Monday, October 1, 2018

Our Teacher Training

This morning my attention was drawn to a tweet by @GeoffreyJordan asking teacher trainers to read and respond to five questions at the bottom of this blog post.

The problem, Jordan says, is that the most prominent teacher trainers seem to be paying too little attention to the questions "what are we doing?" and "is what we're doing effective?"

He goes on to cite research supporting the importance of implicit as opposed to explicit learning. I'm thinking he means language being taken up as a result of buckets of comprehensible input as opposed to months of grammar lessons from a coursebook.

It's always interesting to me to follow these debates in global and British circles of English as a second (or additional) language teachers since almost all of these educators do teach from a coursebook. We settlement English teachers in Canada do not, as a rule--though many of us find useful coursebooks on Amazon Marketplace or at conferences when we steal away to browse the publishers' displays. Pages from those squirreled away books might end up being useful on occasion, but our mandate is to sculpt a syllabus where topics are drawn from regular needs assessments, objectives are task-based, and the approach is communicative.

Let's fast forward to the five questions at the end of Jordan's blog post and see if we can answer them from the perspective of teachers reflecting on our own training. How were we taught to teach? How might our trainers answer the five questions?

Q1. How did our trainers transmit their views of the English language to us?
Q2. How do we think people learn a second language? How was language learning explained to us?
Q3. What types of syllabus did our trainers discuss with us? Which type was recommended to us?
Q4. What materials did our trainers recommend?
Q5. What methodological principles did our trainers discuss with us? Recommend to us?

Okay, so I'll get the ball rolling and others can chime in using the comment box below.

A1. My principle trainer went to great lengths to maintain a poker face and not reveal her biases, if any, as we undertook a survey of the most prominent SLA theories. I got a distinct feeling, however, that she agreed with Chomsky on the existence of a universal grammar and looked down on Krashen and the Krashenites. It was made clear, however, that I was to survey the literature and draw my own conclusions. One of the essay questions on our final exam dealt with this very thing. Which theory did I believe and how would that inform my teaching? I remember responding that I didn't feel able to conclude that one theory was 100% valid and the others rubbish. I said I would use an eclectic approach and hope that something might hit the mark.

A2. It was explained to me that L1 acquisition is different from L2 acquisition in that there is a window of plasticity that ends at around the age of puberty. If you don't get to the child with the L2 exposure by that age, then the child will never achieve native fluency. That's what I was taught. I do NOT recall getting a lot of information about any of the comprehensible input streams. That I've had to find out about on my own.

A3. We read a book about syllabus design and discussed it in class then took a quiz on it, I think. I remember it was a slender little green and black book, but that is all I remember. I kept the book and referred back to it after landing my teaching job, but I could not tell you right now any of the contents. We were taught how to build a unit / module backward from the objectives by doing task analysis. That's what I've had to know how to do. Everything in LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) starts with the needs assessment. Every semester is different.

A4. My trainer brought in a variety of books for us to examine and discuss--some more communicative in their approach than others. I remember seeing the Azar grammar books at one end of the spectrum, Grammar Dimensions, and a few others. We were tasked with choosing one to use in a class and defend our answer. With our trainer's heavy emphasis on communicative methods, most of us concluded that Azar made a nice supplement for assigning grammar homework, but that it wasn't appropriate for daily use. In the end, we all knew we would have to make each lesson and the materials from scratch.

A5. My trainer really drove home the obsolescence of the grammar-translation method while ensuring we understood the Canadian Language Benchmarks. My training (beyond the bachelor's degree) consisted of around 360 classroom hours. Half of those were theory and half practical. We learned how to create a PPP lesson plan and how to divide the allotted time among the three stages: presentation, practice, production. We learned how to let students learn inductively or deductively--what each of those lessons might look like. We learned how to create and conduct listening, speaking, reading and writing lessons that follow one another and how to assess using a rubric. When it comes to assessment, I learned some principles that are very important in assessment creation, such as face value.

I'm so glad that Geoff Jordan has raised these questions because the area where I feel my training and teaching has been most lacking is the area of effectiveness and the link between current / emerging SLA research and my practice. I feel as if I've sort of been thrown to the wolves. It's up to me to sift through all the journals, books, and articles and figure out what is likely to give my students the biggest SLA bang for their buck (time spent in class).

I have purchased MANY books with my own money and have read them with highlighter in hand and tried then to apply some of the ideas in my practice. These include but are not limited to:

  • Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury
  • Uncovering Grammar by Scott Thornbury
  • Teaching Lexically by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley
  • The Language Teacher Toolkit by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti
  • Input-Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction by Joe Barcroft
  • Fluency through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray

Yes, blog readers, I owe you a lot of book reviews!

In all of my reading of both the books above and countless scholarly articles, I have one question in mind: what really works? What is the most effective way for my students to acquire second language in the time we have together, and how can I help them?

I also spend a lot of time reading about and listening to podcasts about cognitive theory in general and how it informs teaching of any subject. For example, I'm following the Learning Scientists and have begun to share their principles with my morning class as well as employ such things as spaced practice and interleaving in my teaching.

Thanks, Geoff Jordan, for bringing this up!

NB: This is blog post #2 of 2 today. Scroll down for the first one.


  1. Hi Kelly,

    Very interesting to read a little about Canadian ELT and about your own views.I hope you’ll let me make a few points.

    1.Research indicates that language learning is essentially a process of implicit learning, but that adult L2 learners benefit from explicit attention to some “fragile” elements of the L2 (those that are different from the L1, but non-salient (third person “s”), for example). So while a grammar-based syllabus is not efficient, some explicit grammar teaching can help a lot.

    2. Implicit learning is not reserved to comprehensible input; output is just as important, so organising classroom instruction around participating in relevant communicative tasks seems like a good way to go. “Relevant” implies that needs analysis is vital.

    3. I’d be interested to know what your eclectic view of language looks like.

    4. There’s still some controversy about critical periods in language acquisition, but I’m persuaded by the evidence that suggests multiple sensitive periods for pronunciation, morphology and syntax. The teaching implication is that adults find it more difficult to just pick a language up.

    5. Good to hear that Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada starts with the needs assessment and that you don’t trot out the same coursebook-driven syllabus every semester.

    6. Good to hear about your trainer’s take on materials, too. “In the end, we all knew we would have to make each lesson and the materials from scratch.” Fantastic!

    7. Finally, I’m obviously pleased to hear that your trainer drove home the obsolescence of the grammar-translation method, but not so pleased to hear that you were given the PPP lesson plan as a model. Research strongly suggests that learners have their own interlanguage trajectory and that they won’t learn the material you present to them if they’re not ready. That’s why an “analytic” syllabus, based on a “holistic” approach to the language, where chopping the language up into bits is avoided, is regarded as more efficacious.

    Thanks again for your interesting replies. I look forward to following your blog.

    1. Hi, Geoff,
      Thank you for taking the time to make a few points. The clarification is very much appreciated. Since you've expressed an interest in hearing how my principled eclecticism plays out in the classroom, I want to make this the subject of next week's post. Glad to have you as a new reader! --KM

  2. Kelly, Thanks for posting this and helpful to others - both teacher trainers or teachers. As you alluded, I don't think there are "right" answers until we actually are in a classroom and addressing student needs. Teaching is situational and transactional. But I do agree with Geoff that we must try as much as we can to provide learners with "whole language" and opportunities to process language in meaningful ways. I'm very much a disappointed camper when it comes to how CLT was hijacked and never fully adopted in most schools and classrooms.

    I will fill out Geoff's survey shortly and post in return.

    P.S. I taught a good number of years in LINC back when first starting out as a teacher. I do appreciate that it made me cognizant of the power of authentic materials for language teaching.

    1. abracadabra,
      That's great to hear. Do you train teachers now? --KM


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