Challenge your own practice, English UK Teachers Conference told
19 November 2012

A minor incident at an ELT conference got Jeremy Harmer thinking more about the role of technology in English language teaching.

The presenter was trying to show a film clip, but couldn't manage the technology and had to call a technician for help. This was a major subject for the discussion at the next coffee break, which, said Harmer, got him wondering: is it now an obligatory characteristic of teachers to use technology competently?

Around a quarter of the audience at the English UK Teachers' Conference thought that it was, leading Harmer -- a teacher, writer and trainer -- on to other fundamental questions, such as whether students' mistakes should be corrected immediately.

"Ninety per cent of students say they want to be corrected immediately, but the reasons we don't do it is that it's bad for the flow. It's always couched in moral terms as if it's morally wrong... but actually, we want students to suffer a bit. We want them to struggle for language, to express themselves, because that's actually part of language learning."

He went on to recount the experience of a teacher who agreed to correct his class immediately, as they wanted. "After a while, they said 'For God's sake!' The learners and the teacher had a dialogue, a learning conversation and somewhere in the middle they found themselves on the same page," he said, describing how the group had found a compromise.

In his opening speech to the London conference, Harmer covered several such EL issues to demonstrate that it is not only possible but desirable to constantly rethink the practice of teaching. Ultimately his argument was that the key to remaining a good teacher was to constantly re-evaluate practice. "When was the last time you sat down and really asked yourself a question about how you correct students, how often you correct students, what form that takes? The answer for most of us is we don't think about it. If you want to check, put a little camera at the back of the class and just leave it. Then look at what you did, and what the effect was. The effect will be to make you feel more enjoyment, excitement and be passionate."

The value of teachers questioning their own practice was one theme that came up again and again through many of the 25 elective sessions and two plenaries at this year's English UK Teachers' Conference, attended by more than 230 delegates.

In her closing plenary, London teacher and teacher trainer Chia Suan Chong had a similar message, urging teachers to challenge their methods and take the best from systems popular in the past, an approach she described as "principled eclecticism".

"There's something to be learned from every single approach to ELT," she argued, adding: "At the end of the day we're teachers, not academics. We're able to be cherry pickers.

"The most important thing to remember is that learning isn't linear, it's absolute chaos....I think the important thing as practitioners is to ask ourselves the question:  why am I doing this? It is important to be able to justify every single thing in the classroom... it is really important to reflect, say why things aren't working and have the courage to fail.

"We need to know more than just language and language acquisition. We need to know how to hem them to be better learners. We need to be better because students are getting better, and we need to be better teachers."

Adrian Underhill, in one of the day's best-attended elective sessions, was passionate about pronunciation. "Pronunciation is neglected," said the consultant and writer. "Lessons are planned around grammar and vocabulary, which is a 2D matrix. Pronunciation is the 3rd dimension. It gives language volume and body... it is the Cinderella of language teaching.

"But without pronunciation grammar and vocabulary wouldn't exist. The grunt came first."

The subject was made unnecessarily complicated, he said, seen as mysterious and endless "slippy sloppy biology. We don't really know how we do it. It's cognitively taught, which is useless for a physical activity. It's like teaching dance."

Underhill said pronunciation teaching therefore needed to be physical and proprioceptive -- in other words, with awareness of where body parts are and what they are doing. It needed to be taught physically, taking students back to the way in which they learned to make sounds as babies "to liberate them from their mother tongues".

To the surprise -- and evident enjoyment -- of the delegates, he then took them through the four elements of making sounds, demonstrating how they fit with his phonemic chart.

Equally enjoyable was Professor Mike McCarthy's session on listeners and good listenership, which used his research and that of others into language use to show that conversational responses use the same initial words and phrases again and again, and that students should be taught how to use them.

He argued that testing comprehension in students is different from real life, where people listening and understanding something will either reply appropriately or use the information they have, such as finding the correct gate at an airport.

However, language students being able to take part in a conversation properly would, he said, transform the perception of their ability. "I went to Spain with a degree in the language. Nobody had ever taught me to say no, probably not. I had a great vocabulary for discussing 14th century church doors, which didn't cut the mustard with the senoritas. People said things, and I didn't get beyond yes or no."

In another well-attended session, Nik Peachey explained how he would rather have a basic classroom with wireless internet than a fully-functioning computer suite, where it was difficult to be sociable. He outlined methods of "democratising the classroom" and attracting students' attention, for instance by teaching a poem in text speak, sharing information, and allowing short video messages to pass between students and their teacher.

This year's conference was the first to create different themes for the 25 elective sessions, which were teaching and technology, teaching language and skills, developing a career in ELT and CPD and teacher development. Organisers plan to develop this approach further next year, making it easier for delegate to plan their day and either follow a theme or mix and match their interests.

Susan Young


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