Since working at the University of Durham, I’ve been doing my best to earn a living in my home town of Exeter. It’s not as easy as it was in Spain because most jobs are zero hours and the money doesn’t go as far as in Spain. There’s also the feeling that we teachers of English are not as well respected here in the UK as elsewhere. This can make for a rather demotivating worklife, so I was encouraged and grateful when the school I work at on a casual basis offered to send me to this conference in Street, Somerset, organised by DDOSA (the Devon Directors of Studies Assocation).
As with my post on the Image Conference in Cordoba a year ago, I don’t intend to relate the content of someone else’s talk in this post but in the spirit of critical engagement I’d like to share what I think are some of the most interesting points and respond with thoughts or questions that arose during the talk (in blue).
The opening plenary was given by Eddie Byers, the Director of English UK, “the world’s leading language teaching association”. He explained what the organisation does. I hadn’t realised that it was involved in advocacy as well as training. They are trying to persuade the government that English teaching is a fantastic asset that the UK should make the most of. Eddie pointed out that English (or the teaching thereof?) has commercial value and brings money, jobs and reputation to the UK, due to the excellent quality of the teaching and schools. The problem, according to Eddie, is that the government doesn’t recognise the quality of the sector, and that students are viewed as migrants for visa purposes. Australia was given as an example of a country which promotes its ELT sectors well and has a good long-term strategy for the industry. It was really interesting and positive to hear someone pinpointing some of the main issues affecting schools and students, but it was a shame not to hear anything about how they affect the ones who provide this quality teaching: the teachers. I couldn’t find any information about it on the English UK website and had no response to a tweet on the topic (admittedly I may have tweeted wrong – it’s all new to me!). I would suggest that you can’t provide a world-class service if many of the actual providers do not have job security or are paid little more than unskilled workers.
One of the quotes that Paul Dummett shared with us in his talk on the benefits of extended speaking struck a chord with me: “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship” (James Comer) (I think this quote came from this TED Talk that he showed us). I knew there was a reason I learnt nothing on the IHYL Online course! It brings to mind this article on the performance of online schools which was going around Twitter today.
Paul very helpfully gave us suggested narrative structures that students could identify whilst listening to a problem-solution focused talk or use to prepare their own. As you can see from my photo, he titled it “the journey”. This made me consider the conceptual metaphor of PRESENTING is A GUIDED JOURNEY: we say “don’t lose your audience”, we talk about “signposting”, sometimes it’s “hard to follow what the speaker is saying”, “I lost track”. Got any more?
Steph Dimond-Bayir’s talk on reading and learner-oriented assessment was really useful and made a connection between EAP and General English. GE can be seen as freer, or perhaps harder, than EAP because it has no “special purpose” and I wonder if sometimes this means it can deviate away from learning. Steph pointed out that we can get a bit fixated on such vague reading aims as “reading for gist” or simply “practice” and suggested that it would be more valuable to move the focus from individual texts to student’s reading skills. I had wondered recently (but don’t have a reading class to try it with) if a version of Tyson Seburn’s Academic Reading Circles would be worth trying out in a GE class. I would love to know if anyone has tried this sort of thing – please let me know in the comments below! Steph told us about the Four Resource Model (Luke and Freebody 1999), where as far as I understand it the idea is that the students take on the roles (of codebreaker, text user, text participant and text analyst) as a class rather than individually. Again, if anyone has tried this, please let me know how you found it in the comments.
The third talk I went to was Jason Anderson’s session on lying games. In contrast to Paul Dummett’s suggestion of getting students to talk about what they’re interested in, the suggestion here was that lying involves higher order thinking skills. I’m kind of fascinated with the idea of Truth and so I wondered (and perhaps wandered off point): How can lying aid language learning? And also therefore how does one define lying? (for me, truth and storytelling are not necessarily opposites). I’m afraid I was a bit pesky with my questions. Sorry again, Jason!
Storytelling was the focus of the final plenary with Jamie Keddie, or as my notes have it “pumpkin Jamie Keddie storyteller.” Jamie pointed out that if a teacher is telling a story, this doesn’t need to be seen as teacher-centred, and in fact, that’s a subjective view. He proposed “learning-centred” as a better term. The way Jamie tells stories is very dialogic and involves students every step of the way; it’s something I’m keen to try myself. I did actually try one little thing with a class the other day – I was telling them a story about how I tried to fix my phone after dropping it into the loo, and (along the way teaching try, stop, remember, forget + gerund or infinitive), and when I got to the point where I told them I tried to fix my phone, I asked them to note down how they would do it on a post it note. I then went through their suggestions to tell them what I tried doing. This worked OK but it wasn’t as interesting as when Jamie did it because it wasn’t as personal and therefore generated less interaction. More experimentation to come!
Thank you again to the speakers and the organisers of the conference. It was great to feel part of a professional community so soon after returning to the UK.