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)

One Teacher Trainer to Define Them All?

The latest edition of the International House Journal is now out. I decided to write my editorial as a think-piece this time and so I’m sharing it here too. Its basic premise is that there is more to teacher training than the globally-mobile monolingual native speaker (CELTA tutor/teacher trainer)* and that the context of the training should be given more consideration than it often is.

You can read it by visiting the IH Journal here: http://ihjournal.com/issue-40-editorial

Capture

There is, of course, much more in the 40th edition of the IH Journal that you might enjoy, so please do browse and share anything that catches your eye.

*Thank you to Silvana Richardson for this term, or a variation on it.

Listen – the Gist is in the Detail IH Webinar

Here’s my third blog post in the last 12 months. I really do churn them out, here at the blogging factory. But I digress. Below is the video for the IH Live Online Workshop I did in December on looking at decoding, as well as comprehension, in listening lessons. The webinar goes over some background to what is involved in listening itself and then looks at some minimal preparation listening activities to work on decoding in class. The slides are below the video. Hope you find it useful.

Accommodating Teacher Talk

I’m sharing the link here from my talk opening the IH Online conference. It’s a wonderful event and I enjoyed presenting. The talk is this post expanded somewhat. The slides are below the video. Many thanks to Shaun Wilden for inviting me to speak. The conference continues today (30/11/13), with real teflebrities like Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer. Check it out!

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.

What is the Point in Pre-Teaching?

In an earlier post on top-down/bottom-up processing and context/co-text, I mentioned that there might well be another one on issues to do with teaching receptive skills. And here it is.

Recently I have become somewhat fatigued watching trainee teachers pre-teach vocabulary prior to receptive skills work in class. I would actually go further and say I am starting to actively hate it. A bit like other pernicious habits such as smoking or having children, it’s not something I do myself, but I see a lot of people I know doing it (they don’t post about it on Facebook though, admittedly) and so it’s always sort of just blended into the background of language teaching for me, which is always a worrying realisation. Such a worrying realisation, in fact, that I more or less blindly suggested trainees include it in receptive skills lessons for about two years before I started to wonder. A little reflection can be a dangerous thing.

What is pre-teaching?

Christine Nuttall (1982: 62) points out the suggestion that “moderate L1 readers can recognise about 50,000 words”, which does seem like a lot (maybe it’s lexemes?). Now there’s no way that most learners are going to build a lexicon of so many items they can recognise, so can they never become even ‘moderate’ readers? Teachers, then, need to find ways of helping learners cope with text and read better. One way many people employ of doing this is to pre-teach vocabulary (or “lexis”, for the sophisticates amongst you), which is part of trying to scaffold the comprehension of the text.

In a ‘standard’ reading lesson procedure, it would come before the learners read the text, but generally after there’s been some sort of lead-in and schemata activation. It tends to involve the teaching of a few (3 or 4 usually) selected items that the teacher assumes the learners will not know and which are useful when reading the text in question.  Its purpose is to facilitate the learners’ reading development by helping them not concentrate on every word or unknown item that might distract them from the reading work, most likely a immediately preceding a subskill task such as reading for gist (skimming) or specific information (scanning), amongst others.  It is particularly common with the use of authentic text, which will more likely contain more difficult lexis.

My problems with pre-teaching

Seems pretty logical, right? So why would I be thus nonplussed by this practice? Here’s my reasons (in no particular order):

  • It really can break the flow of a lesson.

  • Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught.

  • I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text.

  • Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…)

  • If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.

  • It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?

  • Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?

  • And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?

  • It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.

  • It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.

  • If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).

  • It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.

One size does not fit all

Perhaps you feel I’m being a bit harsh on the poor wee lamb to the pedagogical slaughter that is pre-teaching. Let me redress the balance a little then. Pre-teaching does, mayhap, have a place in some lessons, but not all. You may want to help learners a little bit with a few items that may be tricky, or let them know that Mariánské Lázně is a place, so they don’t worry about it upon encountering it in a text about Spas and faded European grandeur; however, this should be decided upon based on the text, the lesson, the learners, the aims, the loadsa things specific to that group and that class and not simply be a given in any skills lesson. There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all solution.

Another argument for pre-teaching (or actually more for raising awareness of reading as strategies/skills) is that this idea can often be revelatory for trainees who have little access to professional development or training, or who have come for more ‘traditional’ teaching backgrounds, as it is a common practice to teach all (presumed) new lexis before learners read (often out-loud one at a time – heaven forfend!). This approach has precedents in older approaches such as The Reading Method recommended in the USA in the 1920s, which revolved around the text as the central component of the learning process, with each text being accompanied by a list of vocabulary which was to be taught before any reading occurred (Richards and Rodgers, 2001:50). However, this is not pre-teaching, as it aims to teach lexis, not facilitate reading development. Here, we have a text being used for language development, not to develop the learners’ skills in reading. While this distinction may seem unintuitive for some, it is an important one.

Well if you must…

So, what if you are going to pre-teach? While this isn’t the point of this post, here’s an idea or two. It makes more sense to me to work with the most frequently occurring words in the text, as these will be the ones that help the learners get the gist of a text more than “glabrous”, for example. Try using a Wordle (you just input the text and it prettifies it into the most frequently recurring words) or putting the words up on the board and getting the learners to check them in a dictionary (paper or electronic), or to predict the content of the passage from them before reading to check (efficient gist task there). There is actually research that claims that pre-teaching the most frequent words can greatly aid learners’ reading comprehension (the article itself is more concerned with vocabulary and frequency lists, but there is a brief treatment of pre-teaching near the end).

The final word

So, to conclude this ramble, the answer is to be judicious and to take a more complex approach to skills lessons. These are merely not ‘easy’ lessons for the teacher in which they can sit back, relax and let the learners get on with it and it worries me they are often treated as such. But to come back to pre-teaching, use your professional expertise and make judicious choices about whether to pre-teach and you’ll probably find that it is not as necessary as you might think and can be cut from a good number of lessons.

Once the skills work has been done, then there’s a perfectly good text there to work to exploit further. By all means, go back to it, unpack it, teach some lexis from it (or better still, try to get learners to work it out for themselves), use it as a basis for other language work or as a model for some writing/speaking work. But first, let the learners try to make sense of the text as they would in real life, help them develop their skills in reading and don’t over-scaffold by pre-teaching too much or at all. Or is it just me?

References

Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001).  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.

The Accommodating Teacher

I was inspired to write this attempt at a post by recent posts by Laura Patsko, Katy Davies and Steve Brown, all of which concern, to a greater or lesser degree, the way we use language and what this means. It takes a different route to these posts, but there’s occasional points of convergence (more on that later).

An Enquiry into Scottish Understanding

Question: what do me and David Hume have in common? No, it’s not that we’re both great philosophers, as my work is clearly superior to his… Yes! Got it. We come from the same country. That country is Scotland. And so one could posit that Hume and I probably have (adjusting for the passage of time and many many changes, of course) Scottish accents.

Having a Scottish accent is a funny thing. While we come near the top of rigorously scientific and useful polls on who has the sexiest accent, we are often portrayed as unintelligible (with thanks to Laura for the link). I am routinely told (by both native and non-native speakers), in tones of delightful surprise, that I am remarkably easy to understand as my accent is “so clear”. As it seems Scottish people are completely unintelligible to the rest of the world, it’s apparently quite a shock to many a non-Scot that they can understand me without having to really make an effort (as an aside, I’ve never found Scottish people particularly difficult to understand…).

But I digress. Coming back to Hume, he  famously (as well as wearing suspicious hats and wigs) could not abide the thought of “Scottishisms” in his written work and sent it to friends so they could find any and remove them (and told off other philosophers for not doing so). Why would he do that? The reason was for clarity on behalf of the reader, it seems. In other words, he was doing something that all language teachers should: accommodating (which is probably where Hume and I’s common bonds end).

Defining Accommodation

Accommodation is an idea from sociolinguistics that involves processes with which speakers change their way of speaking to be more or less like their interlocutor (see Dimitrios Thanasoulas for an accessible and complete description of Accommodation Theory and Scott Thornbury for further discussion more relating it to teaching). It can be verbal or non-verbal and is often subdivided into the two categories of:

  • Convergence – involves speaking more like your interlocutor to make yourself understood due to factors such as attractiveness, charisma, higher social status and so forth. As such, it involves a desire for social acceptance, but also for intelligibility.

  • Divergence – the opposite of the above, asserting your identity and difference between you and your interlocutor to signal group identity, for example (q.v. Steve Brown for an example of this).

Note that in my definition of convergence, I mention intelligibility. For my purposes here (and Hume’s above), I’ll be using accommodation in this convergent sense, to mean making yourself understood to those with whom you are speaking.  So, I seem to be rather good at convergence, as my learners can understand me (a facet of “language grading” in ELT terms), Americans I meet in the pub can and when I’m with other Scottish people I (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) become more Scottish. But it’s not all about me; it’s about us all as teachers.

Teachers and Learners: Separated by an Accommodating Language?

The language we use in the classroom is a thorny issue. Whether you’re an ELF (yes, that is the appellation for a proponent of ELF..), a new teacher, a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) or just some bloke that turned up in Costa Rica looking for money for sustenance and beer and then ended up teaching English, the language you use in the classroom is critical. And I mean use, not teach (whether those two things should be distinct is another debate). In Laura’s post, she deplores courses featuring “accent reduction” for NNESTs and Steve Brown laments “accent neutralisation”. These terms are loaded and not particularly helpful descriptions of exactly what courses along these lines might actually do, but interestingly they are for NNESTs and aim at making their accents more native-like. After all, surely these are the people who need to develop their pronunciation to be more native, right?

Wrong.

I work with a lot of trainee teachers on a pre-service course like CELTA and, eight times out of ten, the people with the biggest problems accommodating are the native speakers. This is both in terms of speaking to other trainees and to their students. And why? Because the majority have spent their entire lives accommodating only with other native speakers and so think nothing of idiomatic lexical choices when talking to an elementary level class, for example, not seeing that that’s not helping them be more intelligible. Add to this suspiciously complex grammar choices (clefts with modals, anyone?), more connected speech than you’d find in a law firm called “Assimilation, Elision and Co.” and cultural references to, Ireland, say, because that’s really obvious and everyone knows about it (yeah, not your average Bangladeshi learner in Dubai – what do you know about Chittagong?) and you’ve got a heady mix of unintelligibility going on there.

Y’see, making yourself understood is not just about your accent; it encompasses linguistic choices across all the systems (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse). So, like, accent reduction completely misses the point. This isn’t the problem. The problem is a lack of awareness of how to accommodate your speech to your learners. There are strategies that can be used to do this and these will be based on listening to the learners and working out what you can and cannot say to be intelligible. This is such a big issue for a language teacher who teaches in the target language as, without some successful accommodating, there ain’t gonna be no mutual intelligibility and then, ultimately, what’s the point? Where’s the course for NESTs on how to accommodate better? In fact, regardless, where’s the course for language teachers on how to accommodate better, whatever your accent?

The Accommodation Enlightenment

So, my line here is that, while terms like “accent reduction” are highly prejudiced and really not very useful (and yet, to get that job in an American call centre in Costa Rica, your learner has to take this course), an idea like accommodation is powerful and very important for a language teacher. It should inform completely the way you use language in the classroom (and not just to be understood, but to build successful rapport too!). If I am teaching people who have recently emigrated to being a new life in Scotland, I will be more Scottish as it would be a disservice to them to be more neutral; however, if I am teaching Iranians in Dubai who don’t even know where Scotland is, it would be a disservice to them to be overly Scottish and so I should be more neutral. I can’t completely neutralise my accent (does such an accent even exist?), but I can make informed choices about what I say and how I’m doing it.

And so where does this leave us? It means that as teachers, whether NNESTs or NESTs, we all have a duty to convergence, to make ourselves understood by our learners to help them learn better. And if that means you have a strong French accent  and some people can’t understand you (as happened on a recent course of mine), you have the responsibility to change that; likewise, if your strong native accent is causing your learners problems (as is more likely to be the case, for me) then you too must do something about that.

Take a leaf out of Hume’s weighty book and be more aware of how you say what you do.

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)

On Rapport

I do Bikram Yoga. There, I admitted it. Just to get that out there before we move on. I also need to tell you that I have as much flexibility as some thin steel at absolute zero (though without the steel) and am, concomitantly, rubbish at Bikram yoga. I’ve had about 45 classes now, still can’t even touch my toes and nearly die at least once during the arduous 90-minute lock-step torture that not even the Inquisition dared employ. Ok. Confession over.

Yogi Bugbear

The reason I mention this is because there is a distinct difference between the two instructors I see most often. Let’s call them Rita and Laura. While both are technically very proficient and even gifted at what they do, know the 26 poses inside out (not an unapt expression for yoga) and offer helpful suggestions for getting a position right or improving your own practice, the classes with Rita are just much better than those with Laura. Why would this be so and what does it have to do with ELT?

The answer is: rapport. But just what is that? The MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines rapport as “a relationship in which people like, understand and respect each other” (which suggests I failed to establish rapport with a couple of ex-girlfriends.. ). Narrowing the scope more to ELT, Jim Scrivener describes rapport as: “the quality of the relationship in the classroom: teacher – student and student – student. It is not primarily technique driven, but grows naturally when people like each other and get on together” (Classroom Management Techniques p40). So, basically, it’s about people liking each other and getting on well together, which is all very well, but how can it be achieved?

One of the problems with rapport is that some just seem to have it naturally, while others can struggle. While it’s difficult to say exactly why one teacher might have better rapport than another, there are certain behaviours that a teacher can work on to help them get there. To this end, Scrivener goes on from the above quotation to list “authenticity”,” good listening”, “showing respect and support”, and “a good sense of humour” as highly desirable in achieving a good rapport with a class. While in How to Teach English, Harmer adds “recognising students” to the list, as well as “being even handed” (pp26 & 27). So, now we have a fairly complete list, let’s see how it manifests itself in my yoga classes.

A rapport diagnostic: how to aid and hinder rapport-building

In this section, we’ll look at some of the ways that Laura manages to create a negative atmosphere at times, and some suggestions for how to remedy this.

Problem One

What the instructor does: singles late-comers out, stops the class to tell people off for being late and implies that they’re not taking the class seriously.

The problem: in a room full of adults, who are there to improve in some way, this sort of public reprimand is unhelpful, has a negative effect on the atmosphere in the room and can even be somewhat cringe-worthy.

What the instructor should do:  be understanding. Everyone coming to yoga has a job, often a high-pressure job in this part of the world, and the traffic is a nightmare.

It's hot, y'know
It’s hot, y’know

Perhaps they just got held up and couldn’t get there on time. At least they tried! Why not simply brush it off, continue and maybe after class have a quiet word, asking what the problem is and hinting that it’s not ideal to arrive late, but at least they’re making an effort to come.

Problem Two

What the instructor does: singles out only strong participants for praise

The problem: those less proficient at yoga are rarely – if ever – encouraged and can feel that they’re not up to the mark and that their efforts are futile (I know; I’m one of them!)

What the instructor should do:  Be even-handed. Distribute praise evenly throughout the group when the situation demands it. If someone has put in some extra effort, improved on a posture last week, is noticeably suffering (very common!) and needs encouragement, praise them. Don’t praise everything, or it loses its effect, but don’t just praise strong students as this can be counter-productive. Not all of us can put our foot over our head while balancing on one-leg and hold it for 25 seconds…

Problem Three

What the instructor does: reprimands people for getting things wrong or for, accordingly, “not listening”

The problem: mistakes are part of the learning process and just because someone makes one doesn’t mean they weren’t listening!

What the instructor should do:  show some respect and support. Demonstrate the posture again and highlight the part that’s gone wrong, not singling anyone in particular out. Simply deliver the ‘correction’ in a more supportive manner, telling a few students that they should continue to work on a certain part of the posture (nothing wrong with demand high yoga…). Perhaps offer some individual guidance while monitoring (yes, in yoga too) and don’t stop the class to tell people they’re not listening just because they’re not 100% perfect (I’m pretty sure this is actually some teacher insecurity hindering learning here, but that’s a blog post for another time..).

Problem Four

What the instructor does: knows the names of the stronger participants, but not the weaker ones (though oddly, she knows mine – must be a case of going long enough that she can’t not)

The problem: as with the praising, weaker students can feel discouraged or even slighted.

What the instructor should do: recognise students. It’s hard, very hard, to do, but a little more effort would go a long way. It’s particularly hard with a “drop-in” like event like this particular yoga class (an open group or rolling intake in ELT), but after a couple of weeks there really is no excuse. Even I know the names of some others I’ve barely spoken to. She could make some notes pre-class to help her remember or talk to people before they go in, asking how they are, etc. (she does this to a point, but only with the stronger ones or long-term regulars like me).

Problem Five

What the instructor does: delivers the class as if it were training session on how to kill enjoyment, rather than a collective exercise in, well, exercise.

I'm flagging at 23...
I’m flagging at 23…

The problem: there’s very little humour, or give, in her classes. They can be isolating. Sometimes it can seem monotonous, as if I have to get the most out of it for myself, without being gently nudged along by the rapport the teacher creates.

What the instructor should do:  have a sense of humour and reference the group effort. Rita has a good sense of humour and uses it well: “you’ve paid for the pain, make the most of it”, “only four postures to go before that glass of wine”, etc. I’m not saying she’s yoga’s Eddie Izzard, but in times of stress like the last third of a Bikram class, a little light banter goes a long way, helping you feel normal and part of a group. Yes, part of a group. This is exactly what Laura fails to do. And not having a sense of humour which, when used effectively can help create a group atmosphere, does not help.

Problem Six

What the instructor does: insists that postures are done by the book, regardless of individual issues with any one position in particular.

The problem: everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses and these should be catered for; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, the human body: my bad ankle is your dodgy hip. I guess it’s the yoga equivalent of learning preferences, in ELT terms.

What the instructor should do:  listen to the learners. It took about 2 months before I convinced Laura that I simply cannot do a couple of postures due to my knees. It’s not a case that I’m simply being a recalcitrant pest – that’s my knees. Rather than trying to push me to do a posture (three actually) in a certain way, help me round it by suggesting something else. I’m being slightly disingenuous here as she has now done this, but it took a while. Learners are individuals and should be treated as such.

Taking a Position

So that’s my list of ways in which rapport is not built in my yoga class, with the parallels for the ELT classroom needing no further explanation. I bet you never thought a Bikram Yoga class and, say, a pre-intermediate English class could have this in common, but they do. The same would apply to many other situations, such as group work, leadership, or even talking down the pub with your friends. If the rapport isn’t there, it’s just not going to work out as well. Of course, rapport can actually have a detrimental effect, and we’ve probably all seen those teachers who get by on it alone – the entertainers whose teaching may not be wonderful, but whose students sure have a good time in class (Scott Thornbury writes about this here). However, it’s clear that rapport is an essential element of good teaching, for me, and I enjoy my yoga classes far more with it, than without. And the same goes for my CELTA groups, my friendly games of doubles badminton, my office, my Spanish classes, my IELTS re-certification training… you name it. It really can be the rapport what makes it.

The Past Simple and Present Continuous Walk into a Bar. It was Tense.

This is a summary of a DELTA session I did recently introducing the notion that time and tense may not actually be the same thing. It largely follows Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which comes highly recommended, and I touch on aspect at the end.

How Many Tenses Does English Have?

This may seem like quite a tricky question to answer, if you start counting all those coursebook tenses up: present simple, present continuous, past perfect… However, it’s actually much simpler than that. English has but a mere two tenses, which are present (or non-past) and past. This assertion may seem surprising, but should become clearer as you read on.

The reason that English is said to have two tenses is the definition of grammatical tense which, according to Lewis in The English Verb, involves “a morphological change in the base form of the verb” (p50). You can see why this limits English to two tenses if you then try to work out what morphological changes are permitted in English verbs. Take the verb say”, for example. In the present we can say “he says”, while in the past “he said”. However, for the future, we have to add something else, we can’t simply express futurity with a change to the verb and get examples such as “I’m going on holiday with Marion Cotillard next week” or “I’ll say yes when Marion proposes”.  Other languages, such as the Romance languages, have a conjugation to express futurity cf. “je dirais” in French or “yo diré” in Spanish, where there is a morphological change in the infinitives “dire” and “decir” (other ways of referencing the future can also be used).

Only 2 Tenses, But Time?

Of course, we have more than two ways of thinking about time. In the West, we’d probably say that time is conceived of in terms of the past, the present and the future (that said, Steven Pinker’s idea of our core notion of time in The Stuff of Thought is “before-or-after” and “at-the-same-time” (p 85), which is more or less the same idea, I guess, though I’m straying a bit from the point here). Thinking of past, present or future gives us three notions of time, but only two tenses, and so leads to the conclusion that time ≠ tense. After all, time is a semantic notion, whereas tense is grammatical. They can certainly correlate, as when I say “I hung out with Marion yesterday”, where I am clearly using the past tense to reference past time. However, consider the following and think about the tense being used and the time being talked about

  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard, we’d talk about the English tense system”
  • “So I go to meet Marion and she says to me ‘let’s talk tenses’”

In the first one, we have the past tense (went) but referring to a hypothetical present or future; in the second sentence, we have the present tense (go, says) referring to past time (I’m narrating a past event here). Indeed the present and the past tense can each be used to refer to past, present or future time. Another example of seemingly strange present tense referring to past time occurs in sentences like

  • “Marion Cotillard marries Chris”? [as a newspaper headline]

The event clearly happened in the past, but is referred to using a present tense.

Distance Relatives

Great, huh? It’s a total mess. Why is English so complicated? It’s ok, take a breath, breathe, there’s some underlying logic at work here. Following Lewis, this underlying logic is that of remoteness (or “distance” as Alex Tilbury labels it in IH LAC). If we look at some of our sentences from above again, this becomes clearer

  • “I hung out with Marion yesterday”
  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard”

In the first, there is temporal distance; that is to say, the past tense is used to show that the event happened at a point in past time remote from now, in this case “yesterday”. In the second sentence, the distance here is from reality: I use the past tense to show that I am not talking about reality, that I am distancing what I say from it and thus dealing in hypotheticals. Now think about the following sentence

  • “Could you pass me the claret, Marion?”

Here, “could” is seen as the past of “can” and is used to create a social distance between the speaker and the listener, which is interpreted as a more polite way of asking this question as it’s seen as less direct.

So, we can conclude that when the past tense is used, it’s because of one of the three types of distance that we wish to express, namely temporal, hypothetical or social. The present tense would be used in all other cases and for this reason is also called the “non-past” by some. This helps explain the seemingly odd “Marion marries Chris” on a newspaper headline – the present tense is employed to make the event seem less remote and more urgent now, which is what the headline writer would try to do to capture the reader’s attention. The same could be said of the present tense being used in narratives, making the events being described more urgent for the listener or reader and thus keeping them on the edge of their seats, so to speak.

What distance is being employed in the following sentences?

  1. “What was the name, please?” [said by a receptionist in a doctor’s]
  2. “Jessica got a job in Turkey the a couple of weeks ago”
  3. “I wish Marion was reading this”

The answers are that the first is social, then temporal and finally hypothetical (she isn’t reading this, is she?). The last one, though, is different in another way too as the verb form isn’t simple.

That’s only one aspect of it

Ok, so two tenses which can be used to refer to the past, present or future. But what about the present perfect or the present continuous, I hear you cry? Well, these are examples of the present tense in conjunction with another grammatical concept known as aspect. Grammatical aspect is the speaker’s use of auxiliaries, affixes, etc. in the verb phrase to indicate their interpretation of events, such as whether the event is perceived as a completed or in progress. Take our sentence from above, for example:

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

This would be analysed as the past tense with the progressive aspect to give a verb form described as the ‘past continuous’. As another example, the ‘present continuous’ would be the present tense combined with the progressive aspect, as in

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

English has two aspects, progressive (continuous) and perfect. The perfect shows “the relationship between one state or event and a later state, event, or time” (p391), while the progressive “indicates that an action is incomplete, in progress, or developing” (p427) (both quotations from the Longmann Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics ). Scott Thornbury has a couple of good videos discussing these in more detail on his blog here

Let’s take the progressive as an illustrative example. We form this by using auxiliary be and the –ing form of the verb:

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

If the auxiliary is in the present tense (is, in the previous example), then we have the present continuous; if, on the other hand, it is in the past, as in

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

then we have the past continuous. Here, both examples probably indicate that the events in question were in progress (enjoying, reading), and so I use the continuous to express this. Compare

  • “Marion enjoys my blog posts”

This indicates that I see this as a timeless fact, that it isn’t temporary or in progress, and so I use an unmarked simple verb form. So, if we unpack all the meaning from “I wish Marion was reading this”, we see that the past tense is used to show hypothetical distance and the progressive aspect employed to indicate an unfolding event in progress. Note that it now seems natural that the past tense would be used after “wish”, as this automatically triggers a sense of hypothetically (you could look up colligation here too, which is the grammar that certain lexis triggers i.e. past tense after wish structures)

And with that, I’m off down the pub. If Marion weren’t so hypothetical,  she’d be present too.