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Authenticity and autonomy – for learners and teachers

young asian teenagerKeith Morrow, an ELT consultant and trainer, reflects on how ‘authentic’ activities can provide an effective learning and teaching experience in the ELT classroom, ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

Two buzz words in one title. Not bad! How authentic are you feeling today? Will the real you be going into class to do real things? And are you feeling autonomous? A free spirit or a cog in the machine?

For a long time we have thought about ‘authenticity’ mainly in terms of materials. Let’s use real material from the real world in class. Down with stilted dialogues about John and Mary, up with real texts from magazines – or of course from the Internet. They are bound to be more interesting, because they are real. Umm, well – are they? Last weekend I got a notice from the tax authorities reminding me that I owe them some money. This was pretty boring even for me, but for a learner of English in a classroom anywhere in the world, being made to read my tax demand would be absolutely deadly. It has no connection to their world, and so they how could they engage with it? To use a distinction that Henry Widdowson made nearly 40 years ago, the text is ‘genuine’ – but the only person in the world for whom it is ‘authentic’ is me.

I think that finding ways to make activities ‘authentic’ for learners is at the heart of good teaching. But what does this involve? How can we do it?

Comments and suggestions are welcome. I’ll be exploring this and making some suggestions in the webinar I am leading next week on Tuesday 15th July and on Wednesday 16th July, so please come and join in.

And while you are at it, what about ‘autonomy’? What can we do in the classroom to help learners to take charge of their own learning? And equally intriguing – what can we do to help teachers to develop their own skills? Again, please share your comments and suggestions.

In the webinar I’m going to be drawing on two articles from ELT Journal to illustrate some ways of doing both of these, and I hope to be able to share links with you so that you can access the articles free of charge.


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ELT Journal: Special Issue

ELT Journal: Special IssueKeith Morrow, who is retiring after 17 years as Editor of ELT Journal, reflects on the key developments in various areas of English language teaching during this time, as identified by contributors to the latest, special edition of the journal.

Have you had a birthday recently? Or a significant anniversary? Well, I have – not a birthday, but I have just received through the post the last issue of ELT Journal with my name on as editor. I’ve been editor for 17 years, so you can understand why I’m a bit misty-eyed!

For this issue we invited contributors to look back over my time in office and identify key developments in various areas of ELT during this period. We also asked them to peer into the future to see what the future might hold.

The result – though I say so myself – is a terrific overview of practice and principles in our field. But as I read and re-read the articles, I noticed two recurring themes. What do you think about them?

1. There is still a huge gap between theory and practice:

In his article, Alan Waters compares the 1996 and the 2009 versions of ‘Headway Intermediate’ and shows that the more recent version has “an increased emphasis on exposing students to and giving them opportunities to put the ‘target’ grammar into practice”. So what happened to all the work promoting the idea of learning language through using it, and even to task-based learning?

Amos Paran’s article is about developments in the teaching of the four skills. He identifies new insights into the nature of all four areas which could have profound pedagogical implications, but concludes that in the classroom little has changed. “We … have increasing evidence that what was a veritable teaching revolution in the 1970s, with a variety of communicative approaches to language teaching, has not in fact filtered down to the teaching profession to the extent that we like to think it has.”

2. Teacher education is not much help to teachers in the classroom:

Carol Griffiths surveyed teachers to find out what their professional worries were. She found that overwhelmingly they were to do with ‘classroom issues’ such as class management. As one of her respondents says ‘What happens in the classroom usually clashes with the theory’.

Amos Paran develops his theme by writing “…the picture that emerges is of teachers battling with the conflict between their beliefs, their training, the realities of the classroom, the demands of parents and learners, the requirements to demonstrate immediate attainment, and the increasing focus on exams.”

Does that sound familiar? And does current pre-service or in-service provision help teachers here?

The special issue is now available online to subscribers at http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org. Abstracts of articles are available free of charge, but even better is the fact that two really interesting pieces are available for free download.

One is an overview of the ‘Key Concepts in ELT’ features that appear regularly in the Journal; the other is a mammoth ‘Review of the reviews’ giving an overview of the book and materials reviews published since 1995.

If you want to find out what has been going on in the field over the past 17 years you can access them from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org.

It’s time for me to stroll off into the sunset. I wish the new Editor of ELT Journal, Graham Hall, the very best of luck.

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Designing Good Tests: Principles Into Practice

Keith Morrow is the editor of ELT Journal and has worked in language testing for many years. He was involved in developing some of the first ‘communicative’ language tests, and is currently working as a consultant to testing projects in Austria and Luxembourg. Keith hosted a Global Webinar ‘Designing Good Tests: Principles Into Practice’ on January 12th and will be repeating it on January 31st. You can find out more information and register to attend here.

Testing goes on in almost every educational institution in the world, and is familiar to both teachers and students. “On Thursday we’ll have a vocabulary test”.  “I want to get good marks in the end-of-year exams”.

Despite this, teacher training programmes often pay very little attention to the role, purpose, and nature of testing in the classroom. As a result many teachers feel insecure about the principles and practice of testing, and so they put together tests based on what they have always done – or just use tests from published sources.

Do you see a little bit of yourself in this description? Would like to find out more about some background ideas in testing?

For example, what is testing? Is it the same as assessment)? Why do we test? To help the students or to frighten them? Is it a carrot or a stick? How is a test made? What are the different forms a test might take? What are the different focuses a language test might have? And most importantly, of course, how can we design better tests in our own context and for our own purposes?

These are some of the areas we will be looking at in my webinar on 31st January. Please come and join me, to meet colleagues from all over the world online, and to have a chance to share ideas and insights about testing.

After the webinar on this topic that I gave earlier this month, there were a lot of questions that I didn’t have time to answer online. So here are some quick thoughts on some of them.

Can the selected response task test both elements of language and communicative skills?

A multiple-choice test can be a good way of finding out what students know. But finding out what students can do is rather more difficult. If you are thinking of communicative skills in terms of production (speaking and writing), I think you have to see how well they can actually speak or write. And you can’t do that with multiple choice.

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