Far be it for me to assume that the government would ever base policy decisions on such things as articles written by journalists or clearly biased research by private companies, of course, and I have no doubt that they use well planned, well researched evidence. (Again, that sarcasm mark, please.)

The thing is, by its very nature, the length of time it takes to learn a language is always going to be tricky to measure. It will vary hugely from person to person, even where you take into account the various individual differences. A quick google search threw up this link which although it doesn’t suggest a time for English (being focussed on the time it takes for English speakers to learn another language) it does suggest between 550 and 2200 taught hours, depending on the language being learned. If you flip those figures (yes, I know), you could get an idea of how long it would take for a speaker of those languages to learn English.

So far, this is pretty dodgy ground, I have to be honest, but this is a blog post based on a Google search, not a serious literature review.

There is page 17 of this which cites the same data as above, but which talks in terms of years of study as well as specific hours. There’s a great post hereon the subject (which is where I found the last link) which also brings into the equation the 10,000 hour theory.

What’s especially interesting here is the recognition that the number of hours spent per week has an impact, as opposed to just Guided Learning Hours, which is important, and the impact of immersion, both of which are relevant for ESOL learners.

So then I find this, from an intensive training French language school, suggesting that they can get people up to the first level of the CEFR (page 24 is the easiest summary) in 60 hours. This looks familiar. But lets hang on before we get too excited. Here we are talking both immersion (it’s in France) and high intensivity: that’s 60 hours without distractions like, say, children, relationships, work, and the rest of your life, and aimed probably at wealthy, educated middle class English speakers, whose language shares great swathes of similarity. I’m not saying it’s wrong to suggest 60 hours here, just that a little context is important. And anyway, as the language level increases the amount of time suggested goes up, until you are looking at 100-200 hours for the mid to higher levels, equivalent to Entry 2 to Level 2, where the majority of ESOL learners in the UK sit.

Then there is a section here where it’s suggested that children in an immersive learning environment but using a different home language, need about 2-3 years to become proficient enough to function.

I could go on, I really could, but I think we can safely say that nobody can say for sure, apart from the claims of people trying to flog you audio-lingual “listen and repeat” self study courses The general feeling seems to be around 150-200 hours per level, although this is mostly hunches and guess work, but still. I’ve not even gone into tryibg to find out what the definitions of “proficiency” are, which adds another layer of confusion to proceedings.

Of course what we really need is a proper study of ESOL learners in the UK, based on objective assessments of their performance and improvement over time.

Rather handily, although I never thought I would say this, thanks to the pressures of public accountability, we are sitting on a mountain of data which could give us more than a few clues as to how long it takes a UK ESOL learner to progress from level to level, and which takes into account spiky profiles. Major chunks of a senior manager’s life, it would seem, is about finding and channelling data, and among the most important sets of data is student achievement data, that is what qualifications learners have achieved, and, crucially, when and how long it took for them to do that.

Every college in the country has this data going back years. Really actual proper years, in some cases perhaps a decade. Massive heaps of data on students who achieve, return to study more and achieve again, progressing slowly but surely up the levels. Even without this, when I get into work today I could easily go and grab about 12 case studies of learners who have progressed from Entry 2 to level 1, as could many teachers around the country.

And these are exactly the learners we want to know about.

What’s annoying, however, is that the same accountants and non-teachers who decided upon the 50 hours thing have access to all of this data. All of it, for every ESOL learner in the UK. And yet they seemed to pick 50 hours out of the air.

Maybe they didn’t, maybe 50 hours is the average. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe my own observations and reflections of learners is wrong. Maybe the reflections, experiences and observations of experienced ESOL professionals (remember them?) around the country are wrong and the accountants are right. Maybe.