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Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014

Janet Enever at the ELTJ Debate at IATEFL 2014At this year’s ELTJ Debate, Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) argued against the motion that ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good‘. Janet shares her thoughts on some of the points that came out of the debate. You can watch the full recording of the debate on the IATEFL Online website, or catch up on the highlights in our Storify story of the event.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I was to hear so many interesting and relevant points raised at the ELTJ Debate. Together, they provided fruit for a really valuable round table event – perhaps this would be a more productive format for developing shared understandings and creating networks than the adversarial stance of a debate.

Here, I’d like to pick up on a few points raised that I felt were particularly important – just to start the ball rolling for additional perspectives to be aired.

There’s proof in the pudding

Firstly then, the exciting new evidence from Eva Wilden in Germany! A study of over 6,500 children at the end of the German primary school phase (aged 10/11 yrs). She reported clear evidence of greater progress in receptive skills by approximately 50% of the sample who began English earlier. This large scale study is very significant evidence. In addition, the study linked higher achievement with stronger reading skills in German (national language – which may or may not be the children’s first language). Can we extrapolate from this that higher level literacy in the language of schooling/L1 works hand-in-hand with higher achievements in English?

I’d like to add a note here on the broader question of literacy and politely take issue with Fiona [Copland]. There is now strong evidence on the potential of early language learning to contribute positively to literacy in L1. The references are now too numerous to list here, but perhaps I can include one quote and suggest that for anyone interested, it would be worth following up on this particular source. So: Fernandez (2008:8) summarises evidence, that:

far from detracting from the development of literacy, learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children’s language experience and offers unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills, which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.”

It seems possible that Eva from Germany has evidence of just this happening – I’m glad to say that she has now agreed to present at our conference in Umea this June – so join us if you can to hear more! Of course, OUP are one of our proud sponsors!

Political buy-in

Secondly, I’d like to mention the contribution of a colleague from Bangladesh. I haven’t had the chance to spend time there so cannot pretend to be knowledgeable on the challenges, though I’ve heard this account many times and seen many of these challenges elsewhere in the world. The current problem for Bangladesh seems to be that there are very few positive aspects to this policy decision! Here I will take up just one.

From the ELLiE study we learnt that primary English teachers need a fluency level of at least B2 if they are to be able to respond to the unplanned, informal everyday requirements of English in the primary classroom. In many contexts this continues to be a distant goal, but this does not diminish its importance. At a language planning stage we need to ‘help’ politicians to fully understand this and strategically plan to achieve this target. Years ago when I worked in Poland (soon after the political changes), I witnessed thousands of teachers of Russian losing their jobs. Some, astonishingly, managed to speedily turn their hands to rapidly learning English and became excellent English teachers instead. The shift in language choice that has occurred there over the past 24 years is certainly remarkable, with a national policy now established for introducing the first foreign language (mainly, but not only, English) from the start of schooling. However, in a country of 40 million, this has taken a generation to implement – and they are still working on it. Evidently, Bangladesh has much greater challenges – probably not only in the teaching of primary English, with large classes and a struggle for adequate resources.

How much is too much?

The final point that I’d like to discuss relates to the question of ‘how many languages are possible at primary level?’ This is indeed a difficult question to answer – probably impossible! A delegate from Switzerland outlined their current debate. Last year I attended a national discussion forum on this in Bern where I learnt that English was creeping up the agenda in a number of cantons, and concerns were rising particularly about the decline of their fourth language – Romansch. From informal coffee break conversations I gained the impression that the German speakers in particular no longer saw French as so important/valuable as English.

This topic links also to the question raised by a British Council representative from Senegal in Francophone West Africa. Similarly, there, current discussions consider whether children will suffer from overload if they have to cope with learning two languages in addition to their home language/mother tongue/language of schooling (various terms may apply in different contexts). In response to the question of: ‘How many languages are too many?’ we can cite countries such as India where it is often the norm for young children to shift between 3-4 languages in their daily lives – but these are generally languages that are widely used in the community. We can also cite smaller-scale examples where three languages are taught in schools from an early age – e.g. Luxembourg, Belgium, some regions of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region. However, again, at least two of these languages are widely used in the community, whilst the third (English) is seen as a high status international language.

From this and other evidence then, we know children can cope, but we have to ask whether the contextual conditions are sufficient to provide enough support for them to make progress. With good teachers, good resources and a supportive wider community (both in and out of school) I’m sure it can be done. However, achieving this on a wider scale takes substantial national/political commitment. Of course, it also takes a significant amount of class time so it’s important to consider the priorities and take care not to create a primary curriculum that suffers from overload. In Africa, I know it’s a real dilemma, with some former colonies having opted for non-local language as the medium of instruction from the start of schooling and then later recognising this might result in only limited progress in basic education. The theme of Medium of Instruction deserves a separate discussion I feel – and was not the focus of the Debate. Here, we are discussing the introduction of a foreign language, together with the teaching of a former colonial language (English or French mainly).

My expectation is that the outcome is unlikely to be balanced bilingualism. Nonetheless, the experience of learning two languages early, in addition to the first language, will certainly provide a valuable foundation for later further development – assuming the conditions are sufficient to ensure good provision. Of course, Harry Kuchah’s contribution from Cameroon serves as a salutory reminder on how difficult it can be to achieve satisfactory conditions for learning.

There are so many more points I would like to discuss, but I hope the above provides some food for thought and provokes further discussion. As you can see, there are so many perspectives to consider.

If Janet’s points on the ELTJ Debate have interested you, or you’d like to challenge them, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to watch the recording of the Debate or read our Storify highlights.


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#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better'; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.


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#IATEFL – Teaching and learning EAP: “What is EAP and how can I teach it?”

Middle aged African woman shrugging her shouldersEdward de Chazal, author of many EAP titles, including the forthcoming English for Academic Purposes, part of the Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers series, presents an imagined conversation about what EAP is and how we teach it. Edward will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2014 on Friday 4th April.

I keep hearing a lot about EAP these days, but – how can I put this? – I’m not really sure what it is. It means different things to different people, doesn’t it?

“I know how you feel. I’ve been teaching EAP for a few years now and I’m still trying to make sense of it. There’s so much going on. And it seems different when you start working somewhere new.”

You can say that about any English language teaching context. So much to learn.

“Sure – but think how much you know already. Start with that. Think of your own knowledge of English. All that teaching experience. And your own education – how many qualifications have you done since you left school? How many training sessions and presentations have you attended?”

I see what you’re getting at. Yes, I know I know a lot, and I’m always learning something new. But – going back to EAP – what do I need to know? What is my role as an EAP teacher?

“Roles – there are lots of them. OK. Let’s start by looking at where we are in EAP today. One way of looking at it is that the field of EAP is a research-informed practice.”

What does that mean?

“First and foremost it’s a practice – we’re all practising teachers – and the work we do is vital for the academic success of thousands of students worldwide.”

OK, great, and what about the ‘research-informed’ dimension?

“And what we do is informed by all the work that has been going on for, well, about 50 years. There are lot of influences on EAP.”

Like what?

“Well, there are major influences like genre analysis and corpus linguistics, but also other theories of teaching and learning, like approaches to teaching writing, study skills, and critical EAP.”

What’s that?

“OK. At the heart of EAP is critical thinking. In EAP we’re all critical thinkers – teachers and students.”

But what does this mean in practice?

“There are different approaches to critical thinking. With ‘critical EAP’, nothing is off-limits – we can critique pretty much anything and everything.”

Like what?

“OK, let’s start with a text. As language teachers we’re always bringing in texts into the classroom – maybe up-to-date texts like newspaper articles that we’ve just come across, or photocopied texts from various sources, or simply the texts in the coursebooks we’re using.”

OK, so students have to read lots of texts. What next?

“Well, in many English language teaching contexts the focus of the lesson would then be the text. So, you’d do some work on the text – tasks like working out meanings in the text, language work.”

Of course – isn’t that the point?

“It’s necessary, but it’s not the whole story. We can encourage critical thinking by doing tasks like identifying the author’s stance, any weaknesses in the text, bias, assumptions, those sorts of things.”

Sounds good.

“A critical EAP approach goes beyond the boundaries of the text.”

How do you mean?

“In a critical EAP approach, we can encourage our students to ask questions like ‘Why have you selected this particular text?’ ‘Isn’t this text written from a Western perspective – it’s published in Oxford?’ and ‘How are the issues in the text relevant to me?’ Questions like these can be really interesting. We can encourage our students to reflect on these ideas and challenge what’s in the text and its wider context.”

Hmm, certainly food for thought. Yes, as you said, there’s so much going on in EAP. I can see now that I’m going to get a lot out of learning all about it.

“I do. Arguably, one of the greatest influences on EAP is the wider context of English language teaching – we know a lot about that. There’s a lot to learn, but never forget how much you know already.”

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#IATEFL – Adult Learners: helping them clear the next hurdle

Businessman jumping over hurdlesRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express (published in January 2014), looks at how to help adult learners to maintain momentum when learning a language. Rachel will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Over the years, I’ve made significant efforts to learn Hungarian, and have done reasonably well; however, I can now “do” what I need to do with the language, and I’m very aware that I’m forgetting it, even though I still live in Budapest. I also go through phases of learning Spanish, and try to do a little everyday, such as reading an article I’ve come across that interests me, or putting Spanish radio on while I’m cooking. OK, so I might be keeping the little Spanish I have alive, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought that I was making any real progress in doing these things.

Many students I’ve come across tell me similar stories, but they also have other difficulties: time is always the number one hurdle; in addition, some think learning a language is all about doing grammar exercises, which of course they find boring; many claim to be able to learn long lists of words, but then resent their efforts when they find they can’t really use them in conversation.

Adults learning a language today characteristically stop and then re-start learning, each time with renewed enthusiasm, yet we all have busy lives! Does this sound like you too? Somehow we expect to make progress, often with minimal effort. Some people claim they are able to keep a language going by reading, or watching films, – perhaps even by having the occasional conversation with a native speaker in that language. But, in fact, all too often we’ve reached a plateau, or perhaps our language use is even getting worse.

So what can we do to help our students? I do actually realise that I need to engage my brain and be very focused on what I want to learn if I’m going to make any progress at all, so extensive listening while chopping onions isn’t really going to do the job! But how can we translate this into the classroom? How can we really get students involved, and ensure they make progress?

Well, I think we need to be very aware of the difficulties our students are facing, as well as what they’re aiming for; in fact the more we know about them, the better we’ll be at helping them. Adult learners bring a wealth of experiences to class, and in most cases are eager to share those, and have a chance to express their opinions. But they need to be motivated and engaged. So we need to ensure that we give them the scope and range of topics to be fully involved. But we also need to focus on language, and create opportunities to help them understand and relate to new language, and make sure that they practise the language in a meaningful way.

In my session at IATEFL Harrogate we’re going find out what it is that makes learning difficult and perhaps prevents learners from getting over the next hurdle. We’ll then be looking at topics and task-types from the new edition of International Express that will engage the learners, provide them with relevant language, and ultimately enable them to communicate effectively and make progress in areas that matter to them.

As a start, why not jot down in the comments box below what it is that makes it difficult for YOU, or YOUR learners, to get over the next language hurdle. I’d be really interested to find out, and – you never know – we just might have a solution for you! Let me know!

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#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.

Reference

Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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