Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
I admire people that can go to a conference and then reflect on it afterwards. I imagine that they sit, serenely, and do something gentle with their thoughts as if winding wool onto spools. Their tangle free thoughts and conclusions lay, fragrant as newly washed linen, to be picked up and marvelled over and, when the time is right, woven into a beautiful new garment.
For me, being at TESOL Spain in Seville, my first real conference, was like a novice ice-skater going into a pirouette. I gathered speed and flung myself into the turns until the growing centrifugal force pulled my limbs into the centre, whipping me round in ever tighter circles, a spiral of condensed energy about to fly out of control.
I’m hoping that blogging all those conference ideas out will allow me to gracefully exit the spin and glide off in a sweep of TEFL elegance.
So many stimulus grenades and idea bombs were hurled from almost every session I went to. Even the breaks weren’t safe from these knowledge sharing missiles. People giving or attending talks were just as interesting when chatting outside the lecture theatres. Unceasing, relentless stimulation. This stuff could get addictive.
First up, Scott Thornbury and his, I guess, oft repeated plenary about the mind body connection. The embodied mind section talked about using the physical to act out language as it’s taught. I was quite pleased to see that he said to do this with phrasal verbs for both their literal and their metaphorical meaning since I had a lesson years ago that I wrote doing just that, proving of course that there is no difference between me and The Thorn other than timing.
He also mentioned the inferior teaching of pronunciation theory rather than practice explained with a video clip of Adrian Underhill. I couldn’t believe anyone would ever do that…and then I remembered how much time we spend telling students about long and short vowel sounds and wondered if he was perhaps right to raise it.
The embedded mind section developed this onto talking about language in its context including an aside about changing accents when people move location which is one explanation** why every Spanish expat ends all their statements with ‘…no?’ instead of forming questions with auxilliaries. I do it too, I have to admit.
And then into full academic flow with the embedded mind which manifests itself in coupled systems like gesturing when speaking even when we’re on the phone or in the dark. Apparently, we do this increasingly as the task becomes more difficult e.g. when speaking a foreign language. That’s probably true, which must mean Italians are having a hard time speaking their mother tongue.
He suggested various ways we could illustrate grammar with gestures to help students learn it; perhaps the more they externalise it, the more they will internalise it. But I question his example of using it to teach the difference between ‘will’ and ‘going to’ when, really, we’d be doing better to skip all that pernickety, grammar focused nonsense altogether.
I liked this academic introduction. There I was sitting in a historical university in a tiered lecture theatre, ready to get right back into the simple, responsibility free mode of absorbing other people’s knowledge. It put me right in the mood and I went to every single session on Saturday and all bar two on Sunday.
First, Annie McDonald presented brilliantly about Developing Listening Skills with authentic materials. What she’s producing is streets ahead of anything in existing course-books and I hope that the materials she’s working on with a publisher end up as the keystone of how listening is taught forevermore.
Essentially, and this is something I’d touched on in a proposal I submitted to a publisher recently but had, until now, little idea how to overcome it, we mainly test listening in class but don’t teach it. And we mostly use listening texts that have been cleaned up and dumbed down for the student so in no way reflect what they hear as soon as they’re in the real world. I can’t describe all her activities, but she seeks to help the student decode what they’re going to listen to first e.g. guiding them to all the abbreviated ‘woulds’ and ‘hads’ first and freeing their ears to listen for meaning instead of getting snagged by the tangle of auxiliaries lurking in the text.
It must take over her life developing these materials. She had transcribed a half hour Radio 4 programme with all the ums and ers, which as anyone who’s tried to transcribe anything will know, takes bloody ages. I hope she gets to retire off the proceeds of a very successful book one day.
** Another explanation for this mirroring language phenomena was the basis for my MA thesis and something I should see if I can make into a blog post. It was about the imagined, ideal self in the L2.