Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

De-pirouetting after the TESOL Spain Conference – Friday

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.

Read up on Saturday and Sunday.


12 comments on “De-pirouetting after the TESOL Spain Conference – Friday

  1. Annie McDonald
    March 12, 2013

    Thanks so much, Nicola. And if I ever to go out to grass, we can chew over the cud again.


    • Nicola
      March 12, 2013

      I don’t mean you should retire! Just one day when you do, I hope you’re books have made you rich!

      • Annie McDonald
        March 12, 2013

        OK. I’ll invite you to the party then!

      • Annie McDonald
        March 15, 2013

        Hi Nichola, Wd it be OK if I put a link to your article about on our website? Thanks

      • Nicola
        March 15, 2013

        Sure! Now wondering if I should have asked permission to link to yours (?!)…:)

      • Annie McDonald
        March 15, 2013

        Still very much getting used to the etiquette of all this myself … and no probs putting up a link to our site. Rather … thanks!

  2. michelleworgan
    March 12, 2013

    I have just come across this blog on Twitter and, I must say, you have a lovely writing style! Your blog is much better written than mine! I couldn’t go to Annie’s talk so I’m glad to hear something about it and will follow it up. I agree that actually helping students to listen is rarely optimised in most course books. I shall bookmark this and come back to read your next posts on the conference.

    • Nicola
      March 12, 2013

      Thanks. I’m going to check out your blog and then tell you why you’re wrong!

  3. Matt H
    March 12, 2013

    Thanks for sharing thoughts about the conference! It’s always great fun reading about conference eflections… But then it can make one jealous they were not there! The next best thing is eavsdropping on the thoughts of others 🙂

    I went to my first conference two years ago… And experienced this same “whirlwind” like feeling (I don’t think I could pirouett even if somebody spun me!) I’d have to say one of the best things of all is simply being around so many talented people who take English training seriously. Be careful though, they can get very addicting…

    • Nicola
      March 13, 2013

      Yes, I felt like part of something and that’s a feeling I aim to completely embrace by speaking myself at the next round of conferences. Have caught myself planning it in my head already!

  4. IELTS Singapore
    April 27, 2013

    Thanks for the notes. I’m an ESL teacher who teaches IELTS in Singapore. And I took Spanish during university. I wish I could teach in Spain one day although it seems that country has so many good expat teachers there already! Haha.

    • Nicola
      April 27, 2013

      You should. There’s tons of work here as English is a lot of people’s way of escaping the terrible job prospects at the moment.

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This entry was posted on March 12, 2013 by in Teaching English and tagged , , , , , , , .
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