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.
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.
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?
Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.
Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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..).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“What was the name, please?” [said by a receptionist in a doctor’s]
“Jessica got a job in Turkey the a couple of weeks ago”
“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.