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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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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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