This Teacher Used This One Awesome Trick When Teaching and You Won’t Believe What happened Next (or how I learned to get learners talking in fewer than ten photocopies)

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet¹

What do The Japanese Civil War, Batman vs Superman and “Tidying Guru” Maria Kondo have in common? No, they’re not my most favouritest things (though thanks for compliment that I’m tidy) but are, in fact, some topics that I’ve learned quite a lot about recently. And not because I looked them up. So where did I learn about them? Not from New Cutting Edge or Business Result, not from meticulous lesson preparation or seriously bespoke planning, nor from the estimable onestopenglish or Reward McNuggets Intermediate  Resource Pack, but from the remarkably able source of… my students.  I was all ears. And faces.

All the World’s a Stage

In 1957, Erving Goffman published his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. In it, Goffman argues that an individual presents themselves to the outside world to try shape the way they are in turn perceived. Thus, all of us have a lot of selves and we choose which one we wish those around us to see, depending on the situation we’re in. A person does this for a number of reasons, such as wanting “[an other] to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels towards them… he may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud… or insult them.”². Or, in teaching terms, to get them to learn.

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@foster_timothy, ELTPics

 

So who I am when I teach is not who I am when I write this, work on a CELTA or Delta or meet a new colleague for the first time. I perform a self and put on a face in each instance, one I feel is the best fit for the social context. It’s not that I’m hiding anything; I’m just presenting another self because the stage has changed and the audience is different. I can’t be Anthony if there is no Cleopatra, but I could be Bogart to your Bacall, or Superman to your Batman.

Bat what? Bat who? What’s a Gotham? Who Cares?

I have a confession to make. I concede here, in front of these witnesses, that I know very very little about Batman vs Superman because I could not care less about Batman vs Superman. I’ve tried caring less, really I have, but it is actually impossible, making the fact that there developed a forty-minute scaffolded speaking activity about the film a seeming contradiction. The learner had been to see it, loves DC Universe stuff, and brought it up. I asked who won and found that it was a little more complicated than that. The learner tried to explain, faltered, kept going. A bat sign appeared in the sky above the lesson. My help was needed.  I put on one of my invisible masks.

That Awesome Trick

There is no trick – I defrauded you using a self I’m not proud of – but there are a couple of points to make about the practicalities of the above for language teaching. As a Dogmetic teacher, I’m supposed to listen to my students and take an interest in what they have to say. Sometimes I genuinely am interested, but not when superheroes are the topic. But it’s not about me; it’s about the learner. If they want to talk about superheroes, I will do two things that some people are not comfortable with (and which are my two top tips for teaching 121s, by the way), but which are part of a teaching self of mine:

  1. feign interest
  2. pretend to be more or less completely ignorant of the topic

Of the three topics I mentioned at the start, I was a combination of those two things for each one. The Japanese Civil made me genuinely really curious and I knew a little about it already.  I knew, for example, that Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for centuries, but I did not tell the learner this; rather, I used my ‘ignorance’ to encourage his explanation.  Batman vs Superman piques no interest for me, but I knew that Ben Affleck had directed it, roughly what the plot was and that some reviews had been less than favourable. I still pretended I knew virtually nothing about it and that I would like to see it to prompt some speaking. Marie Kondo was of mild interest in terms of the concept, but I genuinely knew nothing about her. My face was still enraptured with curiosity as everything from her best-sellers to how to part with sentimental items was clarified for me. Each time, I had to act to get the learner to speak; each time, the lesson developed in this direction and they talked a lot. Each time rapport was good and each time mini emergent syllabus points, er, emerged.

Person (n)… originally “mask, false face,”*

*(that’s true³)

So how to put on that mask and get away with it, without causing offence or hinting at any suggestion that you might just be faking it, a devious actor with a learning end in mind? Here’s some ten points to bear in mind:

  1. You’ve got to mean it – you might not be interested and you might know a lot about the topic, but you need to avoid that coming across and in a non-condescending manner.
  2. In 121s especially (but all classes if possible), take clear notes about the learner (family, job, etc.), with lists of topics discussed and return to these when necessary. Read them before every class so you can refer to them where necessary.
  3. Back-channel as you would if your friend was telling you something really interesting. Lots of “huh?”, “reaaaly?”, “I seeee” and so forth.
  4. Ask questions about the content of the discussion, questions someone might actually ask if they genuinely wanted to know more.
  5. Use your face and gestures to show curiosity, fascination, learning, astonishment, surprise, disappointment, disbelief, gratitude… all at the right (but not same) time. As if you really were all those things.
  6. Vary your intonation, but keep it risingly curious often.
  7. Maintain eye contact. Don’t stare anyone out, but keep the eye contact natural.
  8. Prompt and ask for further examples/illustration by getting parts of what’s been said deliberately wrong.
  9. Try not to yawn and get good at rubbing your eyes back to wakefulness (coffee?).
  10. Rephrase points and ask for further clarification: “you mean that… xyz?”, “so that was before the…abc”.

So there you have it. All your learners are different, so make sure you leave time to prepare a face for the those different faces that you meet. And if you think me cynical, you might be right; but, why not ask the learners if they enjoyed the lessons or whether they’d prefer page 28.

References

1. T.S. Eliot (1920) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html (accessed 27/7/16)

2. Erving Goffman (1956) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Monograph 2, Edinburgh.

3. Definition from The Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=person (accessed 27/7/16)

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Reading and Listening Lesson Musts

Why are reading and listening lessons often treated as procedural, formulaic and possibly even dull? Do learners actually get a chance to develop their skills in such lessons, or are they just given opportunities to read or listen in class? If the latter, is that a valuable use of time? Is skimming always the first thing we should do with a text?

Below is a talk I gave for IHWO a few weeks ago that tries to address the above questions. I’ve shared it here so you can see the slides too, which are below, and which might be helpful as the video lags slightly at points.

Many thanks to Neil McMahon for inviting me to speak and for all the technical wizardry, as well as everyone who attended the talk over the two days.

C is for Contrafibularities, Context, Co-text and Big Blue Wobbly Things

Let’s start off with Ferdinand de Saussure’s second favourite Youtube clip (he details his favourite videos in in his seminal paper Les Clips, Le Signifié et Le Signifiant: Quelque Chose que Je Viens d’Inventer (unpublished), page 3). Your pre-listening/watching task is to find it amusing.

So, why would I be sharing this with you? The reason is to talk about how you make sense of it. After all, the humour is based on, among other things, some excellent neologisms, so there’s a lot going on when you process what Blackadder says (for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend there was no video and this is an extract from a reading lesson). Here’s the transcript (the reading text) from 49 seconds in:

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.

Blackadder: Every single one, sir?

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Every single word, sir!

Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: What?

Blackadder: “Contrafribularites”, sir? It is a common word down our way.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Damn!

Blackadder: Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.

Bottom’s Up (or “How I Learned to Love Christine Nuttall”)

One way of looking at ways of interpreting meaning from a text is to think in terms of what is often called “context”. However, this is a rather woolly term, applied by different people to different things in different disciplines and rather inconsistently at that, so we can further break it down into:

  • The co-text: the linguistic features of an unknown item, such as its place in the sentence or the morphemes of which it is composed
  • The context: what Scott Thornbury calls the “physical and temporal setting” in which discourse occurs and which requires a knowledge of its purpose, participants and whether it is written or spoken.

A further way of looking at how this text might be interpreted is to to examine different processes which readers employ when we try to comprehend something. These can be grouped as follows:

  • Bottom-up Processing: involves making use of linguistic clues (letter recognition, affixes, syntactic categories, etc.) present in the text and building meaning up from these components.
  • Top-Down Processing: involves using existing schemata (world knowledge) to aid comprehension and treating text as a whole, rather than a series of individual words.

This rather neat distinction is, of course, a bit too clear-cut to really tell the whole story. It would be rather naive to expect a reader to simply employ one set of processes in interpreting a text and so more modern approaches to talking about receptive skills work posit an interactive model of textual interpretation whereby both these sets of processes occur more or less simultaneously and, well, interact to help us achieve comprehension.

Both Top-Down and Bottom-Up processes can function at various levels when working with text i.e. at word level, sentence level, text level or even, say, an entire novel. For example, if you were reading a noir detective novel, the top-down processing would involve knowledge of noir conventions (genre), expectations of plot, character, etc., while the bottom-up processing would be actually working with the words and clauses to build up the meaning as you go. At word level, on the other hand, bottom-up approaches would be to look at combinations of letters, affixes, and so forth to build up meaning, while top-down processing might check this by activating existing knowledge of what kinds of word/letter combinations are permissible in English (this is extra-textual, after all), allowing you to work out that ‘krk’ is not a valid English word (it means “neck” in Czech).

The next section is “like fitting wheels to a tomato – time-consuming and completely unnecessary”

Ok, so that’s all very well, but how does all the above relate to Blackadder? Well, let’s make a good joke really quite un-funny by deconstructing it co-textually to work out what “contrafibularities” means.

First of all, taking a step out of our reading lesson, note how I’ve spelt it. How do I know that the plural form ends “-ies”? After all, it’s a made-up word, which I’ve never seen written down. The reason for that is my knowledge of general English word patterns/spelling conventions, which dictates that a noun which sounds like it ends in a “-y” in the singular would be “-ies” in the plural. But that’s not the co-text, despite being at the morphological level; rather, it is my extra-textual knowledge – implicit or explicit – that comes into play (here, more exactly, my knowledge of English as a system – though plenty people disagree with me there and would class it as co-text).

Getting back to co-text, I wrote above that “contrafibularities” is a noun. Well, how do I know? I know because it occurs as the head of a complex noun phrase introduced by a determiner (“my”) and because it seems to be in the plural. If that’s a bit much, it means that it comes after an adjective (“enthusiastic”), which is what nouns tend to do when adjectives are around, and my brain extra-textually knows this. It also knows that “offer” is a ditranstive verb (takes two objects) and so if I offer something to somebody, then that something is the direct object which, again, tends to be a noun phrase: co-text being interactively checked by my knowledge of English syntax.

Ok, so I’ve worked out the part of speech, but what does it mean? Again, the co-text helps here. If it’s modified by “enthusiastic”, “contrafibularities” is likely to have a positive meaning. Likewise, the nearest verb is “offer” and you tend not to offer negative things to people. Combine this with our knowledge of how humans conduct their affairs (context) and we see that someone having completed a groundbreaking project is likely to be lauded by someone else and it all starts to add up to a positive word in some way. Then, it even sounds a bit like “congratulations”, which would fit – “offer” would collocate with “congratulations” too – so we arrive at our idea of the meaning. And we all this did this in .06 of a second (I know; I timed it) and with a lot of interactive processes going on.

Above the level of the word

The preceding discussion has focused on an example of what’s often called “deducing meaning from context” or “inferring lexical meaning” or other similar appellations. This is a commonly discussed subskill in the teaching of reading and one you’ll find a few Delta background essays on. It’s also something you can help your learners develop in by working on it in class, showing them how to do it and providing practice in order to help them become more autonomous readers who don’t need to translate every word they don’t know, but who can develop a greater tolerance for ambiguity (though you must still remember those learners who only read to increase their vocabulary). However, when we interpret the meaning of a text, there’s much more going on above the level of the individual word.

Let’s look again at this sentence:

Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

On its own, out of its context within this piece of discourse, this sentence seems to suggest that someone is offering someone else something positive, but we have no idea what that might be or why it might be so. No amount of co-textual, bottom-up processing can help us work out its meaning without the rest of the discourse: its context (including knowledge of this TV show). And yet, when we hear Blackadder say it, we immediately know he is being sarcastic. How can we help our learners know the same?

Going deeper, we have:

  • a situation whereby a servant is more intelligent than his really quite stupid master (yes, actually taking that old conceit from Roman Comedy and making it funny – they did only have one joke, the Romans, and they weren’t even very good at that, but I digress)
  • Said servant is prone to entertainingly sarcastic outbursts.
  • Into this walks a famous intellectual who’s just written the first ever dictionary
  • we would expect him to be congratulated for this

Before Blackadder even speaks, those familiar with the above are ready to top-down interpret the exchanges therein in this context. So where does the humour actually come from?

The most important aspect, for me, would be the word “contrafibularities” again. To congratulate the man who just wrote the first ever dictionary with a word he does not know is somewhat ironic and then you add to that that Blackadder just made that word up and you have a double helping of irony served with extra sarcasm and drizzled in some quintessentially Blackadderian disdain. And you know this and interpret it as such, but you’ve put together your context and your co-text to get there, to infer the speaker’s attitude and interpret the humour, but can you expect your learners to (not that I’d really suggest working with this text in most learning contexts)?

The answer would be probably not, as they will likely lack a good bit of the background to the context. A better argument for presenting reading text in context i.e. activating schemata with some pre-reading work, and helping learners use contextual clues to interpret text, I really cannot think of. Present that text to a native speaker with no idea about Blackadder and you would get similarly blank looks of incomprehension (as my current Delta group now knows..). Then, of course, many learners would tend to treat “confibularities” as if it were a real word that they simply don’t know, rather than applying their co-textual strategies to deduce a likely meaning, so helping them with this subskill can aid them here too.

Reading Lessons vs the Complexity of it all

Assuming the teacher follows a ‘standard’ format in class and introduces the context (‘the first dictionary’?!), maybe pre-teaches some lexis, perhaps sets up a prediction task, then has a gist task, then a detail one and then moves on to a follow up productive activity, then it’s hard to see how the learners really get anything out of this. They may have practised reading, but have they really developed it? Have they thought about how the comprehended (or didn’t) the text? Have they examined lexis they didn’t know and tried to deduce its meaning? Did they interpret any attitude in the text? Did they see how contextual clues can help them with comprehension? Did they think about strategies they can employ to deal with difficult text? Or did they just get the five detail questions right and we moved on? And do they even have to do this? This might well be the subject of a future post.

(And finally, for those who made it this far and are wondering about De Saussure’s favourite YouTube clip, it’s the first minute or so about the C)

Quick IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 Activity

I was reading something EFL-related today and thought of an IELTS writing activity that would be quick to prepare, with minimal materials and useful for the learners too. With the Academic Part 1, one of the biggest problems candidates can face (and I know this from my experience as an IELTS examiner) comes when they have to analyse the data. They have to pick out salient features and avoid writing irrelevant information like their opinion. In describing the features of the given information, they also need some quite specific lexis for describing trends, etc. This activity should help with both of these things.  So here it is…

Aim

  • To help learners prepare for Academic Writing Task 1 by developing their  skills for analysing the input material

  • To raise learners’ awareness of some common lexis for describing graphs, charts, etc

Sample IELTS Academic Writing Task 1

(Task taken from ielts-exam.net)

Procedure

  • Prepare a list of 10 statements about the chart, some true and some false (see below for examples)

  • Give the learners the chart and let them look at it for 30 seconds so they can get a feel for what it’s about and start mentally processing it

  • Now dictate the statements without the learners seeing the chart

  1. In general, Australian household spending was higher in 2001 than in 1991, though by a small margin

  2. Average expenditure on transport decreased by almost a third

  3. Average expenditure on transport increased sharply from $75 in 1991 to $120 in 2001

  4. The spending decrease on clothing can be explained by cheap imports from China

  • The learners now compare together what they’ve written down, thinking particularly about spelling and punctuation. You could hand out the printed statements here, display them or simply write them up yourself so the students can see the correct versions

  • They  now look back at the chart and decide which statements are correct, incorrect or inappropriate (see no.4, for example)

  • You can now do some language work by having the students analyse the dictated statements for collocations, fixed phrases, topic-specific lexis, etc, which they can use when they write their own version.

Brief Analysis and Variation

This is done as a dictation for the listening practice, which may well help them with the types of texts that might appear in the listening exam. That said, you could easily get the learners to do this for each other, either dictating their own statements or simply writing them before swapping with another group and repeating the above. It would be more difficult to do follow on language work from this, but it would give them great practice in analysing data. You’d also have to monitor quite closely here to make sure their analysis was along the right lines.