I think I might annoy some people with this blogpost, so to get myself psyched up for it – I’ve imagined that I’m being interviewed by the BBC’s arch-interrogator, Jeremy Paxman.
If you don’t know anything about Jeremy Paxman, watch this 1997 interview with the then recently-deposed Home Secretary Michael Howard: http://tinyurl.com/ywf588 Count the times Paxman asks: “Did you threaten to overrule him?”
My imaginary interview with Paxo:
Paxo: So what’s this blog-post about, then?
YHB: Well, Jeremy, it’s a series of generalisations about classroom realities – what I think is really happening in English classes round the world.
Paxo: (Sniffily) And how have you arrived at these … generalisations?
YHB: They’re based on my observation of about 300 classes in 20-odd different countries during the Nineties and the Noughties.
Paxo: So no academic support?
YHB: No Jeremy. No support at all. Unless we’re talking about Marks and Spencer underwear again. (See note at end if you don’t understand this reference)
Paxo: (Drily) I’ll make the sarcastic remarks, if you don’t mind.
YHB: (Ignoring threat) It’s also about what I believe to be a widening gap between the contents of most course material – certainly the expensive stuff aimed at the international market – and those classroom realities.
Paxman: What EXACTLY do you mean by ‘widening gap’?
YHB: Well, Jeremy, the perceived wisdom is that international course material designed and produced by UK and US publishers is superior to locally-produced material in any given country. In many ways it is – the material has been carefully researched, written and edited and the artwork and general design are usually far superior.
I think, however, that some international material is being used in places where it isn’t suitable. If it was only being used in classrooms where some or all of the private school (PLS) features I described in the pre-blog apply, that would be fine. But it isn’t.
I know that Headway has its critics (although most of the criticisms seem to be that it’s still being used) but I’ve always thought it was a good challenging book for late teens/adults. When I saw it being used with 12-year-olds in Slovakia, I was aware that both teacher and pupils were struggling.
That was one of the first moments when I thought – something isn’t quite right here. Locally-produced published English teaching material has its faults, as well, of course. But the thing that worries me is that certain accepted beliefs about realities in the world of ELT are just plain wrong.
Paxo: What do you mean by ‘realities’?
YHB: In my view, there are three main realities that we should take into consideration when we produce material, and also when we train teachers. Firstly, linguistic realities – basically, how the learners will deal with learning the new language, and how their first language may affect that. Then classroom realities and social realities.
By and large, modern teaching materials deal with the first of these very well. I’m not sure that enough attention is paid to the second and third, social and classroom realities.
Paxo: An example?
YHB: Lots of examples coming up, dear boy. But the one that always gets me going is student motivation – or what people believe are factors which will definitely motivate people to learn English.
Paxo: So your message in a sentence?
YHB: Teaching English worldwide is not a level playing field. The teaching and learning circumstances of most teacher and pupils are very challenging.
Paxo: So, let me get this straight —
YHB: Sorry, Jeremy, I haven’t finished. Another thing that has exercised me a bit of late is teacher training, or more specifically, the kind of methodology that is presented as new, ground-breaking and (this is the problem) right for every English teaching situation. I’m thinking mainly about the sort of thing you hear in conference talks and workshops and the stuff churned out by touring authors and trainers doing one-off presentations.
Paxo: I suppose you’re going to take a cheap shot at the DELTA course as well, are you?
YHB: Oh, most definitely not. I’m not including any training courses in these general comments. Over a period of time, trainers usually find out enough about their trainees to focus on the realities of their daily working lives. So these thoughts are not meant to be a criticism of DELTA or other in-service training. But that’s partly because I don’t know for sure what goes in behind the closed doors of those sessions.
Paxo: Well, that’s all we have time for…
YHB: Sorry again, Jeremy, but I’ve started so I’ll finish. Here are the first five things that I THINK are true.
1 Most English students are there because they have to be.
I’ve searched in vain for statistics about this – but the fact is that the majority of students who file into English classes worldwide are in state (public) education. They are there for the same reason they are in the maths and geography classes. Because they have to be. Note to self: keep this in mind when you’re talking about student motivation. The only motivation these students DEFINITELY have is the desire to stay out of trouble with the authorities by being a visible bum on a seat.
I remember watching a plenary speaker at a conference somewhere in Central Europe listing ways to motivate students. His first point was to give statistics about the number of people who speak English. He provided the usual visual of Kachru’s rings for them.
Most of the people reading this will be ELT professionals and will know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t know, Kachru’s rings relate to where English is spoken and by whom. Here’s a simple visualisation. (Warning: don’t learn it by heart, other models are taking over from it almost on a daily basis).
Back to the Central European plenary speaker. “Just tell your students that the language they are learning is spoken by nine hundred million people,” he said. “They will understand the importance of communicating with all those people. In English!”
Oh no they won’t, chum. Not if they live in the middle of nowhere and are acutely aware of their limited chances of going anywhere else. Or if they also speak a world language like Spanish or Arabic or Putonghua. If I was a native speaker of one of those languages, I think I would wonder why English speakers weren’t falling over themselves to learn MY language too.
Note to self: Never make a big deal about how many people learn English and pretend this is some kind of carrot for learners. It isn’t. Telling a group of 12-year-olds that English is important because a lot of people speak it cuts NO ICE AT ALL in most parts of the world.
2 Most English classes are monolingual.
Not only are most classes monolingual, but the students live in the same community. A lot of course books seem to forget this rather inconvenient fact, especially when devising pair and group work.
Note to self as author: Avoid pair work activities which say, for example: Ask your partner about his/her local transportation system/favourite fast food outlet/nearest mountain range etc etc It’s going to be the same answer for both of them.
3 Most English teachers aren’t native speakers.
The only statistic I have about this is one I heard in a workshop, an unverifiable one. But the statistic was this: more than 95% of English teachers are non-native speakers of English. And most of them are doing a brilliant job, making sense of this language that they learned and passing it on to people who speak the same language that they do.
There are LOTS of non-NESTs who not only behave (linguistically) like native speakers, effortlessly changing register as regularly as they … er … TAKE registers, but who also relish and enjoy finding out about new coinages or trying out exciting new classroom methods handed down by the experts. I know a lot of them, and they are astonishing people.
But there are still a lot of very good non-NEST teachers out there who struggle with the material they are being asked to teach and the information they are being asked to deliver. An awful lot of material presumes an intimate awareness of cultural norms in the English-speaking world which some teachers simply don’t have. And, like most people, they don’t have a lot of awareness of other parts of the world, either.
Note to self: always give lots of support for non-native speaker teachers when writing a Teacher’s Guide. Especially about cultural background information about the material, whether it’s about York, New York, New Zealand or New Order.
4 Most teachers have to use a book.
Note that this says most teachers HAVE to use a book, not WANT to use a book, although that is probably also true.
I love dogme and related ideas, I really do. There’s nothing I like better than facing a group of students with nothing but a basic idea of what I want to do. In fact, I try to make this happen as often as I can. When I observe lessons whilst researching a book, I tell the teacher that I’m happy and willing to take over at any point, should she want me to. This has resulted in being invited to take a class for a whole 45-minute lesson, completely unprepared. Brilliant seat-of-the-pants experience. But not something that most teachers would want to try, and certainly not what they would plan to do.
Anyway, back in the real world, most teachers have no choice but to use a book. The system requires it. They can go off-book any time they want, but if they abandon the book completely, all it takes is one student to complain to the DOS, or even worse to her parents, and the teacher is in hot water.
5 Most English courses are exam or test-directed.
This is an obvious corollary of point one. Most pupils are in state schools, most state schools have end of term/semester/year exams, therefore the whole system is geared towards exams.
Experienced state-school teachers have a very clear idea of the time it takes to reach the rather artificial exam-oriented goals. And they also know there is no time for frippery en route. To get through all the exam-related material usually means following the book religiously.
That’s five things I think I know. There are another five, but that’s enough reading for one post. More soon!
Have a great week.
If you are unfamiliar with the Jeremy Paxman/Marks and Spencer underwear story, you can read about it here – http://tinyurl.com/yfjexwt