Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Incomplete thoughts

All of these are thoughts I want to turn into blog posts at some point, but for now, they’ll just remain as sentences and the thoughts will be pursued in my head. I know there are probably books and blogposts out there which build on some of these thoughts. I may even have read/be reading some of them, and they are shaping these thoughts. But I wanted to have a record of them to see where I am and where I’m going. I may not think any of these things in a few months. In no particular order, but numbered for ease of reference in case people choose to comment…

It’s not a pleasant thought, John, but I have this terrible feeling from time to time that we might all just be human.
– BBC Sherlock, series 4, episode 2

  1. The way I teach and the way I study languages are increasingly at odds with each other. Trying to pull back by changing my teaching, but it’s a long slog.
  2. I’m not comfortable with the term ‘freer practice’. I don’t think it does what it’s supposed to. I also almost never get to it anyway.
  3. Most of a language teacher’s job is nothing to do with the teaching of language, but is in fact about the building of confidence, moving students towards ‘It doesn’t matter’: It doesn’t matter if I make a mistake: the world will not end. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand everything: we can all do more than we think we can.
  4. Learning to teach and learning a language have a lot in common, in the same way as learning any new skill. Time, patience and an acceptance that you will never be perfect all help.
  5. Prompted by Damian Williams at IATEFL 2016: Language awareness is two-fold: knowing about the language and having an instinct about what is correct. One skill which needs to be focussed on more is writing. Native speakers should be given guidance on how to do this once they’ve left school, not just non-natives. An English teacher should strive to have the best command of the language they are able to, and we should help them to develop this, not just teaching skills.
  6. I kind of think I finally get task-based learning. I’m trying it out. At least I think I am.
  7. There’s not enough of a focus on memorisation within lessons, especially before speaking/freer practice activities. How can students really internalise the language? This is an important step before we can expect them to use it.
  8. Maybe a good lesson shape: meaning-focussed task, build on some of the language students needed or an area you think they would benefit from, memorisation/ internalisation through some kind of challenge, another meaning-focussed task. Don’t expect them to use the language you focussed on: it’s there to be noticed, then actively used when the students’ language system is ready to absorb it after whatever incubation period is necessary. This may vary from student to student. Is that TBL? Dogme? None of the above?
  9. The way we approach grammar teaching across a series of levels confuses more than it helps and is incredibly inefficient in the long run. How can we introduce the more general rules proposed by Lewis in The English Verb as early as possible and help learners see connections? I’ve tried this sometimes, but only really with intermediate and above as a way of clarifying links between grammar structures. What about making that the first way the language is introduced? Would you need L1 to do this efficiently? (I suspect Danny Norrington-Davies may help here, though I don’t have the book yet, so I’m not 100% sure) [affiliate links]
  10. Prompted by Julie Moore at the IH AMT conference: we should differentiate more between the language we expect students to produce, and the language we just want them to understand receptively.
  11. Chunks, chunks, chunks. But how to teach and practise a large enough amount of them so that students really remember them other than through rote learning? And who decides/should decide which ones are worth learning?
  12. If we really want students to get lots of exposure to the language, then the easiest way to do it is probably through listening, since so many of us are plugged in all the time anyway, and it can serve as background noise to life. But then we need to teach students how to listen. And that includes connected speech. But that might not be what they need if they’re in an English as Lingua Franca environment. But then will they get enough listening anyway? But they might get most of their exposure through films, video games and music where connected speech is probably necessary. But but but…
  13. We can’t force our students to be motivated. But without motivation they will never really get anywhere. It’s exposure to the language that provides the tipping point across various thresholds. I’ve only ever really managed this in country, but so so many people don’t get that opportunity, but still manage to get to very high levels in foreign languages. I admire them and would love to know how they do it. Where do they find the time? It’s so much easier to watch, listen to and read things in my language. Two pages a night in a foreign language is enough for me!
  14. Training, blogs and methodology books should never be divorced from a current and up-to-date grounding in classroom teaching. It’s all well and good telling people how to do things, but if you can’t do it yourself, consistently, when you’re tired, overworked, and have a million other things to think about, then it’s all just wishful thinking. We all know deep down that e.g. coursebook-based lessons probably don’t reflect how languages are actually learnt. We all know there are a thousand other things we could do in the classroom that might be more efficient. But time. And sanity.
  15. There are things which are very wrong with the state of ELT and with our profession. We want to change them. But change takes patience and perseverance. Lead by example. Speak, do, don’t shout, show patience. Ranting and railing just get people’s backs up, and may even make people dig their heels in. Be patient. Change will come. Change has already come. Notice what we have done, not just what is yet to be done. Celebrate progress and others will want to celebrate with you.
  16. Mental bandwidth is a thing. You can only think about so many things at once. The balance of how you use your bandwidth changes as you build up experience and things become more automatic. Understanding this idea might help people not to be so hard on themselves.
  17. Training shouldn’t just be about teaching. It should include things about the day-to-day realities of being a teacher. How to manage your time. How to communicate effectively. How to manage your managers. How to find work. How to have a work-life balance. How to avoid ruts. How to stay sane.
  18. My job is not to pull, but to push. Push the school to where we think it should be. Push the teachers to achieve what they can as efficiently as possible. Push people together to strengthen everyone’s networks. Push myself to keep developing, so I can demonstrate what I believe, not just talk about it.
  19. If I really believe something, then I should show it through my actions. Incremental changes in my life have made me happier and healthier. There are more of these to be made, but I am in no rush. I will make them when I am ready. And if I don’t make them in time, then it’s nobody else’s problem but mine.
  20. You can learn from everyone. But you should not let what they think govern what is happening in your head. Your head is your space. You decide who and what to let in.

It looks like some of those thoughts were deeper than I suspected! Maybe this shows you some of my beliefs and principles. I always find that kind of thing hard to pin down. Maybe I’ll get round to writing more about some of these. Maybe not. But now at least some of them are out of my system. Happy New Year everyone!

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Comments on: "Incomplete thoughts" (23)

  1. These would make for such interesting exchanges of ideas. Maybe on #eltchat? Number 1 really resonated with me as I learn other languages by myself with technology and through practicing with native speakers, but not so much through classes anymore. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Feel free to propose any of them as #eltchat topics 🙂 Sadly I can’t attend this year due my teaching, though if I remember I contribute to the slowburn afterwards. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Wow, your head sounds like a busy place! I’m glad my session lodged an idea. I think it actually links into number 8 … in that we shouldn’t expect ‘new’ language to be used right away. I described it as a process of laying down layers, but I like your metaphor of it being gradually absorbed too.
    Julie

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    • The business of my head is quite often a problem 😉 Though a lot of these thoughts have been around for a while and I had to dredge a bit to remember them for the post! Laying down layers is an interesting idea. A couple of other metaphors I use are about foundations in a building, and creating them brick by brick until they’re ready to support something stronger, like production, or the thought that each new thing you learn needs ‘hooks’ in your brain to hang itself from. Every association you create, every time you see it, it’s like a new hook. The more hooks there are, the more likely that thing is to stay in your brain. I don’t know if they’re completely related metaphors, but I felt like getting them out of my head too 😉

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  3. It would be lovely to have you in a #TBLTChat. Never worry about being too much of a newbie or doing it ‘right’ – you learn more through collegiate conversations.

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  4. #3 in my mind is a big difference between ESL and EFL. The way I see it, you can never start to build competence if you are terrified to make a mistake; you can also never sound fully competent if you’re totally unafraid of mistakes.

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    • Interesting thought, especially the last sentence. I was listening to a podcast recently which was talking about computer-generated music, and they said some of it was unpleasant to listen to because it was ‘too perfect’ – the lack of any mistakes meant there was no humanity in there, making it sound very strange to our ears. Maybe it’s something we should teach our students about?

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      • Well, it depends on how you would define computer-like perfection in human speech. I don’t simply mean grammar error-free but free from unintentional implications as well. Of course a grammar error often carries an unintentional implication as well. I take the point about teaching students the warmth of analog, imperfect human language though.

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  5. I would like to hear more from you on 1,2,3,6,7 and 8. Can’t wait! So glad I heard about your blog today on Twitter.

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  6. We’d love to see you at a #TBLTChat of you have time. I find the best way to find out more about TBLT is through collegial conversations.

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  7. I would definitely love to read more about #14 and #17, they are exactly what’s been going in in my heard too in these last few weeks.

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  8. […] in my head for a while and probably the catalyst for getting it out of my head and into pixels is Sandy Millin’s Incomplete Thoughts […]

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  9. Great post! Re no 13, I feel like I’ve done most of my language studying outside the target language country. E.g. with Italian, I had that summer of massively immersing myself in studying it and got myself to a level where I could then use it properly once back in the country. But somehow once back in the country my motivation to study waned significantly and it was a constant struggle to try and recapture it. Totally agree with no 17. (Which isn’t to say that I disagree with all the others haha just that that one had me going Yesss!!) I like the concept of mental bandwith too! 🙂

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  10. charlotte giller said:

    This is such a useful post Sandy, thank you. What most resonated with me was 13 about motivation and the reference in 14 about coursebooks & being tired and overworked. So are are most of our students, it seems to me sometimes, and then they have to go and learn English/prepare for an exam at the end of their equally long day! Your point at 16 about bandwidth is also a challenge we share with our students and all these points are great to discuss with them in class. Also liked your remarks in 18 about “pushing”. This brought my mind back to the question of motivation and how we can help learners and colleagues to push themselves and each other so the push responsibility is shared (and so you don’t always have to, Sandy). And so we can also occasionally take a step back and take a moment to observe just where that momentum is taking us and how far we’ve come (on a good day). Or maybe we just managed to get off the chair and round the corner of the table, but I guess that’s a start!

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    • I always admire students who come to classes when I know they have a long day ahead of/behind them – it’s true dedication!
      The idea of sharing the push responsibility is a useful one too – maybe the push can sometimes be a lever, so it’s not as much work as it may seem from the outside. And we should definitely all take a moment to observe how far we’ve come, maybe even more on a bad day than a good day – it might make us realise that standing up a few more times today was progress 🙂

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  11. I wanted to comment re no. 1 when I first read the post, and now I see a lot of people have commented in the meantime! I guess what I wanted to say is that you’re not really a typical learner, are you? You’ve had experience of learning a lot more languages than the average learner, and these languages also differ significantly, both from one another (e.g. Thai and Russian) and from English. You’re also a language teacher. You spend a lot of time learning about language learning and teaching.
    I think all these things have an impact on what you’re like as a language learner. I’m curious as to what, for example, you do as a teacher that you feel is at odds with the way you study languages. Could it be that your learners don’t feel that there’s a discrepancy?

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    • Thanks for the comment Vedrana. I completely agree that I’m not a typical language learner, due as you say to my experience and my teaching. I also agree that the learner’s may not feel there’s a discrepancy, but I wonder if that’s because the classroom is the only way a lot of them have ever learnt? Another incomplete thought to pursue! The answer to the question about differences between my teaching and learning are a whole post in itself, and one I hope to write at some point. Watch this space!

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  12. I really love the approach you’ve taken with this blogpost – you’re absolutely right that there are often thoughts/ideas/musings which it’s either difficult or time-consuming to make into a longer post. I think my top three faves are 11, 15 and 17 🙂

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  13. Annabella Wolloshin in the Basque Country said:

    Lots of food for thought here thanks for sharing these.
    Quick question. When you talk about “memorisation” in one point and then “rote learning” in another are you just disitinguishing between the “how” we memorise rather than the outcome -i.e getting something to stay in your head?

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    • Hi Annabella,
      I’d never really thought about my use of the two terms, so thanks for making me pin it down! I guess what I mean is that memorisation is a chance for students to internalise the language at least a bit before we expect them to use it in later activities within the lesson – the hope is that it’ll stay there for at least a bit of time after the lesson, but there’s no guarantee. This could be individual, or it could be through games or memory challenges e.g. test your partner. In contrast, for me ‘rote learning’ is individual work where you deliberately try to fix something in your memory long-term, like you might with a poem or a story. Does that work as a distinction?
      Sandy

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