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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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What’s the use of book reviews?

ELT Journal April 2013 coverAlessia Cogo, Reviews Editor for ELT Journal, considers why book reviews are important in the field of ELT.

When I recently took on the role of Reviews Editor for ELT Journal, I started to ask myself what book reviews are for. Who reads them, and why? What makes a good review?

I remember that when I was an English language teaching practitioner — and when I did my postgraduate studies — there was little time for reading. I often relied on book reviews to get an idea of the latest publications in ELT and to understand what was going on outside the field of research I was exploring. Is this still true? I was curious to find out, so I asked outgoing ELT Journal Reviews Editor Philip Prowse, to tell me more. After 17 years as Reviews Editor, Philip knows a thing or two about what makes a good review!

You can watch the full 4-minute video of my interview with Philip below, but if you need a quick answer to the question about what reviews are for, then read on!

Keep up to date with developments in the field of ELT

Reviews are tremendously important for busy practitioners who want to keep up with developments in our field. They keep you informed about what is being published, without having to expend a lot of time and energy.

Make an informed choice

Reading a review before you rush to buy the latest titles you found online will help you make an informed decision about the books that are most relevant to you.

Check out the key facts

A good review includes useful information:  a clear summary of what the book contains and the intended readership. For research-based publications, the review will also explain how the publication contributes to the area of research as well as what has been happening in the field.

Opinion and evaluation

Ideally, the useful information on content and readership is accompanied by the reviewer’s opinion and evaluation of the book. Taken together with the factual information about the publication, you have the ingredients for a delicious dish: a good review.

In-depth Survey Review

Sometimes a title-by-title review is not enough. If you teach in a school or a university, ELT Journal’s Survey Review, which compares several textbooks from different publishers, is invaluable. Survey reviews help you decide which textbooks you might want to use in class, or what you might want to recommend to your students for independent study or for developing specific skills.

To hear more about what makes a good review and to hear about the best ELT Journal reviews, and more, watch the interview with Philip Prowse.

Read  Alan Maley’s Review of Reviews to find out more about ELT Journal reviews from the past 17 years.


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Catherine Walter on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL Liverpool

Catherine WalterThe ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool was a lively and well-attended affair. Thanks to the British Council, you can see the whole event online on the IATEFL Liverpool website. Here, Catherine Walter, who opposed the motion, gives her round up of the debate.

Scott Thornbury claimed that Published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners. Surprisingly, he did not repeat what he’s been saying for years in his Dogme / Teaching Unplugged strand – that teachers should not bother with course materials. Instead, he started from the weaker premise that course materials need improvement. Scott began by showing images of early twentieth-century books – hardly germane to the discussion, as if the nutritional value of deep-fried Mars Bars gave a picture of the contemporary diet. He maintained that there is a prevalence of employed, white, heterosexual male middle class characters in current materials. This doesn’t correspond to the regular exercises I do with students to count and classify representations in materials, where some materials do very well indeed. Scott also suggested that vocabulary syllabuses are not based on frequency, and that spoken grammar is not well represented. I would argue with both these points.

My view:

There are high quality materials available today from international and national publishers. Most learners globally learn from materials in countries where English is not a dominant language, in large classes that meet two or three times a week, where access to other materials or the internet may not be good. The book is still a valuable technology here; and it is also often doorway to different possible combinations of supplementary materials and activities, in whatever media the teachers and learners can access.

What about reflecting the lives of learners?

When I was learning a foreign language as an adolescent in a semi-rural working-class industrial town, I did not want language teaching materials to reflect my life – I wanted them to take me out of it, to show me other lives and other ways of living. Further, if materials are too firmly anchored in the here and now of the learner, how will that prepare them for the future?  Of course, there are some ways in which course materials should and do reflect learners’ lives – for example, by being based on knowledge about how people learn at different ages, or by comparing learners’ lives to those in other places.

What about learners’ needs? 

  • Learners need to learn the language, not just those bits of the language that might happen to emerge in a lesson. Teams of course developers think very carefully about the range of language learners need, and make sure this range is covered.  Individual teachers don’t have the time or resources for this.
  • Learners need classroom time to be used effectively, because typically there isn’t much of that time.  Course materials offer clear, efficient ways of teaching language – and Norris and Ortega’s (2000) and Spada and Tomita’s (2010) analyses show that this works, and results in lasting acquisition.
  • Learners need materials that will help them with the next English language situation they will meet. Course materials provide structures and contexts for out-of-classroom situations.
  • Learners need access to extra resources that can be tailored to their needs. Modern courses offer pathways and activities to suit different learners.
  • Learners need clear goals and records of progress, and they value materials because they give these.
  • Learners need teachers who are well supported: course materials scaffold teachers, giving them a base from which to replace, reinvent, innovate and fine-tune materials for learners.
  • Learners need teachers who have access to professional development activities. Few teachers around the world can come to an IATEFL conference. Teachers in the majority 3-hour-a-week context, and not only there, regularly report on how they benefit from the teacher’s materials in their course books and in their development as professionals.

There is an unprecedented choice of materials available today; teachers don’t need to feed their students deep-fried Mars Bars. Materials can give teachers something to depend on, and something to kick against; they can give teachers frameworks and ingredients to depend on and to improvise from. How teachers nourish their students’ learning will always stem from the teachers’ creativity and their awareness of learners’ needs and lives.

You can also read Scott Thornbury’s take on the ELT Journal Debate in his post “R is for Representation” and watch the recorded debate online. Which of the speakers would have won your vote?

Catherine Walter writes English language teaching materials and lectures in applied linguistics at the University of Oxford (UK). She is the convenor of the low-residency Postgraduate Diploma / MSc in Teaching English Language in University Settings (on which there are still a few places available for the coming academic year!).

References

Norris, J. M. and L. Ortega.  2000.  Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis.  Language Learning 50/3:417-528.

Spada, N. and Tomita, Y.  2010.  Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis.  Language Learning 60/2:1-46.


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This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners

Young woman public speakingAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL Liverpool, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents his arguments for and against the need for published course materials.

Teaching and learning materials of one form or another are almost, but not quite, universal in ELT classrooms. And, obviously, the materials available to teachers and learners vary widely according to context; teachers and learners may also use similar materials in different ways depending on, for example, their beliefs, knowledge and skills, and wider social and institutional expectations.

But over time, changing ideas about language learning combined with developments in technology lead to changes in ELT materials. ‘Older’ materials are often replaced by newer resources which, in turn, eventually become outdated or unfashionable. So it can help us as teachers to think through some of the debates surrounding teaching and learning materials to make up our own minds about their strengths and weaknesses.

By way of example, let’s look at some of the debates surrounding textbooks (and here I mean textbooks generally, rather than evaluating a particular book or series). Textbooks are the main source of teaching ideas and materials for many teachers around the world; indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine ELT without textbooks. But whether they are a help or hindrance to teaching and learning is often a source of heated discussion.

Well-designed textbooks have a number obvious benefits for teachers and learners. They provide language input for learners; they can provide interesting and motivating material, organised in an appealing and logical manner; and they provide a written record of what has been studied, allowing for revision and continued study beyond the classroom. Textbooks also reduce the amount of time teachers’ require for preparation. So, one way of thinking about textbooks is that professional materials writers and teachers have different areas of expertise which complement each other. Using well-presented, professionally published textbooks frees teachers to deal with the day-to-day business of actually teaching.

But there are a number of criticisms of textbooks. Perhaps they create a ‘dependency culture’ in which teachers avoid responsibility and just do ‘what they are told’ by the textbook writers. As a result (so the argument goes), teachers may become ‘de-skilled’, losing their ability to think critically and work independently in the classroom. Textbooks are also said to fail to cater for individual needs, lead to material- rather than person-centred classes, and constrain creativity in the classroom.

However, criticisms of textbooks extend beyond these classroom-focused concerns. As well as being an teaching resource, textbooks are commercial products, which, it is claimed, are innately conservative in order to sell as widely as possible. This caution might be methodological, or it might be reflected in the cultural images that textbooks present. Most textbooks, for example, continue to focus on native-speaker lives, lifestyles and language varieties, and images of successful L2 learners are absent from many ELT materials; likewise, images of poverty, disability and many other aspects of ‘real life’ are difficult to find in many textbooks. Thus, it is argued, textbooks are not ‘neutral’, but reflect a particular view of social order and particular sets of values.

Of course, it is would unfair to suggest that textbooks writers and publishers are not aware of, or concerned about, these issues; yet producing a marketable product which does not ignore global and local realities and contexts is a difficult challenge.

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool on Thursday 11th April (17:05-18:20 UK time). There, Scott Thornbury will propose the motion ‘This house believes that published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners’; Catherine Walter will oppose the motion. For more information about the conference, and to access the debate via Liverpool online, go to http://www.iatefl.org/.

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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Writing for an academic Journal

JournalsDo you want to write an article for an academic journal? Don’t know how to get started? Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, offers some advice.

What’s your view of ‘theory’ and ‘research’ in English language teaching? Have you ever heard another teacher say ‘that’s fine in theory, but it’s just not relevant to me’, or even ‘I’m too busy actually teaching to look at research’ (maybe you think this yourself)? Well, in some ways, your colleagues might have a point – teachers are busy and research can seem very remote from what happens in our classrooms.

But, in the end, everything we do as teachers is informed by some kind of theory – whether the ideas of researchers in our field investigating how languages might be learned, or the methodological approaches embedded in our textbooks, or our own personal theories about what constitutes a ‘good’ classroom activity, or why learners respond to certain learning tasks but not others.

And many teachers, at some point in their career, want to move beyond reflecting upon their own professional practice and ‘just’ reading the insights of others, to share their own informed insights about teaching and learning with the wider profession. One way of doing this to write for an academic journal. But how might you get started?

First, make sure you have something interesting to say! There are two elements to this, of course – that what you write about is interesting to you, and that it is also interesting to potential readers (sorry for stating the obvious). So, as you prepare and write your article, have a specific journal in mind, and study articles in that journal closely. What kind of topics are covered in the journal, what is the typical style of articles in the journal, how are authors’ own ideas balanced with background literature, what is the balance of theory/research and practice and so on? Additionally, all journals have ‘Author guidelines’ or ‘Instructions to authors’ which summarise the answers to many of these questions (usually on their websites) – try to get hold of them.

Writing an article isn’t always very straightforward. Finding the words to express yourself clearly and concisely whilst covering everything that you need to say within the word limit is often a challenge. And, the first time a teacher tries to write for an academic journal, writing in what is often a new style of language, and writing about both theory/research and practice can be a challenge – certainly, this was the case when I was preparing the first article I was fortunate enough to have published. So, don’t give up – I suspect that everyone who has published an academic journal article has struggled at some point!

Having prepared an article which you think is suitable for a particular journal, give it a final check through. Does it meet the criteria the journal lists for publication, both in terms of focus and interest, but also in terms of, for example, the word limit and language accuracy? If so, submit it.

What usually happens next is as follows. Authors receive an acknowledgement that the journal has received their paper. Editors then take an immediate decision about articles – should they be rejected immediately or should they be sent for ‘peer review’? When papers are rejected immediately, it is often because writers have not thought clearly enough about the way in which their article meets the aims and objectives of a journal, or have ignored ‘the basics’ such writing an article of an appropriate length.

Peer review means just that – articles are sent to members of an editorial panel who work in the same field and have experience of both writing for publication, usually in that journal, and reading and reflecting on journal articles. Papers are read by two reviewers, and are anonymized throughout this process – reviewers do not know who the authors of a paper are.

As they read, peer reviewers look for the following: that articles are relevant and interesting to the journal readership, and are clearly and coherently written with no flaws in their internal logic. In the case of ELT Journal, reviewers specifically look for an appropriate balance between theory and practice, and that practice relates to theoretical principles whilst theoretical concepts are clarified by reference to their practical applications. Accounts of specific contexts should have clear implications for other contexts whilst there also needs to be an awareness of recent / other work in the field. Most journals have similar criteria, dependent on their aims and readership.

The reviews are returned to the editor who then considers the feedback and prepares a follow-up response to the original author. This usually takes the form of one of four possible decisions – a paper might be Rejected; substantial Revisions might be requested prior to resubmission and further peer review; the paper might be Conditional Accepted, dependent on a few minor changes being made by the author; or the decision may be a straightforward Acceptance. And clearly, this all takes a little time.

So, what’s in it for you – why try to publish in an academic journal, especially if there’s a possibility that your article may be rejected after so much hard work? Well, it is a great form of professional development. Authors focus on one key issue which is important to them and learn even more about it through the process of researching and writing an article; first time authors also learn a new set of skills – researching and writing for publication. If successful, your findings and perspectives become known to the wider ELT profession which develops as a consequence. You may be able to develop your paper into a talk which you can present at a conference. Readers may get in touch to find out more about your ideas.

So, is writing for an academic journal worth the hard work required? Definitely, but you will have a huge sense of satisfaction when you see your article in print.

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