Envy

I envy my colleagues who teach vocational and academic subjects, sometimes, I really do. I envy the way FE standards and processes are based around the way those courses are run (oh to be a dominant majority) and the fact that their subjects are widely recognised and valued across most of society. Particularly, however, I envy the way they get to plan a whole year of course content in advance, and then use it again the following year with another group of broadly similar students. And then, probably, use it again the year after that. Even if the content changes, as well it might, or the subject needs a little updating, there is likely to be a whole load of content which can be recycled before being reused once again. They are, essentially, jammy bastards. 

Because this kind of forward planning is simply not a possibility in ESOL, not really. Sure there might be elements of content which can be recycled and rehashed in a different order, but there are also significant chunks of single use lessons which may never see the light of day again. Topical lessons, for example: I have a brilliant brilliant set of resources I designed for a level 1/2 class on Brexit, which are now entirely useless, and some election resources from the 2015 election which I couldn’t re-use because the gao between elections was so stupidly short I was still teaching a number of the same students. But then there is the rolling nature of an esol class, presenting diverse, spiky profiles and being, by and large, a different ball game every time. Even two classes at the same level in the same year may well diverge, meaning that any promise of reduced workload across the course quickly disappears. And students stay on as well, sometimes taking more than a year to progress a level. This is particularly applicable at the upper end of the esol scale, where students could easily take two years to complete all the qualifications in a given level, due at least in part to the intermediate plateau. And for a teacher this means that one resource or lesson idea may have to wait a full two years before being reusable. Sure students may not remember, but they often do, and anyway, a little professional pride..?

One of the effects of this is a kind of creative weariness. How many ways can you teach articles, for example, or conditionals, or even present simple? We all of us have a preferred lesson or lessons, a bunch of ideas which we go back to time and time again, but even when I have new students in a new class, I sometimes find it hard simply to grab something off the shelf, even if it is my own privately built and assembled shelf. I freely admit that this is self imposed: I know plenty of teachers who will happily grab something off the shelf, and absolutely why not? But then part of the pleasure I get from teaching is the thinking up of ways to do things, even, perversely, enjoying the frustrating challenge of finding a resource that doesn’t quite fit the lesson you had in mind. I have known many teachers who have taught the same level for years, and somehow find this relaxing. 

Planning for ESOL is, arguably, a more complex planning process than teaching a fixed vocational qualification. Planning is a continuous, evolving and mobile process considering both content and method, not the fixed delivery of particular content that must be covered for the unit specifications to be met. The payoff for this is the lack of marking and formal assessment: as a wise colleague of mine once observed, ESOL courses are front loaded: all the effort each year goes into the course planning and development, rather than into the summative assessment. In comparison to many vocational and academic subjects, summative assessment is almost negligible. As a result, while my colleagues in vocational areas are madly gearing students up for their final bits of coursework, final exams, not to mention marking huge heaps of coursework, and so on, I’ve had to mark a single exam for each of my students, stick them into coloured folders (even if this does involve the mind-crushing task of writing the same piece of information on three pieces of paper in the same folder), and hand them over. In fact, I’m almost finished. There are two weeks left to go, I have a couple of bits of exam for students to resit and that’s about it. 

It’s a nice enough payoff, but it does still mean that teaching the same level year on year can be somewhat draining, and one gets curious to experiment at other levels. There’s also a danger of becoming lazy and complacent: oh I’ll just use that lesson on that thing that I’ve taught every year since the year dot. Sure it may be a cracking lesson but, and this probably says more about me than about anything else, could there be an even better one out there? And this is the challenge: as a teacher you can get stuck between complacency and a need for change, which doesn’t really bode well for anyone. 

News

“I don’t like the news. It is always bad” Entry 1 ESOL learner

The news is a wonderful resource for the ESOL classroom – newspaper and magazine websites, the BBC, blogs and so on can all be joyfully and usefully exploited by teachers for a whole range of purposes. Recently, for example, the UK has introduced a new £1 coin and a £5 note, both stories which lent themselves well to an ESOL reading and listening lesson, as well as being useful generally. Then there are articles make good use of specific language items which can be exploited, using the news element to promote interest in the text and therefore the language.

But not all news is good news.

Sometimes there are articles of news which are relevant to the students, that they may benefit from knowing about – cuts to funding in the public sector, for example, changes to health or education systems, or local issues like hospital closures, all of which link to the students lives, and those of their families. Again, handled sensitively, these things can be genuinely useful from both a personal/social perspective as well as from a linguistic one.

But more often, however, the news is not something you would voluntarily bring into the classroom. Into this category I would firmly classify the bombing in Manchester on Monday evening.

With none of my classes did I plan to bring these events into the classroom, nor would I. The sense of sorrow and outrage is not something which lends itself to a classroom in any context, and as such I would never knowingly force students to comment or discuss it. Everyone has their own reactions to such news, and for some the news is too close to their own experiences in Syria, in Iraq, and elsewhere – it’s not my place to pick at wounds that are, I hope, slowly healing.

That’s not to say that the subject is banned, nor that it is limited to higher level students: indeed, with my Level 1 class, who are linguistically more likely to be aware of what has happened through the media, the word Manchester was mentioned once and that by me. Instead, it was with my Entry 1 group earlier in the day, when I sat down with a small group of 3 students to discuss something else at the end of the lesson, and instead we ended up talking about what had happened, and the students’ reactions. There was no structure, no analysis, no language outcome, just four people talking about something terrible that had happened less than 30 miles away.

What is important with this, and indeed with any selection of current affairs stories, is that it does not revolve around the teacher choosing what the students should feel outraged about, nor some kind of “sharing” of a difficult or challenging subject, with teachers as some kind of therapist. That is not who we are, nor who we should be. Neither can we always be “just English teachers” – the language we are teaching to students is also one of their keys to the wider world, however dark and unpleasant it can be, and the consequences of that wider world will inevitably filter back to the classroom. When it does come back to the classroom, then we should make space for it, be aware of it, welcome it, even. A classroom is a sanctuary, sometimes, and as such should be a safe place for students whose lives and experiences may be as terrible as those affected by what happened in Manchester. However, as in any kind of sanctuary, the purpose is not to exclude the world, or deny it, but rather to come to terms with it, and make peace.

***

There is a more practical, and very effective, description of a class doing just this in London with the amazing people at English For Action: https://efalondon.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/in-solidarity-with-manchester/ 

 

 

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. 

“Another piece of paper?”

At the later end of last week, the unthinkable happened. At the end of a level lesson this week, I was beginning to gather together my spare copies of the various handouts from the lesson, as there is a fairly quick turnaround to the next class, and one of the students said: “is that another worksheet?” I had to smile, but for those of you who know me will realise that underneath I was aghast. My goodness, I thought, even the students have noticed that there have been a lot of handouts this lesson. Truth be told: there were a lot of handouts: more than I usually use, but it’s hard to cover something like a range of text types with a large group of students without killing some significant volumes of tree. There will be some tech bore thinking I could have scanned it all and had students look at it on their phones, but really, I can’t be bothered to explain how barriers to doing things this way would render any benefit negligible. 

The lesson needed a lot of handouts, and despite beliefs to the contrary, regular readers will recognise that I’m not opposed to using handouts per se, but to using handouts when you don’t need them, or indeed using any resource that you don’t need.

Earlier in the week, I’d taught two contrasting lessons. The first was a two hour lesson on adjectives and comparatives, with some speaking and writing, based on a single handout of images and an interactive whiteboard which allowed me to show said images on  a large screen and write on them. The following lesson was listening,  drawn more or less verbatim from the splendid ESOL Nexus site. This lesson depended very much on most students having 2-3 sheets of paper, plus another one between two. The lesson worked based on the printouts and while I did slim it down a bit, the resources were the source text for many of the activities, and therefore needed to be there.

All three lessons worked out well. Personally, I liked the one-handout lesson more, because the lesson provided a reassuring element of structure (generate adjectives – elicit/present form – check understanding of form – provide practice of the form) but at the same time left lots of room for student personalisation – the adjectives were student driven, and the open nature of the later practice meant that I could slip in a little bit of extra stretch in terms of language complexity (how to say when things are the same – as ….. as, and not the same not as ….. as). But this is just me, nothing else. The lessons generated similar amounts of language and skills development, and neither was better innately because of the presence or absence of resources, but were better or worse because of the lesson structure and design.

Resource selection, design and development take up huge amounts of time, for all teachers. Technology is sometimes a help (my page of house photos, for example, would have taken several hours or even weeks of collecting photographs, or the text types, in an actrivity downloaded from the internet, meaning I didn’t have to source and design an appropriate text. Indeed, this ease of access to, and ability to create resources is probably the single biggest benefit of technology in education, at least in terms of the actual job of making people learn.

But the best resources in the world are useless without a decent lesson. You can toss off hours designing or finding resources, be they paper or digital, but if the lesson doesn’t work then you might as well have spent the time on Facebook. Whether resources work or fail is too easily the fault of the teacher using them badly, not the materials themselves. There’s no “right” quantity of materials: the learning in the lesson is what counts and the resources you make or choose must benefit that. 

*that* student

Compared to a teacher of children or teenagers, behaviour isn’t really  one of the major problems I face.  Sure, there is the odd problem, but really it’s just lateness and attendance, both of which are hard to deal with when the causes are usually more significant than not being arsed to get out of bed. But still, even in the “lovely” world of apparently delightful and compliant adult ESOL students, you can have behaviour problems.

Sometimes these are as savage as anything a teenager can pull off, or worse even, because they appear almost out of nowhere. I was sharing a class a couple of years back where this became a really rather significant problem. Two students, one very liberal in his views, the other very conservative, and both “alpha male” types, clashed on a matter of their faith, and this escalated into something very personal, and very unpleasant.

What was at the bottom of the clash, however, was the clash of personality. Many classes have them: individuals with big egos, an inflated sense of their own importance, often coupled with a sense of righteous passion to lead. They dominate the class, drawing attention to themselves, sucking away at the teacher’s focus and patience, and they are hard to ignore. 

The intent behind the student’s behaviour is usually positive: a desire to help or improve things, perhaps. Or perhaps just a desire to get what they think they should be getting, particularly when you have the twin toxic influences of fees and exams. Certainly my own experience is that these often domineering students mean well, but don’t always succeed in getting that across. 

The trouble is that even when they are less of a challenge in class, they still prey on your mind. Like any such problem they niggle, catching the edge of your uhtceare and growing, cancerously in your mind. As a result every lesson becomes judged by their standard: they come to represent the class, embody the group, even.

And of course with that embodiment also comes the answer. They are not the group, nor necessarily representative of it. They are just that person, and maybe, even very possibly, the rest of the class are as cheesed off with them as you are. 

The rest of the class. Remember them? The ones who are funny, engaged, charming, focussed, un-petulant and overall really rather lovely. A pleasure, in fact, to teach. And they are the ones you focus on.  The confident stroppy egomaniac has had his (and in my experience, it often is his not her, sometimes adding a nasty layer of sexism when the stronger, if perhaps quieter, students in the class are female) share of your focus, so it’s time to remember the rest of the group. They have equal rights to the classroom, equally important and necessary needs, so apportion them that time. And not just in the lesson either: feeling sore because that student looked unhappy? How did everyone else look? Worry about them too. 

I’m not saying that that student is a bad student, or even a bad person, and certainly not that their concerns should be ignored: you need to analyse their comments and behaviour because they might be symptomatic of something the whole class might be feeling. No, it’s just that they need to be viewed in the same light as the quieter, less confident student, given equal treatment, and equal time. Keep that in mind, and THAT student will become just A student again, and those 4am worries may not disappear, but will certainly become more proportionate. 

Dealing in absolutes

If I had a pound for every time I have been asked about the “best” or “correct” or “standard” way to do something I reckon I could comfortably retire and never have to be asked such a frustrating, even stupid question again. Some things in life can indeed be said to have a best method: brushing your teeth, for example, or choosing a computer password. However, the vast majority of things don’t, and are instead susceptible to a whole raft of minute personal interpretations, like making a cup of tea with milk. (For the record, I drink black coffee, and have no idea why anybody cares.) 

Teaching a class fall decidedly into the latter category. If anything, the number of variables around a given lesson are so vast that it’s possible to say that everything works, and nothing works. Everything works somewhere for some people some of the time, yet nothing works for everyone all of the time. As a result, the answer to any “What is the best way to..” question is almost always “it depends.” 

If you are reading this from a first language medium generic education setting, let me just make something clear – I do not share a first language with any of my students, therefore literally anything you have to say to me about evidence based practice in your setting must take this into consideration. Sure, direct instruction might work, but not with an ESOL beginners group because they don’t understand you. Goal setting might be awesome for a vocational course, but it’s bollocks where the students can’t interact linguistically and analytically with the thing being learned. And any notion of measurable learning outcomes has to be considered very very carefully indeed.

However, even if I keep within my more comfortable field of English language teaching, we still have plenty of black and white demarcations that don’t always work.

Take, for a simple example, dear old Presentation-Practice-Production. In this sacred cornerstone of CELTA (and, if I’m honest, probably at the root of most of my language focussed lessons) students are presented with the new language, either directly or inductively, before being given chance to practice this in a controlled, or restricted manner, then trying to use it in as communicatively accurate an interaction as possible. But it’s not always right, is it. Take the lesson I taught last week, for example, in which I contorted the procedure, starting with a dictogloss activity, which led to some error correction, followed by language analysis and the start of a piece of writing. So we had a listening task (no gist or detail to the listening, mind you) followed by a writing task, then a language “presentation” followed by a review of the writing and error correction. The lesson was successful in the sense that the students could apply the language at the end of the lesson, and had had a range of practice in speaking, writing, listening and reading. But try squeezing that into the tidy boxes required by CELTA and the dour and officious cult of the measurable learning outcome prevalent in FE: these things don’t fit into “standards”. 

Take students working at an interactive whiteboard. For some groups and some resources, this can be an exciting and engaging way to loft an activity from the page. But the same activity with another group of students could die a long slow horrible death of pace and interest, indeed, probably will. It’s a rare group of students now who are buoyed up by the false glamour of the interactive whiteboard after all. But who knows, it might work. 

Think about lateness, and dealing with late (adult) students. Do you berate them, usher them in and let them settle down before having a quiet word, or do nothing at all? It depends. There are so many possible things that could influence how you behave at that point. 

But none of this helps novice teachers, or those who like things to be neat and tidy, black and white, and cut and dried. We feed new teachers lies, flogging an image of “best practice”, just like we feed beginner learners of English the lie that we use some with positives and any in negatives and questions: it’s easier to get your head round simple explanations, and when you are trying to assimilate so much new knowledge, then to go in all “grey areas” and “it depends.” There is a downside to this, of course, just as there is to the over-simplification of grammar rules – as the novice becomes the journeyman, the rules start to weaken, and questions need to be asked of these things. A process of resetting some of this knowledge occurs, and, it is hoped, a critical faculty develops. Of the many important qualities a teacher needs, right up there with the ability to quaff coffee of any stripe or quality as long as it’s coffee, is the ability to look at something and say “yes, but…” If a developing teacher, or indeed any learner, fails to develop this ability, and spends their time in blind acceptance of top down diktats of “best practice” or “standards” or whatever, then you have to wonder about their ability to question their own practice. That’s not the same as blindly hitting out at “management” either – I’ve known dedicated anti-management unionistas who have been incapable of subjecting their own practice to the same degree of challenge and criticism. Indeed, if you have a healthy criticality of your own practice, you will be much better at being critical of those who would tell you what to do. A teacher who can question their own practice and the practice dictated to them is always going to develop better than the person who simply accepts. If they accept that what their manager tells them without questioning, then where is their ability to question anything?

It would be nice if everything was simple in teaching, just like if present perfect just had one use and meaning, or if the difference between be going to  and will  was that the former is “more certain” (I have spent far too much time unpicking that particularly stupid explanation with students “but Teacher X said…”). Teaching, like grammar, just ain’t that simple: there is no right nor wrong. There just is, and you need to be able to evaluate everything critically. 

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.