This is a collection of talks I saw at IATEFL Brighton 2018 which have ideas that can be used in the classroom, or thoughts on methodology that may influence your classroom practice. They’re arranged roughly from what I perceived to be the most theoretical to the most immediately practical (as in, activities you could use in class tomorrow).
The frequency fallacy
Leo Selivan’s talk examined how useful frequency-based word lists really are. You can watch the full talk yourself, or read my summary. We can often over- or underestimate how frequent words actually are due to the availability bias, which says that if something is easy to remember, it must be more frequent. There are many different ways you can check how frequent a particular word is, for example by looking at the information in learner dictionaries. In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, there is information about how common a word is in both spoken and written English. For example, abroad is in the top 2000 words of spoken English, and top 3000 of written English. 80% of English texts are made up of high frequency words, and they are used as defining vocabulary, so it can seem a good idea to focus on them in our teaching.
However, there are many problems with these high frequency words. We can assume that if you know high frequency words you’ll be fine, with a high-level of understanding. Polysemy (same word, different meanings) isn’t acknowledged in word lists, for example the different meanings of ‘rough’ in ‘He’s got very rough hands.’ and ‘It’s just a rough estimate.’ ‘Cast’ has 10 different meanings as a verb, without thinking about its meanings as a noun. It’s essential to consider co-text too. This implies that we should teach collocations straight away, not wait until higher levels. Another problem with frequency lists is the grouping of words, so ‘name’ and ‘namely’ are there as a single item (I think!). This implies that learning ‘name’ should mean understanding of ‘namely’, which it obviously doesn’t! Some words we often use in the classroom don’t appear on frequency lists, like ‘homework’. Leo challenged us to think of 6 words or chunks that we think of when we see the word ‘travelling’. Mine were ‘plane’, ‘alone’, ‘passport’, ‘go away’, ‘holiday’ and ‘backpack’. Leo pointed out that most of the ones we came up with probably aren’t in the top 2000 or 3000, but if we’re travelling, they’re really important, so we also need to consider student needs, not just general frequency of words.
Another issue is that chunks like ‘at all’ or ‘bear in mind’ are non-transparent, so although some or all of the words may appear on a frequency list, it doesn’t mean students can understand them by learning the component words. The PHRASal Expressions List (PHRASE List) and PHrasal VErb Pedagogical List (PHaVE List) are two new frequency lists designed to take this into account, by including non-transparent multiword items.
I found the talk very interesting, and it certainly made me think about how useful frequency lists really are, but I was left wondering what we should do instead. I know it’s hard to answer that in 30 minutes, but I’m hoping Leo will go into more detail on his blog at some point.
P.S. Another talk about word lists at this year’s IATEFL was Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid? by Julie Moore. Her blog post includes lots of links for further reading too.
Pronunciation and phonology
Mark Hancock’s was called ‘Towards a pedagogical phonology’ and looked at developments in the way he believes that phonology should be taught in a post-ELF world. He highlighted that accent snobbery is pointless, as there are so many different accents in the world and none of them are any better than any others. He also said that it’s important to expose students to a variety of accents, since no matter how ‘perfectly’ you might speak, you can’t control how your interlocutor speaks. It also doesn’t matter which accent you use to speak, as long as it gains you access to the international community.
The more common a variant is between accents, the more likely it is to be understood. This therefore makes it less problematic for listeners to understand. For example, ‘free’ is such a common variant of ‘three’ now, that it is almost always understood. It also generally doesn’t make you less intelligible if you pronounce something that is written, like the ‘r’ in ‘Mark’, but it might make you less intelligible if you don’t say it. We should aim to build or grow our students’ accents, rather than to replace them.
When we think about teaching pronunciation, we ultimately have to think about what is essential and what is superficial. Mark used the metaphor of aliens finding a car in space and trying to copy it. They don’t know that the scratches on the car are not a key part of what makes it work, so they copy them with the same level of care as they copy the engine and the wheels. In pronunciation, the equivalent of the engine and the wheels are things like syllables and phoneme distinctions, whereas the schwa, weak forms and elision are like the scratches. Having said that, it’s important to negotiate the syllabus with students, as they may have different ideas to you about what they want.
You can use this inverted triangle as a kind of hierarchy of pronunciation skills to be developed, with lower order skills at the bottom, and higher order ones at the top:
Nicola Meldrum and Mark McKinnon shared some of the insights into pronunciation which they have come up with while running teacher training courses. They were working with A1 groups, and wanted to ensure that they modelled an equal focus on meaning, form and sound/pronunciation with all groups. This meant using natural speech and intonation patterns, even at very low levels, and highlighting what happens when form and sound don’t seem to match. Often students and teachers seem to focus on meaning and form, neglecting the sound of new language. They shared a 3-minute video of Toni, talking in Spanish (subtitled) about his experiences of pronunciation in class. It’s well worth watching, as Toni described how useful he found individual drilling, transcription of phonemes, and being able to concentrate just on the sound of new language at times, among many other insights. Before these lessons, he only used to focus on the written form and not the sound, and now he notices a real difference in how much more confident he is.
Nicola and Mark also recommended feedback focussed planning, where you consider what problems students might have with the sound of new language and plan how you can help them with it. Give students time and space by reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ to get through and leaving time for feedback. A supportive listening cycle is also useful here: time and a variety of tasks means students can spend time really understanding the sound of new language. They have written a series of blog posts covering all three of the concepts they mentioned during their talk: MFS (meaning, form, sound), SLC (supportive listening cycle) and FFP (feedback-focussed planning).
Heloisa Duarte’s talk looked at what we can do to support older learners in the classroom. Depending on your context, older learners can start at anything from 45 to 70. As Heloisa said, there aren’t many generalisations we can make about older learners, but one thing we can say is that their parents didn’t force them to come to the classes! They tend to be highly motivated, perhaps wanting to learn English to talk to new family members, perhaps to move to an English-speaking country, or to feel better about themselves and boost their confidence. For others, it is just because they’ve always wanted to and now have the time and money to do it. The social side of courses can also be very important for these students.
Challenges for older learners include health problems, like mobility, hearing or eyesight. For example, the higher the pitch of a voice, the harder it can be to understand. There may be affective factors, such as previous bad experiences with English teachers, or a feeling that it is too late for them to learn, affecting their self-confidence. There may also be cognitive challenges: ‘I want to learn, but I forget.’ Some younger students may have the perception that older students are helpless, or less able to participate, and this is very rarely true.
Heloisa asked us to think about how we might adapt the lessons for three possible students. One of them was shown in one of my favourite adverts ever:
She advised us to help learners to acknowledge every victory they have, and work hard at boosting their confidence. She recommended Seeds of Confidence by , [affiliate link] published by Helbling languages, as a source of other confidence-building activities.
Other advice included:
- Choose coursebooks with appropriate topics, making sure they’re not pitched too young.
- Adapt activities to suit the interests of your students. One example she gave was to listen to ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’, then write an advert for him to sell his farm because he’s going crazy!
- Use and teach memorisation techniques.
- Revise and recycle as often as possible.
- Find out about learners and value their experience.
Ultimately, it’s most important to adjust the classroom and lessons to your learners, rather than demanding they adapt to you.
David Connolly shared some Venn diagrams he has used to help students to understand grammar points, rather than trying to navigate the long and often complicated explanations that appear in a lot of course books. I was particularly interested in this session as I have been experimenting with different ways of clarifying language points for a while now, as any of you who have been following my blog for a while will know (another articles chart, anyone?!) David emphasised that Venn diagrams don’t provide a complete explanation covering all exceptions to rules, with context still being key. However, they can be used as a starting point for understanding. Here is one example for the uses of past simple, ‘used to’ and ‘would’ for past habits:
— Sandy Millin (@sandymillin) April 10, 2018
He also had diagrams for vocabulary, for example the different between a table and a desk, something I’d never really thought about before.
The final set of diagrams I have pictures of are connected to ‘have to’ and ‘must’ in the present and past:
— Sandy Millin (@sandymillin) April 10, 2018
Bruno Leys showed us a lot of pictures of real English in use that he has noticed in the UK and abroad, along with the kind of questions and follow-up tasks he uses with them. I would highly recommend looking at the full presentation, here, to see both examples of the pictures and his reasoning for approaching grammar in this way. I’ve selected a couple of my favourite examples to give you a taster. These two are great as the present perfect causes problems for speakers of a lot of languages, including Slavic languages, and these pictures help to make the meaning very clear:
If you’re interested in using ELTpics to work with grammar in this way, you could try the Signs or Linguistic Landscapes sets. Bruno also mentioned the free-to-download e-book The Image in English Language Teaching, edited by Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri.