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. 


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. 

Useful: teacher development days

At some point or another you will attend some form of staff development as a teacher. Some of this will be mandatory, uninspiring crud (pretty much anything which is policy driven and/or delivered online). Some of it will be uninspiring crud delivered through the time honoured medium of PowerPoint and poor attempts at humour and carefully sycophantic laughter. And some of it, very probably the smallest amount, will actually have a positive impact on your classroom practice. Some of the more experienced teachers out there may sneer at this, particularly after a long career of being droned at by SLT, or worse, a highly paid consultant, but I promise you it is out there, and it does happen. 
I’m one of the lucky ones. We regularly organise internal, department specific training based on aggregated observation feedback, suggestions from staff, and the occasionally “just for the sheer hell of it”. And these sessions are, by and large, well received with positive feedback. They also have impact: genuine, measurable impact as teachers go out and put some of the ideas into practice: if it wasn’t useful, it would be ignored, but it isn’t. 
So why do these things work? It’s easy to knock holes in standardised training: after all, “standardised” is pretty much a synonym for “one size fits all”. However, our departmental training works because of a number of factors.
For one, it’s almost always practical. Sure, there has to be a bit of information giving, but we’re lucky in having a department head who recognises that this needs to be kept short and to the point: we find out what we need to find out. There sometimes has to be standardisation of assessment or exam practices, but again, while not perhaps the most thrilling of activities, it’s still important and, crucially, useful. This is the crucial word: useful. For staff training to work it must be based around practical, useful stuff: more often than not, something which working teachers can take away and use, possibly in the next teaching week. Take our most recent event, for example: an introduction from the Head of Department, followed by three short, informative and useful sessions on pace and teacher talk, on assessment for learning and on stretch and challenge. Each of the sessions had something useful, whether those things were on your areas for development or not: a nifty PowerPoint task, ideas for planned and on the fly differentiation, whatever, all useful.  

It worked as well because while some of the impetus and content was top down, there was no sense of hierarchy. Ideas were shared by workshop leaders, of course, but there was a strong element of professional respect: of teachers sharing with pride but also recognising that the people you are sharing with are at least as good and as professional a teacher as you. 

There is also a sense of equality of content: rarely is there the imposition of “best practice” from above but rather just “what do you think will work?” Sometimes you simply had confirmation that your ideas are ok, other times you had new ideas or new twists on old ideas. 

This is a leadership issue: these events are generally conceived and developed by managers who are also teachers, rather than managers who are ex-teachers (if you have given up day to day teaching to become a manager, you are an ex-teacher. You have, after all, ceased to teach. You are pushing up the pedagogical daisies). 

The knock on effect of the focus on usefulness and equality is that the teachers involved want, by and large, to be there. Imagine, in teaching terms, you have students who want to be there, who want to get something from the session, and expect to get something from the session, and this is what is achieved. People come, and people learn. 

Trainers, consultants and the rest all too often forget that they are dealing with learning: somehow all the pedagogical principles that you get hauled over the coals for forgetting are conveniently abandoned. Ideas like being meaningful, having purpose, being relevant, valuable and, of course useful all get abandoned by the lazy trainer with a PowerPoint and a tacky YouTube video. If you want stuff development days to work, f you want to effect change and improvement, then you cannot afford to be a lazy teacher. You must make what you have to say have value, be applicable, be useful. And if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be telling other people how to teach, let alone observing them. 

Too much Teacher Talking Time

TTT vs STT: easily one of the great CELTA shibboleths, and excessive TTT is by far one of the most common problems for both new and experienced teachers of ESOL, and therefore it’s very easy to say “reduce TTT” as an action point. 

I’ve not written it as an action point for literally years, however, because, when you think about it, it’s really rather useless as an area to develop. 

The trouble is “reduce TTT” completely fails to get to the root of why the excessive teacher talk is happening, and therefore fails to address the actual problem. Far more useful is to think about why excessive, unnecessary or distracting teacher talk happens. 

The obvious one is explanations. This is particularly true of new teachers, or of teachers who have a background in first language medium education. I blame the reductive nature of Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) as well, where the word “presentation” is inevitably interpreted as droning on about auxiliary verbs with some natty graphics via PowerPoint. The trouble is the limiting nature of this kind of “telling people stuff” – more often than not, ESOL classes are conducted in English, and with the exception of particularly high level classes, the students don’t always have the language to process the explanation. Even where students do have the language and the meta-language to cope with explanations, the input needs to be monitored and checked to make sure that the students are actually taking the language on board. Ten minutes of waffle followed by a gap fill is highly likely to be pretty ineffective. Ten minutes of clear presentation engaging students with questions and checking, however, is much more likely to improve the students’ language. Alternatively there might be some sort of carefully constructed guided practice task, allowing students to analyse language in context then make generalisations about that language, forming theories about language and structure and reformulating interlanguage. 

Then there are instructions. Even speaking the same language can make for mistakes in instructions, but again, giving instructions in English to students whose English is developing is far more likely to result in miscommunication. This tends to lead to a polite uncomprehending silence, which novice teachers like to fill with repeated instructions, rephrased usually just in the right way to add to the confusion. This, naturally leads to deep, horrible silence which only grows as the teacher gets frustrated and embarrassed. In the worst examples of this, the teacher gets cross with the students for not understanding, projecting their own frustrations on the students. Instruction checking questions rarely help, I think: a silly idea that does more harm than good. Teachers are usually better off by breaking the task down and explaining one step at a time, rather than explaining the whole task all at once. Even where students do understand the task, there is sometimes a brief pause while students process the instructions, and it takes a bit of skill and experience to resist the urge to fill in the time. And sometimes the silence occurs because the task is simply badly designed, or cognitively unfamiliar or complex: even a simple crossword takes some training, regardless of the simplicity of the vocabulary. 

The other TTT sin is filling gaps in speaking tasks, where the aim of a task is to practise speaking but the students don’t actually speak to each other. You don’t deal with this by reducing your teacher talking time, but rather by asking yourself why they aren’t speaking and making changes accordingly. It’s rarely because of excessive TTT but more often because of the quality of the task. Perhaps, and this is definitely a novice teacher mistake, the task lacks communicative structure and focus: “just talk to each other about [insert topic here]” rather than “find out 3 things about your partner”. The students aren’t talking because “just talk” is a dumb activity. 

The problem, then, is not reducing TTT, but rather lies in where the teacher talk restricts or limits the opportunities for student talk. If we say “reduce TTT” we need to consider what will replace this, and hopefully this is Student Talking Time, and developing opportunities to increase student talk time: instead of a teacher led presentation with individually targetted questioning, what about some sort of peer driven guided discovery task which allows students not only the chance to work out new language for themselves but also to interact using current language, consolidating that language and developing speaking  skills. Use calm clear instructions and, yes, wait a second to give the students chance to get on with the task. Devise practise activities that give students opportunity to speak communicatively, with a purpose to that speaking, and again (I will repeat this til I die) “just talk about X” is not purpose. Even in a dogme-ish unplugged setting, perhaps especially so talk has to have purpose, even if the language coming from the talk is not strictly planned. Include peer checking of practice activities as standard: it should be part of the routine, to the extent that you may not even have to give the instruction. 

“Reduce TTT” in and of itself remains a useless area for development. It suggests that if you shut up a bit, everything else will follow. But TTT is not all bad, and “too much” can be dangerously subjective: it shouldn’t be about the quantity of TTT, but rather the quality. It’s a fun developmental experiment to walk into class, sit down and reduce TTT to zero, and say nothing, but it isn’t going to automatically create lots of student talk (until the complaints start, of course…). We need to think about how our activities increase student talk, improve student talk by maximising those chances. Talk, as they say, is work in the ESOL classroom, and the more and better the students are talking, then the more likely you are to reduce your TTT to what is needed and nothing else. 

When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

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?

Language & the ESOL image problem

Three things this week came together quite serendipitously. First was walking past a British Sign Language class, and seeing the tutor not only teaching BSL, but also using BSL to communicate ideas. The second was a conversation with two non-ESOL teaching colleagues about the SOLO taxonomy and the notion of using “higher order” questions. The third was a tweet from Scott Thornbury, “The problem with EFL/ESL teaching is that, unlike maths, history etc, there is no subject. So the language itself becomes the subject.”

So this set me thinking. You see I think ESOL in further education setting has a bit of an image problem. There’s a perception in some corners that we should fit in to everything else, that something which applies to sixteen year old joinery apprentices can be applied without modification to a group of beginner ESOL students, and that our reluctance to do so, or questions asked about it in order to make sense of it in ESOL terms is seen as ESOL teachers and departments being awkward, stroppy, and obstructive. Don’t get me wrong, mind, because like any teacher, ESOL teachers can indeed be stroppy and obstructive, and I get that. However, there is a serious point here: there is a single and profound difference between ESOL and, with the exception, perhaps, of my colleague teaching BSL, every single other subject teacher in a college can communicate directly and unambiguously with their students.

Let’s take questioning as a good example of this. When teaching a subject through a shared language, one quick, effective way of challenging students is to ask questions which probe deeper into the subject, moving from straightforward knowledge of details (“Name three types of…”) to more complex, evaluative and critical questions (“what might happen if…”). This is generally seen as good practice, and, I think, quite right too. When I think of CELTA, for example, I might ask students initially to identify how to use the past simple, and then challenge them to analyse the problems faced by second language learners in using it, or what the barriers might be, or to compare how the past simple is used as a simple,e past reference ce and how it used to describe a narrative. This sort of range of questioning or task-challenge works to push students into thinking beyond just knowing a fact. (For the record, however, you do need to know the fact before you can start to go beyond this. What is commonly referred to as “lower” order questioning is not necessarily worse or less important – if anything it is the most important type of learning without which all the rest is impossible.)

Trouble is, all of this, every element of this, is entirely language dependant. It assumes on the part of the speaker and the listener a shared language with a fair degree of linguistic complexity. Don’t let snobbery get in your way here: my fictional joinery apprentices have access to an astonishing array of linguistic talents, even those ones who failed GCSEs. The fact that they can understand a question like “what might happen if you used an alternative timber for this?” is a demonstration of a fair amount of language skill.

So we have to consider carefully the value of time spent in training or reading about this when you remove that language skill. I simply cannot reliably ask my students “how would you change the verb if it is irregular?” Instead I have to get there a different way. The primary way I use questioning is not to expand in this way, but to apply successive “lower order” questions to build complex knowledge. “Read this sentence: I visited my sister. Am I visiting my sister now? Tomorrow? Before now? Good.” Then the next day I come back and start up irregular verbs, checking and eliciting concepts again using simple questions.

None of this means that ESOL students are incapable of thinking in those terms. Remember these are diverse classrooms on a scale incomparable in FE, with teachers, doctors, university lecturers and civil servants sharing a room with hitherto uneducated housewives, farmers and factory workers, none of which can be used to make assumptions about language learning aptitude. To use terms associated with higher order thinking, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and hypothesising are required of ESOL students from the get go when they are challenged to use language in new and unique situations. It’s just that we, as teachers, can’t use the language as a means to get there.

So we have to critically evaluate everything that a generic trainer says. Teachers are pragmatic people, after all, and would like something useful that we can use in our day to day classrooms, and an interesting curio like the SOLO taxonomy has limited, if any applicability. Ditto Bloom, although it could be used for task design, perhaps. Ditto Socratic questioning, flipped learning,  negotiating learning targets, sharing and self assessing SMART lesson outcomes. These are language dependent concepts, and this is the key to everything.

Until you’ve taught an ESOL class, none of this will make sense to you. I’ve seen it in CELTA teaching practice where a qualified teacher in another subject tries over-complex questions to a low level class and suddenly realises that they might as well have just whistled and farted for all the good it’s done. The good trainees are the ones who realise that they do have to change their paradigm, and alter their classroom behaviours accordingly. Because that is what we are talking about: for a generically trained teacher of a vocational subject, the nature of the ESOL classroom in a UK setting is radically different.

And this can indeed make ESOL teachers seem obstructive when it comes to implementing college-wide initiatives or training opportunities, but they are simply trying to make sense of it all, to take those initiatives and challenges and make them work in their context. And that context is different, profoundly and radically. It’s also what makes ESOL such fun to teach.

Observation: Reactions and Purpose

Hey ho. It’s observation week this week, so it’s time to dust down the lesson planning forms, polish up various forms of supporting paperwork, and generally pull up my socks. I don’t mind, especially as we have done away with the pointless process of graded observation: there have been compromises but then that was inevitable. However, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that process here, and anyway, if we’re going to have observation for primarily performance management purposes, as opposed to having it for primarily developmental purposes, then hey, compromise is going to happen, isn’t it? I’d like to have a formal observation by a specialist of me teaching my specialism, which hasn’t happened for a couple of years, but as is normal in these cases, this is highly unlikely.

I always find people’s reactions to the announcement of observation fascinating.

There are some people, for example, who react like they have been asked to show their dubious tax dealings, even when you have just suggested an entirely informal and non-critical peer observation on a reciprocal basis. They bluster and fluster, suggesting that you are an entirely unwelcome intruder on their sacred space, impertinent to suggest that there might be other people in the class apart from themselves.

Then there are the swans. Externally, everything is fine, and they sail to the observation serenely and calmly, hiding the fact that underneath this, they are panicking, planning, preparing resources and generally being quite anxious about the whole thing. Occasionally there may be moments, flashes of stress, the odd sigh, perhaps, but this is quickly covered up with jokes and comments. They probably post blase comments on Facebook about how they are chilling with a glass of wine and a movie, but in reality they are mainlining espresso and throwing an all weekend planning bash.

While on an avian theme, then, let us not forget the ostriches. Yes, I know full well that a frightened ostrich doesn’t bury its head in the sand – they may not look the smartest of birds, but evolution would rapidly do away with a species of bird which chooses not to run away when danger approaches. That’s not the point, anyway, because there is such a thing as a teacher who sticks their head in the sand, carrying on regardless, doing whatever they normally do for their observations. La la la, they sing, their heads buried safely away, the observation isn’t actually happening to me, no no, not me.

There is, perhaps, a small, horribly organised and naturally confident minority who embrace the whole thing because they cut no corners, and have everything in place. These are also people who do every lesson by the book: SMART learning outcomes aligned to individual targets, shared and carefully selected “real life” resources of the “Mrs Khan goes to the doctor” variety, with differentiated workshoppy elements to the lesson, all of which is closed up with the students doing a neat reflection at the end. These people do this every single lesson, every day of the week. And yes, I hate them, but take solace in the fact that so do their friends and family, who almost certainly never see them.

At the opposite end of the scale you find the serial winger, Seat of the Pants Simon, Last Minute Laura, or simply Jammy Jason. A weird hybrid of the Ostrich & the Swan, these people have the knack of pulling it all together at the close of play, buoyed up by a natural instinct for the job and an ability to pull together a few decent lesson plans and drag their paperwork into place just in time.

The gamer is a new variety, or at least has had their job made far easier in recent years with the introduction of electronic diaries and timetabling. The gamer spends a portion of their time not planning but marshalling data about their observer’s timetable and planned meetings and triangulating the most likely time for an observation. They see the whole process as a system to game, even down to thinking about a potential observer’s preferences and peccadillos, and carefully planning lessons around these. 

But why do these reactions occur at all? Why the fear, the panic, the gaming? I guess we have to go back to the main purpose of observation: assessment. Graded or not, there will be expectations and criteria to be met, and consequences to those criteria not being met. These range from the severe, linked to capability procedures, to the pleasantly useful, developing as a teacher. The more severe those criteria, the more an observation becomes a summative process: a final exam showing all the development work you have been doing in the last year. You are on display, naked, and entirely at the mercy of the observer in a way that you never are in any other aspect of your professional life. Even though you are just as exposed to your students, the relationship is a completely different one, and one which does change when that relationship becomes critical and evaluative, when students are unhappy with the lessons, for example. 

Losing the grading system goes a way to reducing this, but not completely, by any measure. However, and this is really important, that’s OK. As long as the tensions induced in any observation are acknowledged; that a manager doing an annual evaluative observation is clear that the purpose of that observation may have an impact on the teacher’s reaction, or that a teacher trainer takes on board the nerves of their trainee, or that a peer observer recognises the impact that their presence might have; then that’s fine. It’s hard not to see the process as a challenge to a professional set of judgements: it’s what the teacher and the observer do with that challenge that counts.