ELT Methodology in Stormy Waters at Annual Teachers' Conference
27 November 2009

Do you worry that your lessons aren’t centred enough on learners? Do you always set homework, pre-teach vocabulary or ask comprehension questions which don’t really check what students have learned?

Delegates at this year’s English UK Teachers’ Conference were challenged with these thought-provoking questions, and more. Not only did they leave the day with a selection of inspiring teaching ideas, but also with new ways of thinking about their own classroom practice.

"It’s brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed it. There are really practical sessions, things you can take away and use on Monday morning – but there are so many. The problem is knowing which to choose!" said delegate Karen Terry, from the Milner School of English.

This year’s conference was the biggest-ever, attracting around 250 participants to London despite the foulest storm of the year.

"We try to provide a programme which is thought-provoking as well as practical, and it’s great to see so many teachers here really enjoying the day," said Mark Rendell, Deputy Chief Executive of English UK.

He added: "We’ve had very good feedback from delegates about the venue and the programme, and that’s very pleasing."

"This conference just gets better and better," said Henry Tolley of sponsors Cambridge ESOL. "It’s so impressive to see how many people turned out in the wind and rain, and there’s an electric atmosphere here. This is probably the best event for teachers on the calendar for ELT in the UK."

Mr Tolley was also pleased by the large number of delegates who visited his stand to enquire about becoming Cambridge ESOL examiners, or to collect details about Delta qualifications. "It shows you how the teachers attending this conference want to progress their careers and get to a higher level of teaching," he said.

The tone for the day was set by Professor Alan Waters of Lancaster University, whose opening talk examined the politicisation of English language teaching pedagogy. He told delegates how academic papers were increasingly analysing teaching methods from the stance that power imbalances between the teacher and the learner were a key issue.

"As a result, there is now widespread disapproval in much of the professional discourse of 'standard' forms of ELT pedagogy, because of the unhealthy power imbalances they are perceived to involve, and, in an attempt to solve the problem, there has been what is, in my view, an ever-increasing 'over-selling' of more politically-acceptable teaching ideas, such as 'critical language awareness', the maximisation of 'authenticity', 'learner-centredness', and so on."

Professor Waters stressed he was not arguing that new approaches were all bad or that traditional teaching methods were all good, but he was worried that the divide between the two would widen further without action being taken.

"In my view, part of doing so involves basing the development of new teaching ideas, in the first instance, on an effort to properly understand and appreciate the pragmatic value in much of current ELT pedagogy; and then, secondly, to attempt to add on to them in a two-way, negotiated manner – a 'building up' rather than a 'tearing down or 'throwing away' approach," he said. 

He concluded: "English language teachers of the world, unite – you have nothing to lose but inappropriate theories!"

During the coffee break which followed his talk, groups of teachers could be seen in animated discussions about what Professor Waters had said.

Heather Wansbrough-Jones of South Thames College commented: "The academics have got to make their approach more realistic," whilst colleague Carol Kingham added: "He was saying the unsayable."

The closing plenary also challenged delegates. Adrian Tennant, ELT teacher, trainer and writer, gave a lively presentation on debunking myths in the profession.

How many of them, he asked, pre-taught vocabulary, routinely set homework, used technology because they thought they should, or assumed that standard methods like comprehension questions actually worked? Why did they do it?

"We get tired with all the things we have to do and we stop thinking about it. They are more likely to be bored or disaffected than if we challenge ourselves, and ask: why am I doing this? Is it what I should be doing?"

Other sessions included Hugh Dellar on teacher talking time, Mark Smith on IELTS preparation, and Ben Beuret on teaching English to Koreans.

Teacher comments on the day were very positive. Sue Harrington Spier of Bury Language School praised the organisation and said: "It’s been very informative. I’ve been to a fantastic talk on IELTS – I learned a lot from that, and I’m an experienced teacher. And the plenary on politicisation was good. It’s always good to be challenged in the way you look at things."

Olivia Doll of King’s Street College added: "There have been some really good talks with activities to do in the classroom. That’s why people come here: they want to get things to take away. And I’ve already got three or four activities I can use with no preparation. That’s very useful."

Keith Barrs of LSI commented: "The organisation’s fantastic and there is a really good choice of things to go to." Abigail Headon, also of LSI, was attending her first teacher conference. "I really enjoyed the presentation on teacher talking time: there was a lot I can use in my teaching. I’d certainly come again."


Susan Young - susan@englishuk.com


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