Tuesday, October 30, 2018


I'm still mulling over the five questions Geoff Jordan put to teacher trainers via Twitter about a month ago. After I wrote this blog post, he commented expressing an interest in hearing how my beliefs play out in my classroom practice. So I then spent two more blog posts writing about the rather special demographic that I teach each weekday morning for 2.5 hours and how I try to address their needs.

While my teaching style can seem a little loosey goosey, there are principles that guide me. Two of these concepts are closely related: comprehensible input (which obviously is followed by lots of output) and the idea that less is more, which has been a topic on which I've presented or co-presented six times.

Regarding Comprehensible Input (CI)
In my TESL course, we did spend a lot of time on what our prof called grading our language. Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was mentioned only briefly, but without using the i +1 terminology, we were still dwelling a lot on this notion of not speaking over students' heads, of making ourselves understood, and of not giving our learners material for which they were not yet ready. When I walked into the LINC 2/3 class where I was to do my first practicum and addressed Tanya's learners for the first time, my mentor said I'd got it bang on. She said it was very unusual for a teacher in training to nail that from the very first utterance. Maybe I get this right because I've tried to learn ten languages and have traveled through areas of the world where it was a struggle for me to communicate my needs. Or maybe teacher-speak is one of my languages; slipping into it is akin to code switching, as I did Saturday when I received a phone call from a political candidate's father back in my home state of Arkansas. Without any conscious effort on my part, I found myself parroting the elderly man's deep southern drawl.

As long as I'm on this topic, I want to say that I believe there is a helpful way and a wrong way for us to grade our language, especially with literacy learners. Leaving out the function words, as if speaking to a dog or toddler, is not--in my opinion--a good idea. Examples: Bad dog. or Stove hot! That isn't natural language. For nine years I've been speaking in full, grammatical sentences with my literacy learners without any puzzled looks on their faces. When I make the content words long, slow and clear, the listener's brain filters out the (relatively) quickly uttered function words until they, the learners, are ready for them. I can say "My NAME is KELLY," where the words my and is are barely discernible. This maintains the natural rhythm of English while allowing the listener to easily focus attention on the words NAME and KELLY as I point to my name tag. By the end of a term in a program with continuous intake, that same learner will have heard me utter this sentence hundreds of times. Don't program unnatural language; that's what I'm saying.

But I do not feel we got a lot of explicit training in creating what Martina Bex calls the comprehensible classroom. That is to say, HOW exactly do we provide lots of aural and written CI and how do we then push the output? That's an area where I'm floundering and searching on my own.

Tangent over.

Called into Question
My blog post of October 15th left off with a note about pedagogical ideas that I'm still toying with but am not yet ready to write about. That's where I want to pick up today. Which principles or ideas am I leaving behind because their validity is being challenged in the literature, and which ideas are catching my attention these days?

Let's talk about the things we were taught that are being called into question. A few come to mind right away:

  • TTT-STT ratio (Teacher Talk Time / Student Talk Time)
  • No L1 in the classroom / how much value is placed on translation
  • The banning of devices
  • learning styles (visual learner, auditory learner, kinesthetic learner)
  • Everything we know about teaching listening
Although I have not yet arrived at firm beliefs regarding what's valid, I do feel it's important not to swallow what I was taught hook, line, and sinker. My responses to each point above are:
  • As long as it's for the right reasons, perhaps there are times when it's okay for me to talk for more than 20% of the class period. 
  • As for first language use, I have come to believe that it has a place in our classes and is a very valuable resource. Lately I've been paying attention to the TPRS movement that is getting a lot of traction in American K-12 language classrooms; translation to the L1 is an essential part of the method. 
  • I no longer ask students to put away their devices unless I see that they are texting friends or checking every Facebook like. If their device use is enhancing learning, I want to work WITH that, not against it.
  • I'm glad the notion of learning styles has been debunked lately. That being said, as far as I know, it is still true that learners do better retaining newly learned material or language in multisensory environments.
  • I'm questioning everything I was ever taught about the teaching of listening. Gianfranco Conti has made me aware of the need to stop giving short shrift to the bottom-up skills, such as the ability to recognize word boundaries.
I can't yet write about these things beyond saying that I'm discarding old notions and exploring new ones. When I feel more confident about my grasp on these ideas, I'll surely let you know.

How about you? What ideas from your TESL training have you come to question or outright reject? Why? How has such a realization informed your practice?

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