Avoid Groundhog Day in the ELT classroom with English UK's Teaching Conference
11 November 2015

What do the classic second language acquisition case studies have to help teachers in the classroom? How can teachers get out of their rut and invigorate lessons with something new? How can teachers help students settle, and does early emphasis on tenses hinder those learning English?

All these questions, and many more, were discussed during English UK's annual Teachers'  Conference. A packed day for around 230 teachers and academic directors included 30 separate seminar sessions, two major talks and final presentations from this year's Cambridge English Language Assessment/English UK Action Research Scheme finalists.

Mel Sandron of Language Link, a first-timer, said: "It's good to come to conferences like this - they make you feel more of a professional. You're listening to professional speakers, published writers, and that makes you feel part of a community. EFL isn't recognised by the government, we don't have a union, and this makes us feel like a cohesive group, and provides us with CPD." Anya Woolliams, of LTC Ealing, a regular at the conference, said she liked to attend "because there's always something new to learn. I like new teaching ideas and techniques, there are some nice ideas and resources and I can report back to other teachers."

Opening this year's event, Scott Thornbury's talk on the stories behind famous case studies of second language acquisition was popular with delegates as they met for refreshments or lunch later. Revealing more about the stories behind the names such as "Wes" and "Nora," Scott, Associate Professor on the MA TESOL course at The New School in New York unpicked some of the lessons teachers might draw from these real-life experiences. "Classroom interaction may have a good priming function but... exposure outside classroom seems to be needed for it to kick in and for the learners to start to notice things. Communicative competence may be less dependent on formal accuracy than memorised formulaic language - but the trouble is that this may become a crutch and people never get fully functioning grammar. 

"The proviso of course is that case studies are very limited in terms of generalisability, and it's very dangerous to say all learners are like Nora or Wes - but there are advantages to the case studies is that they tend to be very detailed and longitudinal, giving a trajectory of learning rather than a snapshot."

If "willingness to communicate" was a determiner of success, he asked: 'How can we develop it in classrooms?"

Closing the day, IATEFL President Marjorie Rosenberg wanted to help teachers who had got "stuck in their own little worlds."

"How often do you try something new? Do you feel like Groundhog Day?" she asked, explaining that she had asked her personal learning group - colleagues based all over the world, who keep in touch electronically - to share ideas to reinvigorate teaching, and had ended up with thoughts from 24 people in 22 countries. 

She recommended that teachers should create their own PLNs, try new subjects, learn different aspects of technology, perhaps write or edit blogs, join groups such as the Twitter ELTchat. "If you do what you've always done you'll get what you always get," she said.

Another highlight of the day were the presentations by the seven Action Research participants of the work they had done investigating classroom issues during the year, and the presentation of the overall winner's award to Fiona Wattam, who did her research at Colchester English Language Centre but is now at Colchester Institute. "I would encourage you all to do it as well," she said, as the 2016 scheme was launched.

The day's sessions were organised in eight different strands (ranging from pronunciation through teaching techniques to career progression), leading Felicitas van Vloten, of English in Margate to say how useful she had found it for new ideas to take back to her school, adding: "It was really interesting - and a shame there were so many choices to make!"

Presentations included Katie Barron's thought-provoking presentation, suggesting that most course books ignore current research indicating that second language learners acquire English like a baby, led by vocabulary and chunks, then sentences. Why, she asked, did most course books start with sentences like "My name is…" which were very difficult to learn? Elsewhere, Tim Leigh explained how he had set up an Edmodo site for students in his class to share useful information about local services, and that they had found this useful.

Huan Japes, English UK's Deputy Chief Executive for Professional Services, was delighted with the way the day had gone, starting with Scott's thought-provoking plenary on the second language acquisition research. "We had a good range of sessions and putting them into strands, we hope, made it easier for people to follow a particular interest if that was what they wished to do. And it was great to close with Marjorie's plenary which included so many practical ideas."

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