So long 2014

This has been an interesting year. That, perhaps is an understatement. 

So here’s my annual review of the year. 

This year 

There has been quite a bit of woo this year but a few victories as wellThe blog hit 100,000 views this year which just blows me away. Thanks to everyone who has read this stuff and put up with the typos. 

The number one spot is still the DELTA or MA post followed surprisingly by a book review about bad language. Number three is skimming and scanning and four is guessing from context. New entry at 5 is Philips Kerr’s left brains and right brains in ELT

One thing I found quite interesting is that a video I made in April about how to pronounce pecha kucha has more views than even my third most viewed post. Maybe videos are the way to go? 

This is the year where blogging, talks, work and life in general caught up with me and I realised I just don’t have enough time to do all the things I want to do. I’ve felt seriously squeezed and something has to give.  Last year I said I was going to try to write less and I managed to get from 33 down to 26 posts. I’m hoping next year this will be around 12 or so. 

In February I spoke at BALEAP, then IATEFL in April. The IATEFL talk led to six more offers of talks, an interview and other bits and bobs. Much to my amazement Philip Kerr and Mike Swan kindly allowed me to reproduce their work here. I can only hope next year is as interesting as this year has been. 

Next year 
Last year I made a resolution to start a ‘try this it works’ series but actually only managed to get one post out (well one and a half).Next year I’ll try to post a few more of these. 

This year I wrote I’d like to ask anyone who is an expert/knowledgeable in a particular field, be it motivation or vocab to get in touch. As I said earlier, it’s impossible for anyone to know everything and with that in mind I’d really like to start having some guest bloggers, particularly those who can offer teachers practical advice based on research” And I can report that thus far a grand total of ‘no one’ has taken me up on this offer. If you can help, or know someone who might be able to, please get in touch (Glare)  

Also next year i hope to try to fulfill, a least one of Mike’s Xmas wishes

I’ve spent a good deal of my Xmas reading about Chomsky, and so expect a series on him next year. Doesn’t that sound thrilling?  

Ideally in 2015 will be more videos. Watch this space.  

I also currently have 50, count them 50, draft posts. I’m hoping some of these make it to publication, such as ‘how to write better tests’, ‘is creativity teachable?’ and ‘the Nirvana fallacy’. 

Also in 2015 I will be speaking at IATEFL. This will be my ‘difficult second album‘. I’m presenting with the wonderful Nicola Prentis and I’m very excited about this because if the talk isn’t very successful I can blame her. (pretty clever, huh?) 

Hope you all have a fantastic 2015. Thanks for reading. 

A note on meaning

The post on practice took a long time to write for two reasons. Firstly I couldn’t work out whether or not the literature on SLA was saying grammar could be improved through practice or not. To be honest, (despite Geoff’s best efforts) I’m still not entirely sure (hence the dodge in that particular post). 

The second reason was the concept of ‘meaning’.  Most of the experts I read insisted that practice should be ‘meaningful’ and that mechanical practice was to be avoided. Only Swan and DeKeyser seemed to hint that this might not entirely be true. Swan noted that:

Students of the Violin typically mater double-stopping or positional playing by working in the context of a progressive syllabus, often in ways that are far removed from ‘natural’ performance. Trainee airline pilots and surgeons similarly follow progressive courses of instruction involving relatively ‘artificial’ activities. (one would perhaps not wish to travel on a plane whose pilot had been left to acquire the skills landing naturalistically…) (2012:97)

And Dekeyser, after noting how practice is somewhat shunned in ELT, writes:

Practice is by no means a dirty word in other domains of human endeavour, however. Parents dutifully take their kids to soccer practice, and professional athletes dutifully show up for team practice, sometimes even with recent injuries. Parents make their kids practise their piano skills at home, and the world’s most famous performers of classical music often practise for many hours a day, even if it makes their fingers hurt. If even idolized, spoiled, and highly paid celebrities are willing to put up with practice, why not language learners, teachers, or researchers (2008:1)

Despite these comments, I decided to bite the bullet and go with the majority view, after all, practice that is ‘meaningful’ certainly couldn’t hurt.

The weekend after post was published I saw Jim Scrivener talking about Demand High. He argued that practice needn’t be meaningful and could be entirely mechanical, and still effective. He didn’t cite any sources to back this up but it did give me the uneasy feeling of cognitive dissonance. You see my own language learning experience makes me think practice can be entirely mechanical and yet effective. The second thing niggling away in my head was the question of what ‘meaningful’ means. 

On the face of it it seems pretty straightforward. A meaningful activity is presumably one that has some actual relevance for the student. So practising writing resumes in English would be meaningful for someone studying business English, whereas just writing out sentences about cats sitting on mats would not. But does this only work with activities students ‘may’ need in the future? What if they never write a CV? Do they only need to believe that the activity might be useful for them at some unspecified point in the future? 

But dig a little deeper and this becomes less clear. ‘Meaningful’ is not a well- defined term. If a student is keen to improve their spelling, for instance, and you have them write out certain words x times is this meaningful practice? This is the very definition of mechanical practice yet the student actually has problems with these specific words. A student who can’t pronounce the /v/ sound may benefit from practising minimal pairs such as ‘bat/vat, bent/vent’ but should we put these words into a sentence or only choose words which are relevant for that particular students? It’s not clear. At least not to me. 

According to a speech therapist friend of mine, the above exercise is actually fairly common procedure for kids with pronunciation issues. Another point is that  the information in that post came from not only TEFL sources but those in general education too, the word ‘meaningful’ only appeared in TEFL literature. So could it be that mechanical practice can work for athletes and musicians, but not for language learners? Is this a likely scenario? 

I talked to a prominent EAP academic about this and her reply surprised me a little. I expected her to list all the research data that supported the idea of ‘meaningful’ practice but instead she told me she thought it was ‘basically just a metaphor’, – something to signal a marked contrast between audio-lingual ideas of stimulus response and newer more fashionable notions of best practice. If true, this is a great example of ideology trumping evidence – something that I think is quite common in education in general. 

So what do you think? Does practice need to be meaningful? Does that word even mean anything? 

The importance of experience

I often talk about evidence on this blog (the name is a giveaway) but experience also has an important role. My various experiences as a language learner shape everything I do. Like most everyone, I generally get my opinions initially from my emotions, not from anything empirical. 

For example, I studied GCSE French in school because I used to love French in secondary school. I thought I was pretty good at it. Clearly my teachers disagreed. A few weeks into the course I found out I was in the bottom class and dropped out. I figured I’d never be any good at languages so I did music instead.

To this day, while the rational part of my brain tells me that levels are necessary and important my experiences makes me hate them. 

I studied a lot!

In summer 2000, I started my first teaching job in Japan with zero Japanese. In winter 2004 I passed the 1 kyu (now N1) Japanese test, the highest level of the test. This isn’t to brag…well, OK, it is , yeah me! But it’s also to say that everything about that experience colours my attitude toward teaching. I’ve done, what many of my students set out to do. I’m the “after” photo of slick advertising campaigns. and everything I do is filtered through the prism of being a language learner.

Firstly, I had no classes. I didn’t attend a school, have a textbook or get a tutor. This makes me suspicious about the value of these things. That’s right, I’m suspicious of the value of people like me. Research suggests that Instruction can aid language learning but It’s also possible that teachers can potentially also do a lot of harm to students. So another conclusion from my experience is that an ineffectual but ‘nice’ teacher is much better than a teacher who bores students or embarrasses them. 

I also never found out what my ‘learning style’ was, I didn’t know which was my dominant ‘intelligence’ nor did I meditate on the ‘here and now’. What I DID do was study a lot of Japanese words with flash cards, listen to a ton of people talking and singing in Japanese and tried to speak (and drunkenly sing karaoke) as often as I could; Lots of input, lots of studying, lots of practice and high levels of motivation and encouragement.  

Every week I see articles extolling the virtues of the flipped classroom, reflective practice, discovery learning, Dogme and technology. Many of these posts are passionate, articulate and convincing but my experience tells me they are also often peripheral and “A balance is needed between ancillary concerns and the central language teaching priorities that they are ancillary to” (Swan, 2013:170). In order to learn a language students have to learn the language

The problem with all this is though is that experience, isn’t always a great guide for what we should be doing. What worked form me may not work for someone else. I’ve seen some kids come out of 6 years of grammar translation classes with great English. Experience is powerful but it can also mislead us. We can see what we want to see, and also be unwilling to change our minds. And yet many teachers happily accept ‘experience’ as a good enough justification for just about anything. But this argument cuts both ways. 

I know many English teachers who, while claiming to know the best way to learn a language have failed to do so themselves, despite many years abroad. If ‘experience’ is going to be our benchmark then where does that leave teachers like this? Would anyone claim that these teachers are not as capable as those who have mastered a foreign language? And if it doesn’t matter, why doesn’t it matter?