What do the Starship Enterprise, comedian Reginald D. Hunter and Harry Potter's hat have to do with EFL teaching? The 230-plus delegates who attended the 2011 English UK Teachers' Conference, which took place in London on Saturday 12 November, will know the answer.
The day included two stimulating plenaries, 24 elective sessions covering a wide variety of subjects, exhibition stands from publishers and service providers and, judging by the scraps left on the tables, a very well received lunch.
"We've had speakers covering a wide range of interests, high quality presenters, and people are clearly genuinely interested. Not only have they given up their Saturday, but they've struggled to get here because the Northern Line was closed," said Nicole de Lalouvière, acting Deputy Chief Executive of English UK. She added: "It's been a great day."
Lee Knapp, UK Development Manager of conference sponsors Cambridge ESOL said: "As always there are lots of enthusiastic people, lots of interesting questions and great speakers."
Tom Weatherley, English UK Professional Services Manager, was pleased with the number of delegates, especially as many centres are being buffeted with costly ISI inspections and worries about the future. "It's pleasing to see that, despite all the pressures on the industry, schools recognise what fantastic value for money this event represents in terms of professional development for their staff."
The opening session came from Maurice Claypole, author of two recent books challenging assumptions in current EL teaching and, with the help of Star Trek, urged delegates to go beyond the final frontier.
"I would argue that the chaotic nature of our language should be reflected in our teaching. I think the consequences of this for ELT are far reaching. Not only lexis but syntax and structures need to be treated as a complex system.
"A static system can never do justice to the variety of natural language usage," he said, arguing for an approach inspired by the complex fractal patterns in mathematics and nature.
In practice, he said, this meant that if a rule didn't work, it should be thrown out. He suggested that multiple choice questions could be reformulated so that only one of the potential answers was wrong, thus giving students the knowledge of more correct answers. Cloze work could also include far more words which would work, and no red herrings. "It should be useful to learn rather than easy to teach," he said.
Professor Michael McCarthy, closing the day, gave an overview of how the English Profile Project is pulling together evidence from EL students from all over the world to find out more about how people learn the language. "If a student is B1 for example, how many words will they know? How many words should they be expected to recognise? They're rhetorical questions. It requires research to look across the world at large numbers of students and to ask these questions."
He showed delegates what he called the "Harry Potter hat" curve which showed a large increase in student errors in certain grammar at around B1/B2. This showed, he said, that learners were trying out the language more at this point. "Hopefully it will enable us to see what people can do with grammar at any certain level," he said.
Speakers during the day included Jonathan Seath explaining what British Council inspectors look for when they observe teachers in the classroom, and teacher Karen Harris on how to liven up lessons by "keeping it surreal". She recommended setting students to work with a copy of the Innovations catalogue, asking them to give the shopping channel treatment to bizarre items, or getting them to write the worst problem page answers they could think of.
Luke Meddings gave some pointers to how teaching an unplugged lesson might work, and Lorraine Kennedy discussed how to optimise peer observation lessons for teachers.
Delegates were full of praise for the conference. Alison Pierry of Cardiff College International was visiting for the second time. "It's a good day: I particularly enjoyed the sessions on IELTS for writing and grammar," she said.
Lucy Pereira, academic manager of One to One English, who was at the conference for the first time, said she was interested in finding out what was going on in EL teaching. "I've found it very useful. It's nice to meet people, to network and ask questions, and there have been some useful sessions and a good mix. There are a lot of things I would have liked to have gone to. Maurice Claypole was very interesting."
If you're wondering what the Reginald D. Hunter link is - Maurice used a clip to exemplify how grammar doesn't always matter.
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