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

Geoff Jordan recently relaunched his blog with a new tagline:

Screen shot of the tag line of Geoff's blog: What do you think you're doing? A critique of ELT teacher trainers

At the end of the post ‘Teacher Trainers in ELT‘, he posed the following five questions:

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

In this blog post I am going to attempt to answer these questions.

The learning process

I have recently started to visualise the learning process using the fingers on one hand, like this:

(thumb) 1. You don’t know it exists. (index finger) 2. You know it exists, but you don’t really understand it. You can use/do it successfully 10-20% of the time, but you need a lot of support/input. (middle finger) 3. You have a 50/50 chance of being able to use/do it successfully. You still need help and support at times, or to be reminded of it, but you’re improving. (ring finger) 4. You have an 80-90% chance of using/doing it successfully. Most problems are slips, and if somebody reminds you, you can correct yourself. (little finger) 5. It’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it any more. It can be hard to believe that you ever didn’t know this.

I think the learning process is the same regardless of what skill it is you’re learning, whether that be English, how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces. Sometimes you can skip through stages 2-4 pretty quickly, and sometimes you get stuck at one of those stages for a long time without feeling any progress. However, with perseverance, motivation, practice and time you can get to stage 5 with anything you truly want to learn. Support, guidance and input can help you get there faster, but none of them are essential, not even for getting from stage 1 to 2: if you pay attention to the world around you, you can notice the existence of things yourself.

Of course ‘English’ and ‘how to teach’ are both huge concepts, and should be broken down into many smaller concepts. The degree to which you break them down when using this metaphor is entirely up to you, dependent on who you are talking to and why. Below are a few examples.

Learning how to teach

On a CELTA course, you are working with a truly pre-service trainee, somebody who has never been in a classroom before. You have four weeks/120 hours to introduce them to the basics of being an English language teacher. By the end of the course, here are some of the areas I would expect a straight Pass candidate to be at stage 3 in:

  • Giving clear instructions.
  • Monitoring for task completion, and adjusting tasks accordingly.
  • Including peer checks consistently between individual and open class work.
  • Clarifying the meaning of new vocabulary/terminology efficiently and concisely.

In contrast, I would expect a teacher with some prior experience before the course to be at at least stage 2 in all of the above areas when they join the course, or even stage 3, and at stage 4 by the end of the course. Realistically, on a pre-service course with only six hours of teaching, six of observation, and 120 of input, I think it’s very difficult to reach stage 5 in any of these areas if you’re starting from scratch, though some Pass A candidates may manage it in some areas.

Working with early career teachers over the course or a year or two, as I do most of the time in my Director of Studies role, it is possible to break things down more and focus on components that could make up each area above. Take ‘giving clear instructions’ for example. Individual components might be:

  • Getting and maintaining attention while giving instructions.
  • Showing the materials to be worked with to help students follow what you’re saying/doing.
  • Working through an example for unfamiliar task types.
  • Getting a student/pair/group to work through an example in open class.
  • Checking instructions.

By the end of their first year, I would expect teachers at our school to be at stage 4 or 5 in all of the above areas.

There are also areas which they are unlikely to have come across or which were only mentioned in passing on their pre-service course, and I would expect them to be at stage 2 or 3 after their first year with us, and 3 or 4 after their second. These might include:

  • Teaching 121 students in a way that differs from their approach to group classes.
  • Conducting a needs analysis and acting on it.
  • Managing a classroom of teen students.
  • Assessing learner progress within levels that they are familiar with.
  • Varying the pacing of a young learner lesson to keep students engaged throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the examples above are connected to the skill of teaching in general, and would be equally applicable to an EFL teacher, a Maths teacher and a History teacher.

Learning a language

When it comes to learning any language, I think the five stages are the same. As I learn other languages and notice my own learning process, I can feel myself going through the stages for different aspects of the language.

Here are some examples of elements from English grammar:

  • Knowing when to use third person -s.
  • Choosing between the present simple and the present continuous.
  • Selecting the correct article in a given context.

And from Polish grammar:

  • Knowing whether a noun is masculine (animate or inanimate), feminine or neutral.
  • Associating case endings with prepositions.
  • Deciding whether an action is seen as complete or incomplete (perfective or imperfective), and choosing the correct verb form.

But of course, a language is not just grammar. Learning and retaining lexical chunks is a 5-step process too, and skills and learning techniques can also be broken down:

  • Understanding the relationship between yourself and your interlocutor, and choosing appropriate forms of address or vocabulary to reflect that.
  • Not worrying about whether you understand everything in an informal conversation, but joining in when and where you can.
  • Letting yourself read for reading’s sake in your L2, not just to list the vocabulary that you encounter.

By showing teachers my breakdown of the learning process, and by encouraging them to learn languages and experience it themselves, I try to help them see that regardless of what they do in the classroom, students still need to go through the stages at their own pace. Classroom learning can speed it up in some cases, by providing input, guidance, a supportive environment, opportunities for practice and a time and space for language use, but ultimately, nobody can learn faster for their students – they have to do it themselves. This is true of any subject, not just English or languages.

Materials and more

We use coursebooks for most of the classes at out school. We aim to maximise the amount of speaking that students do through careful lesson planning, and the coursebooks we use help us to keep the range of input high across the school, by ensuring that a certain amount of content is touched on every year. I do not see a coursebook as a ‘chain‘ to be freed from, but rather as a skeleton structure to base our teaching on which forms part, though not all, of the students’ learning.

A large majority of our students join groups at the school as near or total beginners, and progress through 8 years of study culminating in them successfully passing the Cambridge First (B2) exam. A handful of them get there a little slower, repeating a level or two if they’ve really struggled. Some of them get there faster, through increased exposure outside the classroom, particularly if they are teenagers who watch a lot of English-language films/series/YouTube videos or play a lot of computer games. That’s not to say that students couldn’t all reach that level of English much more quickly and efficiently, but that requires a level of motivation, self-discipline and exposure to the language that few people have. Despite being highly motivated to learn languages myself, I have sometimes found in the past that attending regular classes was necessary to make sure that I studied in between – I didn’t need to learn much in the classes, but I did need somebody to be accountable to for my learning, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

For one-to-one and company classes, I point out to both teachers and students that despite having a coursebook, they are under no obligation to go through it from cover to cover. In fact, one of the first things we suggest teachers do with a new student/closed group is to take the contents page of the coursebook and ask students what they do and don’t want to look at, and what else they would like to do that isn’t in the book.

I regularly remind teachers that there are certain grammar points that it’s not worth getting het up about, as students will internalise them (get to stage 5) much later, even if they’re ‘taught’ much earlier by coursebooks. For Polish learners of English, all three of the grammar points I selected above fall into that category as there is no corresponding structure in Polish. It’s important for everyone to remember that teaching does not necessarily equal learning, and you never know exactly what a student will take away from a given lesson. Having said that, they should always take something away from the lesson, otherwise there was no point to them attending!

As Geoff said in another post:

[…] students don’t learn a second or foreign language by being led through the units of a coursebook like this – language learning simply doesn’t work like that.

We know that two 90-minute lessons a week alone does not create high-level users of English, and we show teachers as many ways as possible to encourage students to practise and use the language outside class. Some of these ideas include borrowing books from the school library for extensive reading, listening to podcasts for extensive listening, using websites like Quizlet and Memrise to increase vocabulary, and doing something in English for 5 minutes every day, regardless of what it is. We also encourage teachers to share their own experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for them as language learners.

Through a strong culture of professional development and a very supportive environment, I believe that we are able to provide a level of quality in lessons that would not be consistently achievable without coursebooks, as teachers are able to focus on adapting the materials for their students, rather than on finding suitable materials in the first place. They are also free to omit or replace anything in a coursebook that they feel is inappropriate or unnecessary for their students – there is absolutely no obligation to do every exercise on every page. That is more than enough challenge for early-career teachers with anywhere between 40 and 65 students on their registers covering 4 to 7 different levels, levels that they perhaps can’t confidently differentiate between until they’ve completed a year or two of teaching. (And that’s without all of the other things that first year teachers in a foreign country need to get their heads around!)

Working with teachers year-round

I endeavour to remember to remind teachers (I’d say I’m at stage 3 for this!) that if they have chosen to ‘cover’ a particular grammar point, range of vocabulary items, aspect of a skill, or language learning technique, at any given time they will probably have students at all five stages of the learning process for that thing. They need to adapt the lesson accordingly, and remember not to get frustrated if they have students at stage 1, even if they ‘did this last year’ and at stage 5, who don’t really need more input on it. This is still something I sometimes find challenging as a teacher.

Working with the same teachers consistently in collaborative planning meetings at our school, I try to put this into practice. I encourage teachers to get students to show them what they know first, rather than automatically assuming that an item needs to be presented/covered at this particular level. Examples of ways students can show their knowledge include doing a gapfill for homework before the lesson, saying all of the words in a vocabulary set as quickly as possible with their partner or completing a task at the start of the lesson. I then show teachers how to notice problems students are having and how to deal with them. I have found that monitoring for language output is an especially difficult skill for new teachers, particularly when all of the students are speaking at once and it can be a challenge to tune in to individual voices. In our collaborative planning meetings, we come up with ‘monitoring tasks’ to help the teacher direct their focus, and we anticipate areas which students might have trouble with.

Here’s an example from one of last week’s meetings, working with pre-intermediate students from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd edition. I’m trying to learn more about task-based learning, and share this with teachers (again, I’m at stage 3 of this!) – this is an example of how I’ve interpreted it, using the task in the coursebook to provide scaffolding and examples of language which a teacher might listen out for during the initial attempt at the task.

Holiday speaking from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd ed SB p13

This activity was chosen as the first speaking assessment of the year for these students. Holiday vocabulary was introduced and practised in the previous lesson. The 70-minute lesson plan that I sketched out with the teachers included the following steps (roughly!):

  • Students do tasks 6a, 6b and 6c. Monitoring task: listen for use of the past simple and whether students are actively showing interest in what their partner is saying. Make notes on a Word document.
  • If students had few problems with the past simple, display the Word document on the board, elicit corrections and reasons for why that language was incorrect/unsuitable, and supply any language students were lacking. Complete a story-based exercise from the book where they choose which form is correct. Write ten key words from the story and retell it. Monitoring task: notice problems with the past simple forms from the story (this is easier than in task 6, as there is a more limited range of forms which may come up, so teachers are more likely to spot them).
  • If students had lots of problems with the past simple, read about two people’s holidays and complete the associated tasks from the book. Use the examples taken from the text to notice the grammar rules. Complete one or both of the controlled practice exercises, depending on the students’ needs and how much they seem to understand. Work on the pronunciation of -ed endings using the coursebook, if necessary. Display the Word document, as above.
  • If students were showing interest in what their partner said without any trouble, fine. If not, introduce and drill the phrases from the green box shown above. Elicit a few other follow-up questions that could be asked or statements that could be made.
  • All students repeat task 6 as the final stage in the lesson, this time as an assessment – in theory, they should all be better this time round. I told the teachers what aspects of speaking to assess here, and gave them tips on how to assess 12 students simultaneously over the course of about 10 minutes.

This lesson plan is not perfect (no plan is). However, I am confident that the teachers will be able to teach it, and that all of the students in the classroom will learn something from the lesson. The aim of the lesson is not to ‘teach the past simple’, or talk about it, but rather to improve students’ ability to ask and answer questions about holidays they have had.

My own development

I would say that I am an intermediate to upper intermediate level teacher (if you take language levels as a guide), and a pre-intermediate to intermediate trainer (thank you to Geoff for stating that I am a ‘top teacher trainer’, but I certainly don’t believe this!), and that I still have plenty to learn. The day that I feel that I’m ‘finished’ as a teacher or a trainer is the day that I leave this career.

Even after ten years of teaching, I still don’t always feel that my students have learnt as much as they could have done in a non-coursebook lesson – both of my groups this year are non-coursebook-based, to push myself to develop in this area. I certainly know that having used coursebooks over a number of years, I have a much clearer idea of what to expect of students at different levels, and what is often far beyond their abilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to teach them some of those ‘higher-level’ things – that might push students from stage 1 to 2 after all, or provide the i + 1 that Krashen proposes, or help them get into Vygotsky’s ZPD, if my understanding of those concepts is correct. Rather, I don’t agonise over something ‘above their level’ if they haven’t managed to pick it up by the end of the lesson or remembered it next lesson.

Looking back at Geoff’s questions, I know next to nothing about different types of syllabus, despite having read Syllabus Design [affiliate link] as part of my Delta, and having to justify the kind of syllabus I came up with for my extended assignment. I’m not sure there is an ideal kind of syllabus anyway as learners can only learn what they’re ready to learn, and I’m unlikely to be in a position where I create an entire syllabus any time soon. I don’t feel in any way qualified to recommend a particular type of syllabus to another teacher, as I feel that teaching should be at the point of need wherever possible, despite what I said about coursebooks above.

I’m not entirely sure which methodological principles I discuss with teachers either. I’m not sure I necessarily recommend any in particular either, though you may be able to spot some that I can’t in what I’ve written above.

I know a little about second language acquisition, through theoretical modules during my university language study, reading How Languages Are Learned [affiliate link], and many many hours spent learning a range of languages myself to a greater or lesser degree of success using a wide range of techniques. I try to take that into the classroom and the training room, partly by reminding students and teachers that learning will happen when you’re ready for it, but that we can try to create the conditions for it, for example by providing more ‘hooks’ to help it stick for longer. As I mentioned above, patience, time, practice and motivation are the key ingredients.

Everything that I have written here is based on my own experience as a teacher, trainer and language learner, and my (all too limited) reading. Limited as I’ve only been teaching for ten years, always in private language schools, and the resources I have access to are those at the schools I’ve worked at, those online, and those I have paid for myself. I am grateful to all of those people who are trying to share teaching research more widely, making it more accessible for people like me. At some point in the future I will probably do an MA, but that requires time and money which I don’t have at the moment. I look forward to being able to access and evaluate more of this research myself.

What I teach

I strongly believe that the most important thing I can do in a classroom is provide a supportive space for students to learn, regardless of whether they are learning a language or learning to teach.

When training on pre-service courses, my focus is on reflection: being balanced in your assessment of your own teaching, identifying areas you can continue to work on and thinking about how, and areas which are already fine that you can endeavour to repeat and build on.

When in the English classroom, my focus is on experimenting with producing and understanding the language, trying things out, and ironing out problems.

Whatever they’re learning, I try to help trainees/students to see the gaps in their knowledge, and improve their confidence with what they know. I hope that what I share with the teaching community reflects the ideas I have described here.

I would never pretend that I am teaching them teaching or teaching them English, but rather that I am one small piece in the puzzle that can help them reach their final goal. Ultimately, what they take away from my lessons is entirely dependent on what stage they are at in their learning and is up to them.

Geoff, I hope that goes some way towards answering your questions.

Comments on: "The learning process as I see it" (22)

  1. geoffjordan said:

    Thanks for this articulate, thoughtful response to my questions, Sandy.

    Fantastic to see somebody of your influence and calibre addressing the issues.

    I’ll reply when I’ve had a chance to read the text again more carefully and to mull it over.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] ** Sandy Millin is a noteable exception. My thanks to her for her carefully-considered and lively response on her own blog.  […]

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  3. A fascinating read. You sound so much more knowledgeable and experienced than I feel!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

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  4. interesting read Sandy.
    have you written about “tips on how to assess 12 students simultaneously over the course of about 10 minutes.”? be interested on any info on this, thanks!
    mura

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    • I haven’t, and it’s not very scientific at all I’m afraid – more of a teaching hack. I’ll try to remember to take a photo next time I do a speaking assessment and share it here. Not sure explaining it without the photo will make much sense!
      Thanks for the comment,
      Sandy

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  5. Adriana Elizabeth Lomba dos Santos said:

    Loved the article, thanks for sharing!
    Could you share some books/sites you’ve found so far about task-based teaching/learning?

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  6. geoffjordan said:

    Hi Sandy,

    The 5-stage learning process you use certainly makes its point clearly, but it doesn’t actually explain HOW you learn languages, does it. It suggests that you go through stages, that you need input and benefit from support and that the end state is being able to use the language automatically. But how do you get from Stage 1 to Stage 5?

    You say “the learning process is the same regardless of what skill it is you’re learning, whether that be English, how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces.” But I suggest that it isn’t; I think there are good reasons to regard learning a language as a unique learning process. From an educational point of view, it has some things in common with other subjects on the curriculum (geography or biology, for example) and other things in common with learning skills (how to swim, or drive a car, for example ), and it’s important to tease out what the communalities and differences are. To do so, we have to distinguish between declarative knowledge (conscious knowledge about things like the physical geography of France) and procedural knowledge (unconscious knowledge of how to do things like drive a car). From this basic distinction, we then need to distinguish between explicit and implicit knowledge and learning.

    This is important, crucial, actually, because if you take the view that learning English involves starting with declarative knowledge and then converting the declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge through practice, then you’ll see the PPP methodology adopted by coursebooks as reasonable. If however, you’re familiar with the results of over 60 years of SLA research, then you’ll see language learning as a process of interlanguage development, a process that goes through various stages which are impervious to instruction, and which is fundamentally a process of implicit learning; a process of learning by doing rather than learning things about the language.

    Everything we know about SLA leads us to the conclusion that students of English as an L2 won’t learn what they’re taught about English in the order they’re taught it by teachers using a coursebook, because, as you quoted me as saying “language learning simply doesn’t work like that”. That’s why I included the question about syllabus design. Coursebooks adopt a synthetic approach to syllabus design; they chop the language up into bits and they present these bits to students in a sequence. But language learning doesn’t work like that! And that’s why TBLT uses an analytic syllabus where the language is treated holistically.

    Reading your post, I get the impression that you “know” that the best way to learn a language is to use it, to practice it, and you might even agree with Hatch’s famous claim that “language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations” – “grammar” is developed from interaction, not vice versa. The tone and feeling of your post is light years away from the strident tone used by so many other leading teacher trainers whose advice to teachers amounts to saying that they should spend most of the time telling students about the language.

    One clear message I get from your post is that you’d rather work without coursebooks. All the clever, imaginative stuff you’re doing to ameliorate their worst effects ring truer to me than your brave claim that they’re not chains, only skeletal frameworks. I think your teachers are very lucky to work with a DoS who makes such efforts to help them pursue real communicative activities, and to be more creative, more responsive to their students’ needs than the coursebook allows. May I urge you to at least entertain the idea of scrapping coursebooks – in one experimental course. TBLT is a viable alternative that certainly requires an initial investment, but I reckon that fewer than 100 hours of teacher time would see a pilot course up and running. You can count on all of us here at the SLB cooperative in Barcelona for enthusiastic support!

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    • Hi Geoff,
      Thank you for your considered reply.

      To clarify a little more how I would apply the 5 stage approach learning languages (which I think it does), let me give one vocab and one grammar example from my own Polish learning.

      Vocab: ‘nagle’ in Polish means ‘suddenly’ in English.
      Stage 1: I didn’t know it existed.
      Stage 2: I encountered it a handful of times within a few pages while reading Harry Potter. I looked it up, but it didn’t stick and I definitely couldn’t remember it if I wanted to say it myself.
      Stage 3: I saw/heard it in a couple of other places, racked my brains, and could normally come up with the meaning. I had about a 50/50 chance of remembering it when I wanted to use it.
      Stage 4: (where I think I am now) When I see/hear it, I normally remember what it means, but I still have to do a little conscious processing – for example in the film I watched today, the character said it and I thought ‘I know that word. Oh yes, it means ‘suddenly’!’
      Stage 5: I won’t have to think about understanding or retrieving it at all.

      Grammar: conditional structures
      Stage 1: I had no idea how they were formed, and wouldn’t recognise one if I saw it.
      Stage 2: I felt like I was really lacking conditional structures when speaking Polish, so looked them up in a grammar book. As a result, I could identify them sometimes, but really had to think about it.
      Stage 3: (where I am now) I can fairly confidently identify conditional structures, and if I want to, I can pick them apart into their component parts and understand why those parts were used to create the form. I don’t need metalanguage to do this, although I find it helps me sometimes. With a lot of thought and effort, I think I can kind of produce them, but not with any level of confidence.
      Stage 4: I will be able to understand them most of the time. I will be able to produce them largely successfully, though with some mistakes.
      Stage 5: I will always understand them and produce them successfully.

      So I see stages 2-4 as the interlanguage stage. You get from stage 1 to 5 with time, motivation and practice at both understanding and producing the language. Teaching/Input might get you there a little faster, nudging your interlanguage in the ‘right’ direction. Exposure is the key ingredient though – without that, you can’t progress.

      At the most basic level, students need some input before they can start completing tasks. A complete beginner needs to know how to say things like ‘I am…’ or to count or to ask basic questions. Presentation has to happen here, because they don’t have any language to work with. But pretty soon they will already have some things at stage 5: yes, no, I/you, 1-5, please, thank you (just for starters). And then you can build on that with TBLT if you so choose.

      I think how to drive a car only becomes unconscious procedural knowledge once you’ve gone through stages 1-5. At some point, we are all at stage 1, with no idea of how to drive – otherwise we would all be able to drive the first time we sit in the driver’s seat. Then you have lessons and learn different aspects of the driving skill, and through practice and experience, you move through the stages until it all becomes unconscious/automatic/stage 5 (you hope!)

      In all of these cases, I am attempting to describe the learning of a skill, not the banking of facts (like ‘Paris is the capital of France’) – what I would equate to declarative knowledge. I don’t think declarative knowledge has a place in my 5 stages. I guess you could say that if I can translate ‘nagle’ to ‘suddenly’ or tell you the bits that make up a Polish conditional, that would be declarative, but I don’t think they’re necessary to learning a language, though they can help some learners. I happen to like having that kind of knowledge, but not every learner does.

      There appears to be an implication here that by using a coursebook, students are thereby not using the language, practising it, and having conversations, but I would beg to differ. They certainly are in our classrooms (and that’s definitely not just because of me!) and I believe they are in a lot of other classrooms too. I would say that the majority of the learners at our school have no idea what they want or need English for, beyond things like ‘to travel’ or ‘to watch films’, and we have to give them 90 hours of lessons a year in a group. Even 121 students often struggle to define their needs when pushed and supported to do so. A coursebook provides a wide range of input which can be cherry-picked from, adapted and supplemented as needed. I’m 99% sure that they won’t be disappearing from our school any time soon. I don’t believe that we would be able to replace a coursebook-based course with a TBLT 90-hour course with similar or better effects on student progress without very large amounts of extra work for the teachers (we don’t have 100 hours of teacher time spare to set up a course!), and them having a much higher level of confidence with the language to be able to respond to what is thrown at them.

      I also don’t believe that there are as many teacher trainers as claimed who think that they should ‘spend most of the time telling students about the language’. In discussions I’ve had with trainers I’ve worked with, the emphasis has been similar to mine: get the students using the language, and work with the results. A coursebook is simply one way to get them using the language, if that’s what the teacher chooses/has to work with.

      I have chosen to run two courses this year without set coursebooks as a way of experimenting with my teaching. I only teach for three hours a week (90 minutes per class). Even planning those two lessons this week, I spent nearly two hours preparing one lesson, which is definitely not sustainable for me over the course of the year, despite enjoying the process. I selected pages from a coursebook for the other lesson to use as a jumping off point based on the needs analysis I did in the first lesson. Having taught the lessons, I think the students were probably exposed to a similar amount of new language and had similar opportunities to use English in speaking and writing.

      The problem as I see it isn’t the coursebooks themselves, it’s the way they’re seen as a magic bullet by some people, particularly in authority (governments, I’m looking at you): complete one coursebook a year, exercise by exercise, and hey presto, you’ll be an English/French/Polish speaker. I don’t think that any teachers really believe that a coursebook can ‘teach’ a language, but I think they can really help teachers who are pressed for time to expose their students to lots of language, and the learning will happen when the students are ready. The onus is on teacher trainers and schools to show teachers how to make the coursebook work best for their students, to not force teachers to complete whole books in a year just to prove that you’ve ‘covered’ the material, and to show them that alternatives like TBLT exist. I certainly like the fact that I don’t feel the need to ‘get through’ a book in a year, but if I was teaching a full timetable, I would definitely rather have coursebooks for the majority of my lessons to avoid the risk of burnout. If I had the leisure to teach for just a few hours a week and understood it much better, I probably would use TBLT a lot more, but for most teachers, it’s just not feasible at the moment due to the lack of resources – I’d be interested to see Scott’s coursebook that he mentioned in the comments on one of your posts. I’ve yet to see an analytic syllabus that I could take into a classroom and teach from (now that I know what one is!)

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  7. geoffjordan said:

    Hi again,

    I hope you’ll allow me to make this rather lengthy response.

    1. You say “I see stages 2 to 4 as the interlanguage stage”. If language learning involves interlanguage development, then it obviously isn’t the same as learning how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces. Furthermore, accepting this model of SLA implies rejecting the assumptions on which coursebook-driven ELT are based.

    2. Presentation does not “have to happen” at the start of a beginners course. There are lots of different ways you can kick off – see Community Language Learning for a radical example.

    3. I don’t doubt that using a coursebook means that students spend some time using the language, practising it, and having conversations. My argument is that they don’t spend ENOUGH time using the language by participating in relevant communicative interactions.

    4. I think it would be easy to find out what the majority of the learners at your school want or need English for, by asking them to fill in a needs analysis questionnaire which focused on target tasks.

    5. It’s disingenuous to say that you just cherry pick input from a coursebook. The real purpose of the coursebook is to provide the syllabus, the backbone of the course, and most of the material, as the rest of your remarks make perfectly clear. As I’ve already suggested, you spend a lot of time and effort trying to ameliorate the worst effects of the coursebook, and I think you exaggerate the difficulties of trying out alternatives.

    6. If your aim is to get the students using the language, and then work with the results, you don’t need a coursebook.

    7. When you do an experiment like running a course without set coursebooks, it’s bound to take more time, but this is “front loading” – once you get an alternative syllabus and a materials bank sorted out, the investment will pay off.

    8. I agree that the more you rely on coursebooks (see them as a magic bullet), the worse the results, but presenting and practicing a sequence of chopped up bits of language to students is a fundamentally mistaken approach to ELT. It can’t be fixed!

    In my post on Tomlinson I summarised his view: coursebooks focus on explicit learning of language rather than engagement. The course consists largely of teachers presenting and practicing bits of the language in such a way that only shallow processing is required, and, as a result, only short term memory is engaged. When they are not being told about this or that aspect of the language, students are being led through a succession of frequently mechanical linguistic decoding and encoding activities which are unlikely to have any permanent effects on interlanguage development.

    To quote the man himself “There is a scarcity of narrative, of extensive reading and listening, of intelligent adult content, of achievable cognitive challenges, of real tasks which have an intended outcome other than the practice of forms, and of activities which make full use of the resources of the learners’ minds. In other words, there is an apparent disregard of the findings of second language acquisition research”.

    9. The onus, IMHO, is on teacher trainers and schools to come clean about the fatal flaws of coursebook-driven ELT. Trainers should show teachers how people learn languages and then show them how to teach in such a way that learners’ interlanguage development is respected. It IS feasible for schools like the one you work in to abandon its reliance on coursebooks and to offer courses using an alternative approach. I worked for ESADE Idiomas in Barcelona from 1981 to 1991 (the year when coursebooks were finally adopted). There were 65 teachers working a total of 1,100 class hours a week, giving English, French and German courses at all levels, and in not one of those courses was the syllabus based on a coursebook. Not one! So it is possible.

    10. You say “I’ve yet to see an analytic syllabus that I could take into a classroom and teach from”. Well, maybe you’re using the wrong set of criteria. Procedural syllabuses, some CLIL courses, Krashen & Terrell’s Natural Approach, Dogme, CLL, Breen’s process syllabus, and many immersion courses all take an analytic approach, which means that they see the L2 as the MEDIUM of instruction, not the OBJECT of instruction. That’s the essential difference.

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    • Hi Geoff,
      Thanks for numbering the points to make them easier to respond to!
      1. For me, interlanguage is the same as anything that you haven’t fully assimilated yet, but are in the process of learning. You produce the closest approximation you can at that point in time. Take a new teacher who’s learning how to monitor a group of students while speaking in order to give feedback on what they hear:
      Stage 1: They don’t know that this is necessary and don’t do it at all.
      Stage 2: Somebody points it out to them/They realise it might be useful. They try to do it, but find it pretty challenging. It’s hard to pick out individual voices or get anything much beyond snatches of language. The feedback they give is either focussed on irrelevant things, not very useful, or non-existent.
      Stage 3: They learn some more tips on monitoring, or figure it out for themselves. For example, they choose one or two students to tune in on throughout, so their feedback is based on what those students said. Or they guess at possible problems or things to upgrade and board those, which may or may not be what students said, but could still be useful to at least some of the students. They might take notes in snatches, with individual words and no real context, and they can’t always remember why they wrote down what they chose. They have a 50/50 chance of helping the students in the group with the problems they actually have. It requires thought and concentration, not just to pick out the language, but to remember the most useful techniques for doing so.
      Stage 4: Most of the techniques come easily most of the them, though teachers may still have to be reminded to do certain things. They get better at picking out voices and moving between conversations, and sometimes tuning in to a couple of conversations at once. Their note-taking improves and they’re able to record more of the context. The things that they choose to focus on are more relevant and useful, though there are still improvements which could be made to the way they focus on them or to their choices.
      Stage 5: Teachers are able to consistently monitor effectively, using a range of techniques. The feedback they give is useful to the widest possible range of students in the group.

      At stages 2-4 the teacher is performing to their best of their current ability, approximating what a highly experienced teacher (= proficient speaker of the L2) would do, with mixed degrees of success. It preserves some features of what they might have seen other people do or guessed at without any training or reflection (= their L1), plus features of what any training they have had and their experience have taught them (= L2). How long each stage takes and how it manifests itself will be unique for each teacher (= their idiolect), but the order of the stages can’t be changed (= order of acquisition). The biggest difference with a language is that we already have at least one there to build on, which can help or hinder us, but with many skills we can still make a guess at what we should be doing. However, learning is learning is learning. As I said previously, it takes time, motivation and practice to fully acquire any skill, including language, and the more exposure you get, the faster you’re likely to get there.

      2. My understanding of CLL is that the teacher needs to be able to speak the learner’s language to run a successful lesson. The majority of teachers I work with don’t speak the L1, and it also wouldn’t work fully in a multilingual classroom. I think going straight in with CLL with complete beginners would be a very inefficient way of getting them started. So yes, I believe presentation does ‘have to happen’. That doesn’t mean it can’t be short, sweet and straight to the point. I’m currently teaching complete beginners in Polish. I would estimate that in a given 60-minute lesson, I’m presenting for about 10 minutes (over the course of the whole lesson, not in one go) and the students are using the language for the other 50 minutes.

      3. I understand your point. Again, I think that depends on the teacher, the students, and the way the lesson is planned.

      4. Do you have an example of such a questionnaire? I would be very happy to experiment with one. In my experience, in needs analyses I’ve done in the past, I find it very difficult to get students to identify what they need or want, even with scaffolding from a questionnaire or questions from my own experience. Of course, I could just have been doing it wrong. I’ve been learning languages for 22 years and teaching them for 10, and still find it challenging to identify my own needs, apart from that as a beginner I need greetings, polite phrases (please, thank you etc.), numbers and food. As a higher-level learner I want to take part in conversations, watch films, understand my flamenco class (the last of which I can mostly do already). Erm. Even living in Poland while learning Polish, I find it hard to know what I need in Polish, until I come up against a situation I can’t participate in as fully as I would like to. For learners who come to our school, many say they are learning to be able to communicate to travel, but that need can be met pretty quickly. What then? What about the proficiency-level students who keep coming back year after year? Or the younger students who are coming because their parents pay for the classes?

      5. Yes, our coursebooks do provide the backbone of our syllabus. But I think you underestimate the investment of time and money needed to completely overhaul the system (see point 7).

      6. You’re right, you don’t need a coursebook. But it can help to have one.

      7. You estimated somewhere else that it could take up to 100 hours to create a materials bank for a single course. Where would these materials come from? And the tasks that go with them? Would they be designed completely from scratch? Or would they be adapted from existing materials? “Front loading” is all very well, but there needs to be time and money available to do it. Say we take a 40-hour working week (which is definitely an underestimate), that’s 2.5 weeks of full-time work for one person to create one course. We currently have 23 levels at our school, which would require 2300 hours of work, or 57.5 working weeks of one person doing nothing but creating new syllabi and a materials bank, or around one and a half nine-month academic years. Obviously some of the materials could be used between courses, but I don’t think it would reduce the time by that much. That’s without saying anything about the training that would be required to produce the quality of materials to maintain our high standards and whether they actually meet the needs of the students, the beta testing that would need to be done to find out whether they did what we need them to do. I’m sure that if somebody had the time, money and motivation to do this front loading, the investment would certainly be worth it, but I don’t know anybody who does.

      8. We seem to agree on this: it’s not the fault of the coursebooks, it’s in the way they’re used. That’s not to say that better coursebooks couldn’t be designed, but there would need to be uptake for them to be commercially successful, and that is most certainly a problem.

      9. As I mentioned in a comment on your blog, I would be very interested to see a suggested pre-service training syllabus that reflects your ideas. I don’t doubt that it’s possible to run a school without coursebooks, if that’s the way the school has grown, if the teachers have sufficient experience and language knowledge, and if the materials bank and syllabi are available. After all, language teaching has existed for much longer than coursebooks have. Your example of ESADE Idiomas prompts a long list of questions for me: Who created the syllabi? When? Over what period of time? What training did they have to do this? How did needs analysis feed into them? Does an example syllabus from the school exist which others could learn from? Where were the materials sourced from? How much experience did the teachers have? Did they speak the students’ language? What kind of training did teachers get? How were standards of quality assured across the school. Coursebooks were eventually adopted there – what prompted that decision? And what effect did it have on the workload of the teachers? And on the learning of the students? Do you know of any schools which have fully shifted from a coursebook-based syllabus to the kind you suggest? Not ones which have started out without coursebooks, but which have moved away from them? I would very much like to find out how they went about it if they exist.

      10. Maybe I am using the wrong set of criteria – as I mentioned before, I don’t have an MA or access to a university library, and my reading has been limited so far, though I’m trying to learn more, and discussions like this help. However, I still haven’t seen anything in there that I can actually teach from, lesson on lesson, week on week, year on year. I’ve heard of the Natural Approach and CLIL, but don’t know anything about them, and I’ve never heard of Breen’s process syllabus before. The only thing on your list I’ve got some level of knowledge about is Dogme (stage 3 I’d say), and even having read about it, watched sample classes, and experimented with it in a few groups, I find it difficult to get it to work consistently apart from in 121 lessons. Once upon a time, while I was still a language student and before I had any training at all, I tried running a course that was about the history of the UK that would help students to learn more through English rather than about it, but I had no idea what I was doing or how to go about it. The syllabus was progressing through history from the Stone Age to aroundabout the Tudors, which is when I left the school, and it mostly consisted of lots of reading followed by discussions of what they did and didn’t understand. I’ve had many ideas since about how I’d improve on that course, and I’d love to give it another go one day, but that was a history course that happened to be in English, not an English course. If the object of instruction is whatever topic the student(s) or you have selected for that day, and English is the medium of conveying it, then surely we shouldn’t be teaching English at all. Having said that, as I mentioned in my original post, I don’t really think I am teaching English. I think I’m teaching confidence in using it, providing space to experiment and get feedback. And yes, perhaps this is an object, rather than as a medium of instruction. But I’ve never seen anybody do it any differently beyond isolated clips on the internet. I don’t fully understand how it could work in a different way, and therefore I can’t teach that way of teaching to anybody else. I am happy to be enlightened.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. geoffjordan said:

    The usual Needs Analysis questionnaires are not very useful, IMO. You need to identify target tasks – things you have to do in the L2. For most people these are professional tasks, things that teachers, sales staff, accountants, waiters, etc., do in their jobs. The best sources of info. here are the domain experts, and there’s lots of free info. available on line. There are other things too, like making polite conversation at a business lunch, visiting a doctor abroad and attending flamenco classes. All these tasks can be described and the kind of language needed identified.

    WHY does the proficiency-level student keep coming back? What does he/she need?

    The younger students probably need to do an exam :-(

    An ELT outfit (a school like yours or a co-op like ours at SLB) can design made-to-measure TBLT courses in response to a request from a client, and can also design classroom-based General English courses for the “general public” who come to the premises. In both cases, the front-loading bit involves
    (1) training somebody in TBLT design and
    (2) assembling a materials bank containing pedagogic tasks and supporting materials.
    I’d suggest that in your case you could make a 3 year plan, aiming to have TBLT courses established as a small, but attractive and growing part of your programme by 2021. Things are changing fast in ELT, needs are changing too, thanks to the increasing pace of IT development. In 3 years from now, machine translation will have already led to major changes – the days of doing Intermediate General English Courses are surely numbered, dont you think?

    I’ll put a pre-service training syllabus that reflects my ideas on the blog soon.

    At SLB, we’re working on a teacher training course for TBLT, helped by Mike Long. Once I’ve got the OK from Neil & Marc, I’ll send you links and passwords, so that you can see what we’ve done so far.

    All your questions about ESADE are pertinent, I get what you mean, and you’re absolutely right – it doesn’t happen overnight. Coursebooks were adopted after a general slump in the Spanish economy (1991) which caused cuts in spending and a much more commercial attitude to be adopted. I grew increasingly disillusioned with the school, and eventually left. I don’t know of any schools which have fully shifted from a coursebook-based syllabus to the kind I suggest, but I know of ELT outfits that deliver in-company courses and ESP courses (EAL particularly) where no coursebooks are used.

    Your idea for a history course reminds me of the ideas I and other teachers in ESADE used to throw around. We used to call them “English through stealth” – and the idea was, just as you say, to completely avoid teaching English. Still, Long, Nick Ellis and all the scholars whose work I admire, insist that we need a hybrid syllabus, where some explicit teaching is done. We agree that the aim should be to help students feel confident using the L2, by providing space to experiment and get feedback.

    I’ve done lots of courses myself without a coursebook – often immersion courses, but some using Breen’s process approach, and some TBLT general English courses too. And I’ve seen lots of classes done by teachers who were doing full courses without a coursebook, some of them well-known teachers like Chris Candlin, Alan Maley, John Fanselow, and many brillliant colleagues at ESADE. I’m optimistic where Scott Thornbury is not. Scott thinks that the fight against the coursebook is a lost cause; I think we must fight and that if we organise locally, we can win.

    It’s been a real pleasure talking to you like this, Sandy, and I repeat: I think your teachers – and students – are very lucky. If ever you’re in northern Spain, please come and see us. ¡Suerte!

    Like

  9. This discussion is fascinating. And I thought I’d chip in 🙂
    I recently read more about TBLT and been reading more on SLA, and I must say that the evidence in favour of TBLT is quite overwhelming. So I’m fully on board with it. However, I do have similar issues to the ones Sandy has raised.
    The main difficulty is identifying the target tasks. There are certainly situations where this might be fairly easy. For example, I teach 1st year BA students of Business and Economics. Quite easy to identify the target tasks they’ll be doing in English. Another example is an intensive Dutch course I attended. We all live in a Dutch speaking region and will likely use it for similar tasks (e.g.,register at the town hall, do à job interview, chat with a colleague over coffee).
    However, in a general language course, students a) might not be learning the language for the same purpose b) might use it for very different tasks c) might be interested in different topics. To further complicate matters, imagine having 30 students in one class (as I do). Would it be possible to identify enough target tasks in common to design a syllabus?
    Don’t get me wrong. I still think we should attempt TBLT whenever possible, and base the syllabus on target tasks identified through a needs analysis. I’ve in fact been trying to persuade my colleagues to do this. But let’s also not dismiss the challenges, costs and difficulties involved.
    The second point I want to make is regarding course books. I can see why you’re so critical of them. However, let’s also not forget that a course book could simply act as a resource bank, which teachers can pick from as they see fit. Another point is that when you scrap the course book, someone needs to write the materials. There is no guarantee that they will be any better than the ones in the course book. In fact, I’ve seen some absolutely dreadful ones over the years. So, you’d need training in materials writing and guidance along the way. Which again cost time and money, which many DoSes might tell you isn’t available.
    So all in all, I’m absolutely for TBLT, and the evidence of its effectiveness is abundant. However, when I read your comments or posts sometimes, Geoff, I get a feeling you dismiss the difficulties and challenges, which quite frankly are very big, in implementing such a syllabus and scraping the course book.
    I currently teach 16 hours a week and have a rather privileged full-time position at a university. So it would be relatively easy for me to implement TBLT, which I’m trying to do (first need to convince my colleagues). But what about à teacher working over 30 hours a week just to make ends meet? Or those teaching over 30 students in one class?
    I’d also love to see some actual TBLT materials. If you’ve designed any, please share. And needs analysis too. It’s all well and good to say that we should consult industry experts, but teachers lack time. They want practical solutions. So I think you could actually bring many more people on board if you also started sharing practical teaching and teacher training materials for TBLT we can use.
    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hiya. This really is a lovely conversation here. As for the difficulties in implementing TBLT:

    I teach 28. 5 hours a week, and everything bar 6 hours is without coursebook. I make my own materials. I used to teach 42 hours a week and make my own materials. It is hard but it isn’t impossible. I find the coursebook stuff takes longer to plan because I need to use the books to please bosses but actually do something to create learning affordances. I would say that as you build up your resources it gets easier. Also, Dogme is possible, even for ESP. Your syllabus should be a working document. It shouldn’t be set in stone!

    On TBLTChat before, Task Supported Language Teaching was suggested as a bridge from PPP over to TBLT. It does seem to be a half measure though – when form focus could be ‘hot’ and more salient.

    Anyway, just my ideas and I might blog about this later.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. geoffjordan said:

    Hi again,

    I hope you’ll allow me to reply to Marek, Sandy.

    Great to see you taking a critical look at TBLT, Marek. Target tasks are indeed a key issue. As you say, the real challenge is what to do in a “General English” course. The answer is to have a materials bank which includes pedagogic tasks to choose from. The pedagogic tasks are derived from target tasks, which describe how students use English in their work, and for doing what. Information about target tasks can come from the students, or from things like O*Net https://occupationalinfo.org/onet/ . Even if you can’t do any needs analysis before the course starts, you can ask your students to fill in a needs analysis during Week 1, and that will give you some information about what sorts of things they do. In the end, we should move away from General English courses organised by different “levels” (most of the proficiency tests are hopeless) , but it’s a slow process, and I completely agree with you that we shouldn’t underestimate “the challenges, costs and difficulties involved”. You’re absolutely right to start with the more amenable courses like the 2 you mention, and then to look for ways to move away from a synthetic syllabus towards TBLT in the more “General”courses.

    As for coursebooks, if they simply act as a resource bank, then that’s great. The problem is only when students are told to buy the coursebook; the course then starts with Unit One, and the teacher follows the sequence of presentations and activities suggested by the coursebook right the way through the course. And I agree that if you scrap coursebooks, you have to provide good quality, relevant materials to put in their place. A good quality, well-organised, cross-referenced materials bank, including a wide range of audio, video and multi-media texts, activities and tasks is essential. Which obviously costs time and money, which Sandy has already indicated poses a major problem for DoSes.

    I’m sorry if I give the impression that I dismiss the difficulties and challenges of changing to a TBLT approach. I recognise that for any school or outfit where coursebooks are used as the backbone for a series of General English (or French, German, Spanish, …) courses, it’s unrealistic to expect them to just suddenly make the radical shift to strong TBLT courses. But once we get a feeling for the advantages of courses based on working through a series of tasks rather than working through a series of units in a coursebook where teachers spend so much time talking about the L2, then we can look for ways of implementing change.

    I quite agree that it’s relatively easy for you and for those of us working in SLB to start taking TBLT really seriously, compared to teachers working over 30 hours a week just to make ends meet and those teaching over 30 students in one class. In such situations, I think we need to offer realistic suggestions for ways of minimising the time spent presenting and practicing bits of the language, and maximising the time spent on activities which can be re-invented as tasks relevant to local needs.

    At SLB, we’re working on TBLT materials and I hope we’ll be able to share some soon.
    Thank you so much, Marek, for your comments; they are, I think, enormously helpful and constructive.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the reply, Geoff. I agree with your suggestions, but one point I don’t quite understand is the one about pedagogical tasks for GE classes. You suggest they be derived from target occupational tasks. Could you please give a concrete example of such a pedagogical task? I can’t visualise how this would work.

      My other doubt here is that students in GE classes might be learning English either for fun, or because their parents tell them to (in case of YLs). They might rarely use English outside the class or at work. The question here is what sort of pedagogical tasks would be appropriate? I can think of some, but would there be enough for a whole course? Sorry if I’m being overtly sceptical, but theses and some other doubts were going through my head as I was reading Mike Long. While I agreed, and while it all made sense, I was thinking: how would this work in a non-ESL and non-ESP context.

      I honestly think that what we need, if you’re really serious about bringing more teachers around to TBLT, is a very practical methodology book loaded with several dozen example tasks for different areas. Something similar to the books in DELTA methodology series, for example. So with an overview of research and theory at the beginning, but heavily focused on practice. Ultimately, I think this is what teachers want and need.

      In all fairness, while I found Long’s book fascinating and incredibly scholarly, as a teacher I’m still non the wiser as to how exactly I would implement TBLT. Actual lesson plans with example tasks would be great.

      And thanks for the polite and civil tone of the discussion. It’s very enjoyable and thought provoking like this.

      PS thanks for the website. Looks interesting. Will explore it later

      Like

  12. […] huge thanks to Tim Hampson, Sandy Millin and Steve Brown for answering the 5 questions that I posed at the start of this new blog, and to […]

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