Sunday, 6 April 2014

'Oh God!'

It's been a very odd week.

Since last Wednesday my talk has been tweeted and retweeted over 50 times. I've been sent compliments by people I look up to and have acquired about 100 new twitter followers. I've had emails, requests to speak, and I've even been interviewed by the nicest man on twitter. I think Mike, who is one of the main reason this blog exists (see here for example), was just as surprised as me:

I've been blogged about by, so far about four people. I was mentioned by Hugh Dellar (Squeal!). My page view count and the one on this blog both suddenly shot up (which is unnerving). This has also been the week I discovered that 20 seems to be the maximum number of notifications twitter goes up to and then it lazily displays 20+ at the bottom.

However, nothing surpassed the surreality that occurred when a couple of people retweeted the talk not to @ebefl -my handle- but to @russellmayne - a clinical strategist in Dubai.I thought the poor guy might take offence at being randomly tweeted at but no, he replied saying, 'wrong Russ' and then added:


Not only had my Googleganger been dragged into the chaos, he was merrily joining in!

All of this has come as a surprise. This was my first IATEFL. I've been trying to go for three years now. You might remember this post from last year when I complained because I couldn't go. If I'm honest, the only reason I put a talk in is because we have a rule that accepted speakers can always go to conferences. I didn't think many people would be interested in the topic but at least I'd get to tick it off my 'to do' list. I'd also maybe get to meet some of the people I'd been chatting with over the last two years.
I'd been pretty nervous all day beforehand and hadn't slept well all week. When I slipped out of Steve Brown's talk to go and prepare I was surprised by what I found. There seemed to be quite a lot of people in the room and more were coming. Then, Adrian Underhill strolled in and asked me a question. I was worried at this point. Next the guy at the back told me it would be live streamed I started to panic. People started to add extra rows of chairs and then the cameraman gave me a thumbs up. 

The  mic picked up my feelings at that moment and preserved them for history.  


Later, someone asked me how come I got to be live streamed. I have absolutely no idea. It's really odd and I didn't realise how odd till I saw the list of names. Either side of me are people who are actually, you know, famous and have done stuff. I'm not very well known, have no published papers, haven't written a book nor have ever even been to IATEFL. I'd really love to know how they came to the decision to pick me. I honestly haven't a clue. Maybe it was a mistake?

I should take a minute here to say thanks, though. I'd been feeling a bit despondent about conferences lately. Having had about 5 and 7 people come to my last two BALEAP talks, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth the time and stress of writing and presenting. Perhaps no one was really interested? The incredible response has made me think again. I'll have to delete my half-written "conferences are a waste of time' blog post now. I'm genuinely very happy that so many TEFLer seem to agree with the sentiment of the talk.

The highlight of the day for me (aside from not being lynched, obviously) was meeting so many lovely twitter bods like Nicola Prentis, Mike Harrison and James Taylor (sorry if I missed anyone out, it's all a bit of a blur) Best of all was when Hugh, Steve, Carol and Chris bought me beer and sat and chatted with me until I had to catch my train. (Side note: NO ONE looks anything like their twitter picture except for Hugh Dellar and Jonathen Sayers who look exactly like theirs)  I wish I could've been there all week. Maybe next year? That is assuming I haven't been done in by a shadowy TEFL illuminati.
I'm going to try to put up some extra info about the talk but in the meantime, here are some links to old posts on the subject.

NLP claims, NLP, Council article on NLP (with response from the website in comments) and a weird misuse of Thornbury half way down here to support NLP. 

Sorry if this post was a bit self-indulgent. I'll be back to my old cynical self soon.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Trust us, we know what's best for you.

Language for giving opinions
At a recent BALEAP conference the plenary speaker said something I found was quite startling. She was talking  about the fact we often teach things to students which are not, according to corpus data, representative of natural speech. That is, when we teach students things like 'language for giving opinions' we may present phrases like "I tend to think that..", "I consider..." and ''in my opinion' as a possible ways of alternatives to "I think" despite the fact they are actually vanishingly rare in speech, and are not really alternatives.   

I was worried when she reached her conclusion as it differed from mine, and I was speaking later that day! I had rather foolishly assumed that this meant we should stop teaching language which was unnatural of uncommon and instead focus on more useful, high frequency items. She didn't see it that way. She suggested that international students using odd or uncommon phrases, -especially if they were female, may sound quite 'charming'.
What I heard sounded familiar. I was reminded of my own experiences of learning a foreign language. Learning Japanese in Japan meant I had fairly natural sounding Japanese (brag brag). I only ever heard it from Japanese people speaking and I didn't have a textbook so my only input was them. I would occasionally meet people who studied abroad and would often find their Japanese odd or unnatural. For example, I would say the casual male 俺 ore for 'I' and they would say the more formal 私 watashiI would say "eh, what?" (e? Mou ikkai?) and they would say "I'm sorry but could you please repeat that." (sumimasen ga mou ichido itte kudasai) etc etc. It was really clear to me. The Japanese these people were learning was nothing like the Japanese I was hearing in Japan. 
Sometimes Japanese folks would be surprised and say things like 'foreigners shouldn't use Japanese like that.' or try to persuade me that really 'watashi' was a better choice of personal pronoun marker despite the fact none of the guys I knew used it. 
I'd also often hear 'you don't need to learn that Japanese' from well meaning folk, who no doubt had my best interests at heart. I later found that in 1988, the idea  of creating a 'foreigner Japanese' called Kanyaku nihongo with all the politeness markers removed was funded by the National Language Institute of Japan. This was no doubt to make it easier, for us poor foreigners trying to learn what is, according to many Japanese anyway, the most difficult language on the planet. Now, anyone who knows anything about Japanese can tell you that removing the politeness markers from Japanese is like removing the alcohol from beer. Technically possible but kind of defeating the object.

I found all of this patronising. I didn't want to learn foreigner Japanese I wanted to learn Japanese. Thus my experience leads me to think that students probably don't like being fobbed off with 'pseudo language'. They pay for and expect the real thing. My experience leads me to think this but I'm only one person and I could well be wrong.
It's not fair for me to assume that what I want is what my students want any more than it was fair for those well meaning Japanese folk to decide what I did and didn't need to learn and how I should sound. The danger with experience is always over extrapolation. This worked for me, in this place, at this time, so it must work for everyone.

In the past some teachers told students that they should strive to sound like a native speaker and probably a certain type of native speaker.  Some teachers now tell students not to try to sound like native speakers. In both these cases, the person telling and the person being told, haven't changed.

If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that's fine. If they don't that's fine. It's their money. But even if students aren't interested in sounding like native speakers that's no excuse for us to teach them unnatural language and phrases because it's easier for us to teach like that.  All we are then doing is creating an alternative version of English -not ELF, just a pseudo English bleached and stripped of reality and no one is asking for that, no matter how 'charming' it might be.

Monday, 17 March 2014

A guide to teaching methods part 1: Crazy stupid English

I'm intending to try and catalogue some of the numerous language teaching methods that exist. Please let me know of any you'd like me to focus on.  I'm hoping to expand the list as time goes by. Here's the first one, let me know what you think.

Name: Crazy English (Fengkuang Yingyu)
Creator: Li yan, The Elvis of English
Country of origin: China
Popular in: China
Vintage: Around 1994
Philosophy: "In order to learn English you need to be have to be 110% involved." and "the secret of success is to have [students] continuously paying."
Number of students: 20 million
Research support: None
In a nutshell: listen and repeat drilling on a Chinese scale.  
Anything else:Crazy English involves huge numbers of people shouting at each other in stadium rallies that can reach up to ten thousand people.
Criticism: It's largely unknown outside  China but Kingsley Bolton calls it "Huckster nationalism". Li is charismatic and learnt English in China -not as a rich overseas student which gives him a lot of credibility among the people. He's also unashamedly nationalistic.  Some have described 'crazy English' as being rather cult like and this wasn't helped when as  The shanghai daily reports  in 2007 Li told his female students that if they shaved their heads to show their determination he would let them become his disciples. The New Yorker tells of a student selling blood in order to raise the money for a ticket to attend one of his stadium lessons.
Li's star has perhaps started to fade after it came to light in 2011 that he was a wife beater. His American wife uploaded photos showing the after effects of domestic violence at his hands and wrote that Li had "knocked me to the floor.[...] sat on my back [...] choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor," "The pair divorced in 2013 but recently Li has been bragging about his exploits saying:

Those who know I hit my wife, raise your hand! I am the spokesperson for domestic abuse!… This is a cultural clash between China and America; it has nothing to do with domestic abuse. One day, the Party and the state will rehabilitate me. I was doing something to educate Americans! My American wife was always criticizing China, accusing our Party of lying. In such a situation, could I not hit her?… Everyday accusing Beijing...She was lucky I could bear it, in America I would have shot her with a gun! (source)

 Nice! Let's hope Crazy English disappears along with its clearly psychopathic creator.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Your getting you're grammars wrong!

People get angry about 'grammar' on the internet. To the extent that memes have sprung up about it.

The scare quotes around 'grammar' are because most of what passes for grammar mistakes are really nothing of the sort. I work with foreign students, helping them get up to speed with English for university courses in the UK. They make real grammar mistakes. Here's an example of what someone without a firm grasp of English grammar sounds like:

'She have no much friend.'

Any one who has taught EFL will tell you that this isn't all that bad either. Learners can come up with some quite impressively bad sentences. At least with this one we can sort of guess of guess what the person is trying to say. That's why I think it's wrong to call something like 'your/you're' a 'grammar' mistake. Native speakers are very unlikely to make what could legitimately be called a 'grammar mistake'. More often than not they are spelling mistakes due to homophones like 'they're/their/there' or 'too/to'. The person knows what they want to say but they don't know how to spell it. Even the cringe inducing 'could of' is a misspelling. In rapid speech 'have' preceded by a consonant (the d of could) will almost always lose its 'h'. Sometimes we'll write this as could've. The problem is that the sounds of 've' /əv/ and 'of' /əv/ are identical. So again, we see homophones causing spelling mistakes.
How do I know that Native speakers are not making 'grammar' mistakes? Consider the following sentence: 
She doesn't have many friends.  

How many grammar rules are in this sentence? In fact there are numerous rules here all of which native speakers manage to observe almost all the time without any problems whatsoever - a feat quite beyond most of my students -even those at quite high levels of proficiency. Hold on, this is going to get complicated.

First the sentence is arranged subject verb object like most English sentences. In Japanese it would be subject object verb as in 'she many friends doesn't have'.  Next there is the fact that the object 'friends' is plural. So the noun has an 's' on the end. It's quite amazing that we don't get this wrong since it's so small and fiddly and also because English has a huge number of irregular plurals (dog dogs, potato potatoes, child children, party parties, mouse, mice, men man, fish fish, wife wives, ox, oxen, datum, data, bus buses, passer-by passers-by, index indices, octopus octopods). The writer also knows that as 'friend' is a countable noun (unlike say rice or coffee) we not only have to add an 's' but we also have to use the word 'many' not 'much'.
I told you this was complicated.
The native speaker also effortlessly manages this most complex of verb situations. the main verb is 'have' but as we are using 3rd person 'she' it changes to 'has'.  However that's not all, as we're using the negative 'not' we need to add 'do support'. Did you know English is one of the only languages to have do support on the planet? Of about 6,000 languages around now, there are only about three with do support and you can speak one of them. You lucky thing!
Back to the sentence. So we're in the middle of negating the verb and you'll notice that all  of the verb information has moved from the 'have' to the vampiric 'do' which has become 'does'. The negative marker 'not' has reduced and been sucked in by the 'do' as well. All bow down to the mighty 'do'.
So there you have it, three paragraphs to describe five words. All of the information I've described about English grammar is contained in a native speaker's head and flows out effortlessly when they speak. In fact, most of them probably couldn't describe these rules if  asked. Sure, some variations may exist ('she don't have many friends') but even these are regular and systematic. That is, no one says 'She have don't many friends' as a matter of course. If anything the 'she don't' is a more regular and logical version (but let's not get into that one).

As Atkinson notes, every native speaker knows more grammar rules than any grammarian has ever been able to codify. Your command of the intricacies of English grammar is so vast and complex it has not yet been fully recorded. Instead of celebrating this incredible fact we get upset when someone spells a word incorrectly and wonder if they don't understand 'grammar' and perhaps if they're stupid. It's a funny old world.
Happy #Grammarday.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

E=MC hammer

I follow a fair few teachers on twitter and so I get to read a lot about education. One of the  faces most commonly peering out of tweets and retweets at me, is that of Albert Einstein; usually with some pithy quote attached to his name. More often than not these quotes are attributed to Einstein, but he didn't say them. As with the following examples.

he didn't say this
he didn't say this either

nor this


he kinda said this, but not in these words

I recently got involved in a spat with a guy who posted one of these quotes. The klaxon of "someone on the Internet is wrong" began buzzing in my head. No. resist. I said to myself, but the urge was too great. Our conversation went like this: 

he does agree!
Leaving aside the argument as to whether facts matter or not (hint -they do) just why is Einstein such a popular figure for educators to (mis)quote? What is it about the German Jewish physicists that appeals to some modern educators? Einstein isn't popular among all teachers. Instead you tend to see his stuff quoted by teachers who have a strong disposition towards things like creativity, student emotional development and imagination. The kind of teacher who derides tests and wants students to 'think outside the box'. Now there's nothing necessarily wrong with these ideas .I'm just merely pointing out the  odd correlation I've noticed between Einstein and beliefs of this sort. I say 'odd' because a gifted mathematical genius, smart in the most traditional sense who excelled at school doesn't strike me as the poster boy for the values being espoused by these teachers. What's that you say? But Einstein didn't do well at school!  Ah, before we continue, there are a few myths that need debunking. Here's a quick recap.

Myth: Einstein did badly in school
No, he did really well in school. He aced almost everything except French. He tried to enter university when he was 16 but his French held him back (damn you, French!!)

Myth: Einstein failed maths
Nope, he could do differential and integral calculus by the age of 15 whereas I don't even know what those words mean.

Myth: Einstein had learning difficulties and was an average student
This one is tricky because Einstein didn't speak a lot until he was about 5. He did speak though. His biographer Pais (1982) claims that Einstein started speaking in whole sentences between the age of 2-3 and at age nine he was accepted into a prestigious school. It would seem quite odd for an 'average' student with learning difficulties to be accepted into such a school. The only 'learning difficulty' he seemed to have was in that he hated the way his teachers taught, -i.e. memorising large amounts of data. This to my mind, makes Einstein quite a 'normal' child.

Myth: Einstein was dyslexic/autistic  

There is little credible evidence to support this claim. Mostly these claims were made retroactively. Also Autism and dyslexic are both somewhat problematic terms. Autism is a spectrum disorder and dyslexia is not one condition with a clear definition. Thus to say Einstein was autistic or dyslexic is probably not true and even if it were true probably doesn't tell us very much.

So it seems there are in existence, two distinct Einsteins. There is 'physicist Einstein' who was a smart kid, good at school (with the exception of French) and brilliant at maths. This Einstein went on to publish hundreds of ground breaking articles concerning physics and won the Nobel Prize. Then there's 'educator Einstein'. A young boy with learning difficulties who was written of by foolish teachers unable to see his potential. He failed at maths and yet went on to become a world-renown genius. He spent much of his later life poised before a blackboard making pithy statements about education to his enrapt students. 

While it is true that Einstein trained to be a school teacher and lectured at various Universities, it's also true that for two years he failed to find a teaching job and his only teaching was at university level. It's also likely that none of the teachers quoting his thoughts on teaching have any idea how he fared as a lecturer. Was he any good? Did his students like him? Did he teach well? Among Einstein's hundreds of papers not one dealt with teaching or education. Despite this he's claimed by teachers as one of their own, there are even (flawed) academic papers speculating about Einstein's views on teaching
reverse halo -or 'Devil effect'. Retweet anyone?
So why exactly is Einstein popular among  some  teachers? It would seem that Einstein is a kind of short-hand for 'genius'. Stick his picture next to a quote and the quote gains 9000 Internet points more of credibility than just a normal quote. This is an example of the cognitive bias known as the Halo effect. This is where one attractive characteristic can lead people to assume more favourable things about a person in general. The halo effect is well known and well studied. It's what leads to attractive teachers getting better student ratings than less attractive teachers, and to attractive criminals getting shorter sentences than plainer ones. Einstein wasn't hot, he was smart, but the effect still holds. E = S = T or Einstein = smart = true. Smart guy A says B so B must be true because smart guy A is smart. Of course, this is a non-sequitur. If Einstein was talking about Physics you would do well to listen, but would you want his advice on marriage and dating?

What's strange about all of this is that fans of 'educator Einstein', those who quote him  regarding 'imagination' and stress his poor school record are often the same people who would normally bristle at 'outsiders telling teachers how to teach' especially 'ivory tower academics' and 'men in white coats'. How many times have we seen researchers or scientists dismissed because they're not at the 'chalk face' and don't understand the realities of the classroom, even when that researcher is/was an educator themselves?

Also odd is that teachers often use Einstein to back up things like creativity, imagination and alternative conceptions of intelligence, focusing on the idea that 'standard' definitions of intelligence  are not the be-all and end-all of education. Yet Einstein was as 'traditionally smart' as they come. He was not smart in a 'fish climbing trees' sense, or a 'bodily-kinaesthetic' sense but smart in a 'discover how space and time works through complex maths' smart. So why do teachers promoting the notion that 'everyone is clever in different ways' use the guy who is smart in the most vanilla way to push that point home?

Sure Einstein hated the way he was taught, he hated memorising facts and thought that imagination was important, -but so what? If an idea is good, it doesn't matter who says it, be it Einstein or Hitler. That is why when vested interested attack, for example, Charles Darwin they are missing the point. Darwin doesn't matter. The theory of evolution matters. Good ideas are good whether Einstein said them or not, -and bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of who said them. We need to focus on the text, not the image.
So we have teachers misquoting a famous physicist, and academic, who may or may not have been a good teacher, but was certainly very good at maths and science to support the view that education isn't just about being good at things like maths and science.
Am I missing something here?



Sunday, 2 February 2014

Linguistic myth #2 Swearing shows a lack of intelligence, morals and a limited vocabulary

Warning: if you object to swearing and 'foul' language you should probably stop reading now. On second thoughts, -read it. It might do you some good.

According to the website "cuss control" Swearing is bad as for the following reasons:

Swearing Imposes a Personal Penalty 
It gives a bad impression
It makes you unpleasant to be with
It endangers your relationships
It's a tool for whiners and complainers
It reduces respect people have for you
It shows you don't have control
It's a sign of a bad attitude
It discloses a lack of character
It's immature
It reflects ignorance
It sets a bad example

Swearing is Bad for Society
It contributes to the decline of civility
It represents the dumbing down of America
It offends more people than you think
It makes others uncomfortable
It is disrespectful of others
It turns discussions into arguments
It can be a sign of hostility
It can lead to violence

Swearing corrupts the English language
It's abrasive, lazy language
It doesn't communicate clearly
It neglects more meaningful words
It lacks imagination
It has lost its effectiveness

Now I can't be entirely sure that this website isn't a Poe, (can swearing really have 'lost it's effectiveness' while also possibly leading to violence?) but there are certainly people with a strong dislike of what is often called "bad language". It's a real shame in a way that some bad language has such a 'bad rap' since as Melissa Mohr's  new book "Holy Sh*t" illustrates swearing is one of the most fascinating parts of language. The book details the rich history of swearwords, and the title is a clever nod to the (up to now) two most popular topics for taboo language, namely the sacred (holy) and the profane (shit).


Mohr's book begins with Roman swearing and she shows, through the types of insults people used, what a profoundly different view of sexuality the Romans had to us. She notes that sexually 'passive' people (female or male) were considered worthy of ridicule and adds that accusing some of performing (but not receiving) fellatio or cunnilingus would have been "the worst of the worst, the most obscene most offensive things you could say in Latin"(2013:37) Yet these words have somehow become our most polite words for the act. This is perhaps a testament to the prestige that Latin has among English speakers.
She goes on to detail how, the notion of 'worst' has historically swung between the religious and the physical. It is interesting to see how bad language can act as a barometer of morality. In the religious middle ages, swearing an oath on some part of God's body, such as God's bones was the most taboo thing you could say since it was believed that god actually suffered an injury when His name was taken in vain. Ironically (from our perspective) at the same time words like piss, shit and cunt were perfectly acceptable, -and in fact where we get street names like Sherborne Lane (Shite-burn-lane) and Gropecunt lane, a name which was at one time as apt, for it's purpose presumably, as 'church street'.

Swear words are in fact one of the most fascinating parts of language, a point testified by so many people's desire to learn the 'bad words' of a foreign language first. profanity has power, as Mohr notes  "swearwords are the closest thing we have to violence without actual physical contact" (2013:225). But their power doesn't stop there. Scientists have recently shown that swearing can actually reduce pain (except among those who swear frequently). Swear words are also stored on a different side of the brain to the rest of language and subsequently people with aphasia despite not being to speak can still swear. As Mohr notes, those with dementia will often lose the ability to speak, but retain the ability to swear.

as to the idea that swearing shows a lack of intelligence and a limited vocabulary well, as Mohr notes "It is probably true in some cases that people who swear frequently are uneducated and with impoverished vocabularies and imaginations...but it is important to remember that these attitudes were brought to us by the same people who declared that it was a sin to boldly split an English infinitive"(1013:209) what we're probably seeing is a correlation, not a causation:
But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words' sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals (Pinker -'What the fuck, why we curse)

One interesting point that Mohr brings up is that the most taboo language in society is not longer the religious or even the physical. The F-word and even the C-word have been superseded by the N-word. I found it rather reassuring that the society I live in considers racial insults to be the worst expletives.
So swearing relieves pain, is among our most descriptive language, builds social bonds, creates humour and expresses emotion. It's also incredibly versatile and can perform most grammatical functions.  Dismissing swearing, or even worse trying to get rid of it is to ignore the vast depth of cultural significance hidden by the grawlix (@#$%&!).

You can listen to an interview with the author on the excellent lexicon valley podcast.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Intelligence test

Reading the latest issue of ETP this week I came across and article describing how to use multiple intelligences in the classroom. As I read the article two things struck me. The first was the incredible regularity with which ETP runs articles featuring somewhat whacky approaches. There were articles on learning styles (for examples Rosenberg 2011, Rosenberg 2013) Multiple intelligences (Fletcher 1996, Puchta  2005, Puchta 2006, Hoogstad 2008, Berman 2010, Hamilton 2011)  a surprising number related to NLP (see, for example, Revell and Norman 1997, Revell and Norman 1998, Owen 1999, Owen 2000, Owen 2001, Rinvolucri 2002, Fahey 2004, Baker & Rinvolucri 2005, Rosenberg 2008, Zoeftig 2012) and even a four part series on something called "spiral dynamics" by NLP trainer and master practitioner Nick Owen. Now don't get me wrong, ETP publishes some great stuff, like recent articles by Rachel Roberts but considering the, shall we say, credibility problems with many of these approaches, they do seem to be very interested in devoting a lot of space to them.

The second thing was that despite all the talk of catering to students individual needs and so forth the actual activities described so often amount to the relabelling of standard practice as something quite exotic and revolutionary. Take the article I just finished reading for example. It describes activities you can use to cater for your students different intelligences. One such activity is getting students to write an email to their friends or a family member about a trip they took around the US. This may seem like a pretty regular TEFL activity but in fact, as the author points out, this will help students who have strong 'intrapersonal intelligence'. Another has students teaching each other how to dance, which in turn caters to 'bodily kinaesthetic intelligence'.

All of this reminded me of reading Mario Rinvolucri's book on NLP. In it the authors seem to  list altogether mundane teaching activities, like a dictation listening and then under PRS focus (the NLP version of VAK) it would say "auditory". I was quite surprised to learn that quite commonplace TEFL activities were actually NLP techniques!  You can play this game at home if you want, simply think of an activity, any activity in the classroom and apply a woo-woo label to it. 'Grammar auction' -students listen, so it goes under 'auditory' right? Hangman? Well they're looking at the board so, visual it is. 'Find someone who...'? - intrapersonal/linguistic (if you're a fan of MI) or kinesthetic if you're more into learning styles.

Of course someone always has to spoil the fun. In the  ETP article, The author suggests getting students to teach each other dance steps to work on their 'bodily-kinesthetic intelligence'. twenty years earlier, commenting on this kind of classroom application one educator noted that he was "leery of implementations such as ... believing that going through certain motions activates or exercises specific intelligences" (1999:90). And who was this anti-educational party-pooper? Howard Gardner, inventor of MI theory.

For more about MI check the great Kerr article on the 6 things website and the ensuing discussion or check this excellent page.

Monday, 13 January 2014


So this is my first ever guest blog. Simon Andrewes (@simonbandrewes), who wrote a response to my learning styles piece has now written a reponse to my previous response to his response(?). Simon has a huge amount of experience teaching and has written acrticles for MET, ETP and HLT. He has very kindly given me permission to post this here. It's a good read -Enjoy (^_^)
[IN REPLY TO THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH, Russell Mayne. MET 22.4. Oct 2013. 53-55]
Russell Mayne wrote about research in MET22.2 and in particular about Learning Style (LS) theory, for which, he insisted, there was no evidential support. I replied in MET22.3 saying I found a “weak” version of LS theory to be useful for my teaching practice. In MET22.4 Russell criticised my position on various fronts, so I would like an opportunity to defend and clarify it.
The significant divide between English language theorists and teachers that Russell says I “further reinforce” - whereas in fact all I do is observe it - is hardly a controversial issue and indeed Russell himself provides quotes from two highly respected theoretician-practitioners, Scott Thornbury and Henry Widdowson, that back me up. I feel flattered and partially vindicated by the good company I find myself in.
Russell takes me to task on several fronts:
1.       I do not recognise the complexity of the research-practice problem;
2.       My argument is based on a fantasy in which I set up straw man villains against noble teachers;
3.       I dismiss research without the bother of having to do it or read it;
4.       I use my lengthy classroom experience to position myself as the voice of authority, which is tantamount to an “anything goes”  attitude to teaching;
5.       I make too much of the weak version of LS which may be true but is at the same time obvious, uncontroversial and un-noteworthy;
6.       I mix up LS and MI (Multiple Intelligences) theory.  
 1.       I confess I was writing entirely from a teacher’s point of view. I was not trying to view the problem objectively from all sides but was giving voice to a disillusion with theory that I have observed among colleagues, theory that is often perceived as imposed and lacking a comprehensive understanding of our practice. I also confess to sharing their disillusion for much the same reasons that they expressed.
 2.       I identify myself first and foremost as a teacher, not a noble one, more of a run-of-the-mill dogged practitioner. I do not see my “villains” as straw men as their influence is only too real. I might categorise the villains into two types: those who are in the pay of publishers and promoting their materials in a way that often comes across as facile, a sort of panacea for difficult classroom situations; and those who advance classroom methodologies that are remote and clearly not based on a study and analysis of actual classroom practice.
3.       So Russell is right in saying I dismiss research but he is rather unkind in saying I do so without the bother of having to do it or read it myself. In fact, I enjoy research and think it can be useful in its own right, without any direct reference to classroom practice. Indeed, this kind of research may be the most valuable in its disinterest in proving or disproving practical considerations. I would challenge Russell’s implication that it is a bother to carry out research and think it can be a privilege, or a pleasure. Just as teaching can be.

4.       In dismissing research, I use my experience to position myself as the voice of authority, says Russell, backing up his argument with a quote from Widdowson’s Defining issues in English language teaching: “Teachers who claim to be simply practitioners with no interest in theory “conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession”.  Now, throw me a quote by Widdowson and I am likely to catch it in midair and swallow it down like a trained seal. I agree 100% with Widdowson’s argument, as I often do.
 When I write “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” I do not mean “anything goes”; I mean that that the teacher is in a position to apply critical and reflective thinking to teaching practice in order to evaluate it. As a teacher I am conscious of the limited and in many ways limiting vision of the classroom. What happens in the classroom may indeed provide me with a too subjective and non-scientific view of the variety and diversity of practice in classrooms across the world. Evidence from the classroom is too restricted by the confines of its four walls to make too many generalisations from.
5.       Moving on to the essence of the LS debate, Russell says the weak version amounts to nothing more than saying different students have different study preferences but there is no evidence that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.

Here Russell is talking about research evidence and seems to take it for granted that evidence from classroom practice doesn’t count. Yet, with Penny Ur (ETP issue 21 Oct2001Check It Out 5 - 8), I would insist that a or the primary and certainly a valid source of meaningful theory is that drawn from our own experience. Secondary (research/theoretical) sources can and should be drawn on to confirm or contradict conclusions for our teaching convictions that we reached via our primary source. As such, I find that the weak version of LS theory provides me with a check, a reminder that not everybody learns in the same way as I do and it makes me more sensitive to other learning paradigms. In fact, I am convinced I have built up evidence of this in classroom observations of the way learners learn.

As for the hard version of LS theory, I can happily agree with Russell when he says there is no research evidence to support it.

6.       Not only do I simplistically confuse LS with “study preferences”, to return to Russell’s critique, I mix up LS and MI theory, in which Howard Gardner – Russell tells us - redefines the concept of aptitudes as “intelligences”, and which also, apparently, lacks any scientific credibility.

I do not want to speak of scientific credibility, but I can see there are things in MI that serve a purpose. If different students have different aptitudes, then it seems reasonable to suppose those varying aptitudes will have some bearing on how they learn things. To follow up an example cited by Russell, I confess to crawling across the floor with the youngest learners I have taught and whether I was fostering “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” in doing so I cannot say. But did it work? Well, I think it might have, and we all enjoyed it and I certainly don’t think it got in the way of learning. I felt at that moment the child needed that crawling activity and would not have learnt so well without it. I would probably do it again, thinking I was furthering learning.

So, asks Russell finally, do I think we should teach according to our students’ star signs or the colour of their aura, as these have, in his words, as much credibility as the theories I am defending? Well, no, I don’t actually, because I have no primary evidence that these things work in practice. But I would not be loath to give them a go, if I saw a positive effect in it.
In conclusion, “experience is a good bet in the absence of evidence”, Russell concedes. But here, he shows he does not really value the primary evidence of the classroom. He is talking about the secondary evidence of the university, the ivory tower. And thus the gulf between classroom practice and theory is maintained by Russell’s reluctance to accept the classroom teacher’s ability to draw a directly meaningful theory from her own experience. And the two communities continue to talk past each other.

Friday, 10 January 2014

In defence of duolingo

Avid followers of EBEFL will remember I came down quite hard on the memrise app before. Looking back at that article it's clear I was more critical of the 22 hours-to-learn-a-language claim than the app itself. I did try the app and it wasn't much fun and quite buggy. In this article I'm going to look at another app which is quite fun, -the rather good Duolingo. I want to compare it to a French class I took recently because I think neither of these methods would lead to anyone becoming fluent in a language but I wonder, on the whole, which is a better supporter of language learning.


  My French Class
 nothing, nada, zip, zilch
£100 for 10 weeks, 2 hours per week plus a £30 text book

 Should probably add here that I quit my awful French class after about 4 classes. As did, I reckon,  around half of the class. I didn't get any money back so each lesson was about £25.
 Winner: Duolingo

My French Class
 Grammar translation
erm? 'traditional'?

Here's a lesson plan from one of the classes. First 40 minutes were taken up with a reading exercise. We read a text and tried to answer the questions "True" or "False". The Teacher then went through the answers. To shake up the second half she opted for....wait for it...a 40 minute reading excercise! Don't worry this time it wasn't True/False. The last 20 minutes were spent on speaking practice. 10 minutes of which were spent explaining and then 5 minutes on practicing pron, -so all in all we got 5 minutes of speaking in 2 hours.

Some may argue that 'Grammar translation' is bad and it certainly isn't perfect, but Phillip Kerr has made a good defence of using first language and translation in the classroom, though he is clear that old fashioned sentence translations of the kind you see in Japanese schools is not what he's advocating. I think Duolingo falls down a bit here, but it's hard to see how a computer program, could do anything else.

Sure, it's frustrating when you get "une" and "un" wrong and lose a point. Perhaps the developers could introduce an accuracy scale so you could decide how picky you want the program to be.
Winner: draw

First language use
My French Class
 about 50% of the time
most of the time

Duolingo asks you to translate about, I would guess 50% of the time and all the instructions are in your language not the target language. In contrast, my French teacher hardly ever spoke French.  

Winner: Duolingo

My French Class
 'the apples are red'
'I like hiking'

Duolingo is horribly inauthentic. You'll quickly find yourself getting sick of 'red apples'. The French class was slightly better as it used a textbook aimed at university students. I got to do sentences like "I like hiking" (I don't) and "have you ever been Canoeing?" (I haven't). As mike Boyle notes, sentences like "the horse eats bread" may "have no real meaning or relevance to learners" but so what? My feeling is that 'the noun verbs the noun' is probably the aim of this lesson. If you can say "the horse eats bread" you could probably say "the man eats bread" or even "I eat vegetables" etc. I think the app could be improved by adding more (interesting) phrases, which have a higher frequency count  They could even teach the task instructions in the target language and then start using those, instead of using "write this in French".
 Winner: My French class

My French Class
blah blah blah

Teacher talking time on Duolingo is almost 0. There are occasinal grammar points in bubbles. My French teacher on the other hand, although being a nice enough person, like so many teachers she couldn't help regaling her captive audience with jokes and funny stories. In the lesson I talked about earlier, students spoke for about 5 minutes of the class, this wasn't unusual.
 Winner: Duolingo

Awareness of Level
My French Class
blah blah blah


Duolingo comes out on top again. It knows exactly what I can and can't do because it constantly asks me. Sure it might be a bit too picky about la and le for my liking but it remembers perfectly my mistakes and gives me the option of working on weaknesses. My French teacher on the other hand found it hard to remember my name. 
Winner: Duolingo
Time with teacher
My French Class
 whenever, wherever for however long
Monday 6-8

In a class of 15 you may have a few dedicated minutes with each student. Certainly you can't spend hours tutoring only one member of the class. Duolingo can not only do this, it also works whenever I want to work. My French class was 6-8 on Mondays which meant making sure I had nothing planned at that time and gong after work with no time to eat. Of course, you can't ask Duolingo specific questions if you get stuck and that's a problem.
Winner: Draw

Learner styles
My French Class
what style are you?
My French teacher made a point of asking all of us what learning style we preferred. Presumably this was to cater to visual (and so on) students. She then went ahead and did what she was planning to do anyway. Luckily, Duolingo isn't bothered what kind of learner I think I am. It also sensible gives me visual, auditory and kinesthetic input.This is not a good thing because the theory of learning styles is correct, but rather because it makes the material far more interesting.

Winner: Duolingual

Enjoyment and motivation 
My French Class
 'you got to the next level!'
I quit after 4 weeks

This is where Duolingo really gets it right. It has a friendly bright interface and manages to gamify language learning in the right way.  My French class was dull, I didn't feel I was learning or that the teacher knew much about me or my level. Duolingual is constantly making little beeps and showing graphs, all of which is nonsense but it makes me feel I'm progressing, which is vital. Motivation is one of the most important things in language learning and if the student stops coming to your class, all your qualifications, methods and authentic materials mean nothing.
Winner: Duolingo
This app will not lead anyone to be fluent in a foreign language but it might help. And in terms of helping I would say it is far superior to the language class I took and other language classes I have taken in the past. In the UK, where 40% of language deptartments face closure and where only 15% of the population claim to be able to hold a conversation in any foreign language, anything that encourages or makes language learning easier is a good thing. More power to Duolingo's elbow I say!