Sorry to insist! But is using or not really the question?

I’m sorry to insist on this! But is coursebooking or not coursebooking really the question that Geoff is asking? Or is/was he actually talking about “LEARNING” and “EMPOWERMENT”.

Anthony Schimdt who is one of my favorite teachers out there writes another amazing post. And it would have been even more amazing if he had written an analysis of the type of the CB which Geoff and my last post talk about: Structural syllabus or at least close to it. I work with EGP, and none of the coursebooks I use are pure grammar-based. It’s fair to say that nowadays grammar-based CBs come in all packages in order to be marketed.  The’ve received a new layout to incorporate the communicative era and have been revamped from time to time.

Has anyone seen structural syllabus mixed with communicative activities, or disguised as Communicative? I’m sure you all have.

But instead of discussing this, we are discussing something else which is also valid but adds very little to the original discussion which is why grammar-based syllabus still dominating when research (and we from experience know that as well) has shown that it does not match its purpose? And let’s be clear that a shift in paradigm changes also assessment as we know today. SLA might not have all the answers, but have already showed that such focus  is a waste of learners time. Have those arguing against Geoff’s argument that teachers should ban coursebooks and come up with their own material actually tried to do things in the other way around for a good while to see the benefits of it and how quick teens and adults improve their English? After all the best examples of language learners are those who immersed in order to understand the language and really put their attention in order to use it well.

Am I against coursebooks? NO. I’m against the grammar-based ones.

Despite Brazil being a big market for teaching material, it hasn’t been very successful and please do not patronize teachers in the process of explaining why that has been so. Odd , but not a bit surprising. Politicians and Corporations are indeed in debt with education. A country that mostly approach language teaching using the traditional grammar paradigm where practicing rules  makes one use language accurately shows that in practice this is a fallacy. A fallacy that continues to be perpetuated because we avoid looking at our classes critically.

Now, taking the books Anthony writes about in his post and the fact that they do not fall into the obvious category Geoff’s presentation talks about. I’d like to see him analysing, in the same way, a grammar-based book that he is either working on or have worked with, and then discuss the outcomes he observed through the eyes of learners and learners’ progress for the sake of the discussion. Otherwise, we will continue to go in circles here. By having material writters defending their position (which is not Anthony’s case) and teachers who find PPP a useful teaching model going around denying the obvious implications of such syllabus.

And although I’m taking Anthony’s concern as begin simply that the discussions might be trashing coursebooks all together, I hoped that my previous post focused on the principles that underlies coursebooks/textbooks in language courses and regular schools which is common practice in Brazil, and I suspect that is true for most places in the world. Let’s make clear that ESP/ EAP and skill based CBs do not fall into this category. As such, they do not really contribute to the discussion.

That said, any visit to publishers catalogue will show us the variety of CBs and that a great number of them fall into English for General Purpose.  The ones in Anthony’s post ARE NOT the common CB for general purpose. But it is a great post nonetheless and as I’m interested in ESP and EAP right now, quite helpful. Perhaps the discussions we are having would be much more fruitful if we focus on talking about the same thing.

Second point from Geoff’s presentation (and no so much in my previous post) is that teachers must have the right to become critical of what they are doing. There is so much talk about TD, PD and autonomy, creativity, reflective practice and so on, but very little room for any of this to become real. One thing is to talk about education and another thing is to talk about the business of language teaching. In my blog, I discuss education and how as a teacher I want to serve my students better. After all, I didn’t invest so much on my PD to simply learn how to adapt coursebooks. And in my country there are tens of thousands of teachers who are great language learners themselves and smart students who are able to take learning in their own hands. I support that.

ps. *sorry for my lack of creativity in choosing a title. AT this point, I think I can’t really care to make this post “nice”. It’s easy to give things a nice package, but it doesn’t mean the product is really good. If you want to be a teacher that makes the difference, stop thinking of teaching and start from learning.

ps** This was originally a comment in Anthony’s post. I decided though that it would be a good follow up of my previous post and then I can link Anthony’s post to my blog.

To coursebook or not to coursebook? is that really the question?

Geoff narrowed the topic of his talk clearly, but still the claim that this kind of CB is totally wrong and it is a problem rather than a solution for language learning rubs people in the wrong way. But they fail to focus on the matter. Before we come up with solutions, we have to acknowledge there is a problem, and also inform and discuss it as much as possible until we locally find a solution. It’s never about one illuminated person to offer solution, but for us to sit as equal where we are and discuss things openly. If of course, we put learning at the heart of our teaching!

Are materials for Kids grammar-based as well?

Although much value has been given to teaching instead of learning in practice things do not work like that. Books might tell what YOU ARE teaching, but it says nothing about what LEARNERS ARE learning.

But even so, most kids material brings activities that are much closer to the need of kids and they enjoy it. But this is only true because:

  1. Children’s errors/mistakes are usually overlooked for affective reasons and because they seem to have plenty of time to acquire the language.
  2. Everyone agree that children learn through play.
  3. Focus is on building vocabulary (lots of time can be spent with images and vocabulary games, hence why flashcards/realia are really popular with kids teacher.)
  4. Children are not taught grammar explicitely. They have plenty of opportunities to just use language in fun ways (games, songs, stories, etc.)

On the other hand teens and adults,

  • are taught more often than not grammar explicitly and very little room is given for learning language implicitly. The social aspect of language learning might be completely ignored, among other things.
  • errors are taken much more seriously. Materials that follow a structural syllabus give a lot of room for controlled practice. Get it right from the beginning as Lightbown and Spada describes it.
  • As for play, there is a huge misunderstanding. Through play children learn about the world and develops their oral skills in their L1. The literature that talks about childhood play is talking about the natural development of children where make believe is key for children to make sense of the world. Educational play is fun, but it is not real play for development if the focus is the language and not the act of playing. While kids have all the time in the world (this in practice is not true for CBs for kids either), they are expected too to move along the syllabus, but they will rarelly be hold back.
  • Teens/adults material focus little on vocabulary. And let’s not get started on vocabulary research.

Was Geoff talking about all coursebooks? Peharps, if they fall into his description of an ill-informed coursebook.

Is process syllabus better than product syllabus? Anyone who has had the experience of negotiating with learners and using digital tools or what learners bring to class, know it is really more engaging. In fact, we have tons of webinars, blogposts and workshops being given around the world from teachers for teachers sharing projects and ideas that do not fall into the CB type of activities.

Are there teachers who might lack the kind of training to take a process syllabus into their hand? Sure. Teacher Development should be core to our profession, not an option.

Ok, we have all kinds of realities out there, but what was Geoff really talking about?

The fact that CBs are designed around a structural syllabus should be enough for us all to be questioning it if it goes against learning. Teachers can’t be that blind. We get pulled into heavy-grammar teaching because the thing is there is front of us all. The whole material screams for grammar from cover to back. No matter how beautifully grammar get disguised. And what about the constant crash of beliefs? Learners and teachers alike are constantly negotiating with or without the coursebook. I’ll safely say that 50% of the time there is some kind of tension when you are using CBs. We ended up not managing learning, we end up managing to convince learners to do tasks and activities, some of which they have mininum interest in. I haven’t seen one coursebook that one student fell in love with or didn’t want to change things on it.

All CBs not matter how well designed they are (they are good in their own right of course), they won’t reach learners especially in an age where apps and internet tools are at the hand of our learners. Geoff wasn’t discussing teachers and learners’ beliefs but gave an overview well painted of what the industry is. Hugh Dellar gives even a more complete picture  of the industry in his post.

In addition to all of this, the vision of language contained with coursebooks differs quite considerably too. What might be dubbed the English File school tends very much towards a presentation of language as discrete structural grammar and predominantly single words, which generally need only to be matched to basic definitions.

Hugh Dellar

Every teacher knows that input and practice does not translate into accurate language use just because we want it to. Deep down, we all know there is something odd and rarely we have the time or energy to give it much thought (or research). We also know that most of our learners are not able to use a certain grammar point accurately after few lessons, and that some of them won’t be able to use it accurately in their speech or writing even after six months of seeing it over and over again. But the illusion that they can come from using the language mostly in controled situation or being guided by the teacher. Let go of that and teachers will freak out, I agree, but for the wrong reason. Because they are usually afraid to see how complex learning is and probably do not know how to deal with it. TD is key for change. Praxis is key for TD.

Again, What kind of coursebook is Geoff talking about in his talk?

One that has a grammar-based syllabus and one that Dellar recognizes as been established. So, why are we talking about Geoff and not this instead?

Geoff Presentation - Slide 3 #iELT15

Geoff Presentation – Slide 3 #iELT15

So, let’s face it. The CBs that Geoff is critizing for ages (not only him by the way) goes against research findings and it can only make me angry that it took me so long to discover that. How on earth I was led to believe that PPP lessons would make learners learn language accurately and fluently? At some extent it provides the kind of instruction that some learners need and it is neat, but those learners are usually the ones who actually have an experience with English outside the class. They are usually not afraid to use the language in conversations or being corrected. In fact, these are very few in my context. They make teachers smile every time they open their mouth and if teachers let them, they will dominate the class. This is what the structural syllabus does. It makes teacher believe that the right coursebook will provide learners with what they need and if they fail is because they (students) haven’t done enough. Even I fall in this trap sometimes because there is a demand to move learners to the next level and it falls on our lap to decide whether they make it or not. Now how demotivating is it if you have to repeat the same book again?

I’m not trying to simplify the matter, because it isn’t simple. However, how can we pursue change if we just continue to accept things as they are opposed to what it should be? What is the point of investigating our practice if we can’t change anything? Can we really teach language without considering the people in the room? Their stories, beliefs, assumptions, dreams, fears, desires, who they are, why they are there and what they bring to class? And what to say about how all that might affect learning?

A post I totally recommend is Phillip Kerr’s Anaylitics and Elt Courses Materials. At the end he makes a point that is hard to contest. And if you take the time to watch Geoff’s presentation will see that what Geoff is trying to say is not new for those who reflects and read, but yet not have really reach teachers around the globe. So Geoff’s call for us to start looking at things locally is not an unreasonable one, difficult I guess, but not wrong.

What they need is to spend a significantly greater proportion of their time on ‘language use’ and less on ‘language knowledge’. This is not just my personal view: it has been extensively researched, and I am unaware of any dissenting voices.

Geoff Jordan’s posts and presentation:

Challenging the Coursebook: The presentation with audio (just follow the link to the slides)

Dellar defends the Coursebook

Challenging the Coursebook: Part 2

In fact, how can I disagree with Geoff when in essence he calls teachers to look at their local reality and learners before looking outside, just like Paulo Freire did? It’s a call for reflection and action!

+ from Brazil: What are schools doing to nurture learning?

Yesterday a participant of BRELT chat community on Facebook, Will Eduardo, shared a  link to a video portraying new realities and changes in practice based on sound theory to learn English and promoting interest in learning English, something that doesn’t come natural to all students. I wish I could embed the video here and there were English subtitles to share with a wider community. Because there aren’t, I decided to watch and reflect on the documentary as well as reporting those practices. As it’s a great documentary showing how a few schools in Brazil have changed their way of teaching and why, as well as interviewing researchers to discuss the new demands and the need to continue to move forward toward change, I can’t help but register it in my own blog as it has been something I’ve been trying to do myself.

The documentary starts by affirming that English is everywhere in our daily life and the fact that we might use words and expressions without even noticing that they come from English. They also inform us that the American culture is everywhere through music, films, internet and so on, but learners are still unable to deal with the language on their own. Being Brazil one of the countries that has a large access to English language learning, but one of them with the least effective results, it only makes us wonder why so many learners fail to engage in learning despite the access to it.

Then, they will show successful stories of how teachers in those schools and initiatives being featured are using music, journalism, literature, films, technology, art, drama, etc. to support learners in this endeavor.

Like the school I work for, Pepita de Leão School in São Paulo has its own language institute. Taking these classes is optional and students see it as an opportunity to put the language into practice.
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In Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro, they have a music club that brings music, literature and history in an interdisciplinary approach. As one of the students interviewed shared it uses material that they like. They like listening to music and watching videos as well as relating it to the school content.
pic2.jpgAnother initiative is to use fan-fiction genre which is a new movement among young people to work with learners favorite characters and authoring for fun. Through this approach learners create their own stories changing the fate sometimes of their favorite protagonists. It involves creative use of language, personalization, use of learners own knowledge about the content and the teacher becomes the mediator of this process. As the teacher Ana Cecilia Fernandes rightly points out, they learn grammar through attempts of using and feedback. It’s not learning grammar because of grammar. It’s learning grammar for a purpose. She also shared in the video that while each learner is creating their own stories, discussing their ideas with other learners and doubts come up, they work on the board or with the learner to promote understanding of how the language works though examples of the language they need to express themselves.
pic3.jpgWhy do WE HAVE to learn English?
This is a fair question and anyone working in a public school you have heard this question many times. We do hear that in private schools as well. In fact only a handful of students in regular schools, and also enrolled by their parents in language courses, understand the importance of learning English. So, their attitudes reflect this lack of understanding and interest that we encounter in every day classroom. This is the EFL picture and I agree with researchers that the affective domain counts a lot in the process. More than we give the proper attention to it.
So, it talks about the importance of learning English for working purposes, but the people interviewed in the beginning of the program shows that they personally don’t believe that fluency can’t be acquired if one does not travel to the target language which I disagree. I know, not only students who started with zero knowledge of the language in 2008 and achieved a very good fluency after 5/6 years of studying the language in our school, as well as teachers who never set foot abroad speaking English fluently. In fact, when I came back from England my accent was pretty British and everyone in England was amazed on how I was able to mimic them (unconciously of course). Then, after spending couple of years almost with zero contact with English few years after I came back from abroad, my speaking skills was kind of rusty. I had to go under training again to get my fluency back and overcome minor pronunciation mistakes. Not saying we are perfect, but I can name a number of people who speak Portuguese, makes mistakes and are native speakers of Portuguese.
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The first person interviewed about the importance of learning English nowadays, Samanta Lucidi, grew up in a house where English was part of the daily life as her mother was an English teacher, but in 1993 she felt that after taken a course for 10 years her English was not fluent enough so she went to California in an exchange program. It’s true that the experience of living abroad is priceless. I have lived in England for 4 years and in Egypt for 1 one and I couldn’t agree more that it is a rich experience especially about learning the culture through the culture instead of talking about it. However, considering that in 1993, more than 20 years ago, the internet wasn’t around really and speaking English in Brazil wasn’t really something people would welcome, it’s fairly understandable her position toward spending time abroad. Nowadays, English is part of her daily life because she works for a multinational company.
pic7The second person interviewed, Gabriel, shows that he only realized the importance of English when he graduated in college. It was far too late to join a course as he needed to boost his English fast and he was losing job opportunities. He felt the need for an immersion and opted to spend 6 months abroad in order to speed things up. This make me reflect on a book I’m reading right now and what the author has to say about language courses not really providing for the needs and interests of people, especially adults, by offering courses that either take too long, do not tackle the knowledge, skills and use of the language that each potential customer need to operate as soon as possible in the real world. Long’s criticism of general courses is a fair one when you consider the needs of learners, but I still question how we are going to provide for such a huge demand when we have a group of people already working/studying in different areas and not really operating or seeing the need to use the language now but look at the prospective of learning it to gain better jobs opportunities. I’d consider that starting as early as possible this contact with the language as a solution for this problem and I agree with the woman who had been interviewed first that this gives children and teens a good leverage when they leave school. That is not to say that later, they won’t need to continue pursuing the competence in that language, but they will start adulthood more independent than most adults starting a course late in their lives. This will indeed, afect their future choices for career as well and new possibilities for studying and working.
pict8When looking back at classroom practice, the documentary also raises the question of whether people are gifted to learn another language or not.
Although we have heard people saying that they don’t really have what it takes to learn English, there are factors that explain why people seem to feel inadequate for it. And here is what they have found out.
How much interest does the learner take in the language? He might be more interested in learning Japanese, Korean, Spanish than English. Who knows? Has someone asked them what language they want to speak as their second language? Can they pursue this interest? Does the school provide opportunities to learn other languages? No, they have to learn English and Spanish for obvious reason. English because it’s seen as a global language and Spanish to be able to communicate with our Latin America partners. Only if we in fact we were to do that when we live school.
Interest in the language is in the affective domain. The way people see the language and relates to it counts a great deal for their learning success. So in other words, learners need to have an opportunity to foster this relationship with a language that is often seem as difficult, unnecessary or boring thanks to schools focusing on grammar instead of the use of language and its importance for global connections.
One of my takes from this program is that we ought to remember that school’s job is to ensure that learners understand the importance of learning English but obviously not by forcing them. When I watched David Crystal presenting his book English as a global language in 1996 in the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, I wondered how long it would take for his predictions to come true.  It came true, but little was done to really change that in practice. I think that bilinguism could be nurtured from early age and in a much more fun and interest way. Therefore, early bilinguism might be a way to foster this interest, but a lot would have to change in schools when children go to elementary school, otherwise it will continue to do just the opposite. The current system tends to create a barrier in pre-teens and teens mind which they take with them for their whole life.
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Those who might fall in love with the language on the other hand even decide to take a B.A in language teaching which often involves preparing to teach Portuguese, English and Literature in both or just one of the languages. Others, will become successful learners and later find a good job but they usually learn despite of the school traditional way of teaching, or joining a language course and of course they invest in learning through the resources available to them.
Patricia de Oliveira Lucas, a PhD in LA in São Carlos (São Paulo) Federal University reaffirms that the affective domain affects the cognitive process of learning. Eliane Augusto Navarro, head of the Deparment of Linguistics course in the same university) not only agrees with Patricia, but also affirms that it’s the teacher’s role  to support learners by helping them to overcome the issues and respect learners needs and interests. She also points out that we ought to take into consideration whether the learner likes to expose themselves in a group. They might even have an interest in the language, but do not feel comfortable in using it in a classroom when they are not confident enough. I totally agree with her. Last year, I had a student in a group  that was an excelent language learner, autonomous and interested in learning not only English but also Korean language which she had been doing by herself through Korean soap operas. For six months she only wanted to participate in class through writing, and when she took her oral test which was for her to talk about her favorite tv series, she did pretty well for someone who had just started the language course. Lucas affirms that the we have to be sensitive to learners as people and to mediate this process in a way that we do not reinforce those barriers but overcome them.
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Cristina Catteneo, pedagogical coordinator, summarizes what I believe to be true for regular schools taking into consideration the little time that students are offered there. So I quote her,
Schools have the most important role in raising consciousness and providing the opportunity for speakers of Portuguese to immerse in the world of English, especially when people don’t have the access to it on their daily life. But the objective isn’t to make them leave school as fluent speakers, but autonomous, able to deal with the demands to use the language in their future and know how to seek the knowledge and skills they need and according to what matters to them.
pic4.jpgSo what is possible to learn about English in elementary and highschool?
According to Vera Lucia Texeira from Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, much more than what they have been learning. She points out that schools should consider working with less students in class, giving more time for them to use the language, and invest on teachers’ continue development to really provide a good learning program in schools. She defends especially teachers continuing education as we face new realities and new demands on how to work with the language and the role of technology in language learning and points out that teachers are still resistent to acknowedge and use digital tools as resources. She agrees that learners can maximize the contact with the language through technology and that should be fostered in class.
For the teacher Katia Tavares using digital devices even without internet is seems as an informal way to promote learning and informality brings spontaneous use, that brings authenticity into the classroom, and therefore meaningful learning.
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