Technology, sacred cows, and action research: highlights of the English UK Teachers Conference 2013
15 November 2013

Passionate arguments for both points of view were made in the opening and closing sessions of the English UK Teachers' Conference, delighting the delegates at the London event. With 265 attending, plus speakers and exhibitors, it was the biggest Teachers' Conference ever.

Opening the day, Russell Stannard evangelised about the benefits of using online tools to give verbal feedback on students' work, praising the immediacy and detail of this approach. But in the closing plenary, Hugh Dellar argued that using technology "doesn't mean good teaching or bad teaching: it just means you are using technology."

Between these two sessions, the day included the launch of English UK's action research scheme for teachers, and 27 elective sessions on subjects as diverse as helping students achieve upper levels, flipped classrooms, and sacred cows in ELT.

"It's been a fantastic day, and putting such different views on at each end of the day has worked fantastically well and generated a real buzz and lots of debate," said Huan Japes, English UK's deputy chief executive for professional services.

Delegate Oliver Hipkins of KKCL in Harrow, was delighted. "I agreed with Russell -- and then Hugh. It was great, being here to discuss and argue and think critically.

"It's my second year here and it's a really interesting opportunity for teachers to come together as a community and really look for direction, ideas and understanding from each other. We're such a small industry and it's still very personal, very human."

One delegate, Paula Ledesma, had travelled from Argentina to join the conference. "I am going to a meeting in Cardiff next week but I decided to come earlier and find out about events. This sounded interesting for me, technology is my field and I really enjoyed it. It was nice to see both points of view, that there are many things to consider."

Lee Knapp, of Cambridge English Language Assessment, said the company had sponsored the event since 2005 and it had got bigger and better every year. "I think the people who put a question mark over whether ELT is a profession should see the number of people who come to his as evidence."

English UK used the conference to launch its action research scheme it is running with CELA, where participants will be supported in their research projects, receive expenses to attend special workshops, will present findings at next year's event, and have their papers published in Cambridge English's Research Notes.

The day got off to a lively start with Russell Stannard's session on using technology to give student feedback, using programmes such as Jing to capture the teacher marking work on screen with verbal explanation, which won several awards.

The NILE associate trainer has since started using the technology in different ways. "I started thinking about how to use tools like Jing to get students to reflect, for instance where I might be experimenting with lessons, to get feedback. How did that work? I set students up in collaborative activities, half in the lesson half at home. They had a series of questions and I got them to do reflections send back to me. Compared with reflections from say,  a reflective journal, asking them to record makes a difference," he said.

Hugh Dellar, however, was concerned that this "race to a technological teaching future detracted from discussion of wider underlying principles in the classroom." He had six specific concerns, expressed vigorously and to gales of laughter.

These included that technology could "facilitate the burgeoning cult of the amateur. Rhetoric evangelism for technology in the classroom has the potential to backfire on us as profession," that the "glut" of "mad, ungraded" authentic texts were not necessarily a good thing; that using technology wasn't inherently motivating; that it wasn't a magic bullet in the classroom, and that it would "never hide the harsh reality in language learning and teaching that there are no short cuts."

Dellar, a teacher and teacher-trainer at the University of Westminster, concluded: "Our primary focus in class should be on language and desirable outcomes for students. Ask yourself if the non- tech way is better. And don't let workaholics be our model. there is more to life than teaching."

In another lively session, Silvana Richardson set about debunking four "sacred cows" of ELT "because they trample innovative thinking".

She had four sacred cows to attack: the idea of minimising the students' use of mother tongue in learning English; eliciting and concept checking through whole class questioning; encouraging learners to ignore or guess new vocabulary when learning; and dividing the four skills into receptive and productive.

Citing recent evidence undermining these principles, and giving examples from her own teaching, she said: "Students naturally relate to their own language, and if you ban students they will continue to draw on it to learn English anyway. Also, using English all the time can be too much for low level students, using L1 help the feel less anxious about learning English."

She added: "When I learned, I recited table = mesa. That's easier than 'a piece of furniture with four legs you eat off' which is what you get in the learner dictionary. If I know table is mesa, I spend more time learning pronunciation."

Richardson, head of teacher development at Bell, said research showed most second language readers found meaning difficult if they knew less than 95 to 98 per cent of the words. Yet she experimented with a class recently, and found they didn't know 12.3 per cent of the words in an elementary textbook. Students wanted to know what the words meant but some teachers banned dictionaries. "They think they are fostering learning autonomy and don't see conflict between authoritarian of banning dictionaries and autonomy."

There were ways of checking understanding other than whole class methods which tended to reward the fastest students and could be challenging and patronising.  Students could work in pairs, use mini whiteboards to get visible feedback from everyone, or use voting cards. Also, it was possible to ask closed questions about text ("did he open the window?") to check understanding, she said.

In a thought-provoking session, Cambridge English Language Assessment's Mike McCarthy talked about ways of helping learners reach advanced levels, which would be increasingly required during the next decade. One problem, he said, was that the vocabulary "seems to be so vast you cannot learn enough words," and that grammar in higher-level textbooks tended to "lose its sense of progression and tends to be a rag bag of difficult and arcane items," with little consensus on what should be taught. The Oxford English Dictionary had more than half a million words, of which expert users probably understood 20,000. Also, it became more difficult to assess someone accurately the higher their English level. "One of the facts about English is that the first couple of thousand words you learn bring massive returns. the learning you do after that brings reducing returns in terms of what you comprehend and follow in terms of new texts," he said.

He said to become expert learners had to tackle collocation, to understand English is made of "ready-made chunks" and that students concentrating on particular areas of the language improved their general vocabulary faster than those who did not.

McCarthy said learning the 2000 most common words would mean someone could understand 80 per cent of those they encountered, but the next 2000 most common would only give four per cent more understanding. Advanced level learners should by the end of a C2 course know six or seven thousand words. "The trouble is we don't know which words, out of the hundreds of thousands."

He recommended using the Cambridge learner corpus, which teachers can access free and by level. He suggested forging "new networks of association" -- learning green firstly as colour, later as a political term and later again in usages such as green-fingered. Depth was as important as breadth of vocabulary.

It was also important to tackle binomial word order errors, such as chips and fish, tonic and gin, tear and wear, bones and skin. "Good materials focus on this chunking's something we can do something about," he said, adding that analysis had discovered that nominalisation and modal verbs got higher marks in exams.

Paul Smith from Cicero Learning was enjoying his first year at the Teachers' Conference. He said: "It's my first conference back in the UK after nine or ten years and I was hoping to learn about things like technology which I am very interesting in learning about in the classroom, meeting other people and sharing ideas. It's been brilliant so far and I've got so much out of it, including all the exhibition materials. I am really enjoying myself."

Click here to see an album of pictures from this conference.


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