“Itchy Feet!” (Some *more* new materials…)

Recently, Sandy Millin published a blogpost, in which she shared an audio recording, made on request shortly after arriving in Sevastopol, Ukraine, and described a lesson that another teacher (not the one who had made the original request) had made based on this recording after finding it on Twitter.

I listened to the recording and felt inspired to create some materials to go with it. You can find a link to these materials (a student handout and accompanying teachers’ notes, as well as a brief powerpoint quiz about Sevastopol, including introduction to Sandy, and a transcript of the recording) here. (Scroll down to number 3, “Itchy Feet” )

Conveniently enough, the topic links in with a reading text that my learners will shortly be looking at in New Headway Upper Intermediate. I plan to use these materials to spice up the lesson a bit. At higher levels, we have more time to work through the book content, so there is room to do this. Though it isn’t written into the materials, because it would be overly specific for materials to share, I also plan to have them compare Sandy’s experience, and the language she uses to talk about them, with the experiences written about in the reading text and the language used therein. The title of the materials was actually inspired by NHUI, as the phrase “itchy feet” features in a vocabulary activity within their reading and speaking sequence!

For homework, I’m planning to get my learners to pretend that our Edmodo group (http://www.edmodo.com) is a travel forum that they use, and through which they have got to know each other, and have them post from the exotic destination of their choice, to say they’ve moved there to work/study, describing how it’s going so far – positives and negatives. As well as language and content related to this lesson, this will also recycle the informal language usage that they looked at earlier in the unit, in the context of informal letters and emails between friends.

No doubt I will blog to share how it goes after I’ve used these materials. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with them too! 🙂

Low-level Teens and the Global SIG Food Issues Month (Part 2)

In my first post about the Global SIG’s Food Issues Month, I described the background to my materials, some reflections on using them in the classroom with two groups of low level teenaged learners and the links to the materials themselves. In the two lessons I described, I had not managed to complete all of the activities in the materials. In fact, with each group, we completed two out of the three pages of activities. I also mentioned that I would be very interested to see how much each group had taken in during their lesson.

This post is the next instalment in the story and some reflection on the concept of the Global SIG Food Issues Month: 

So, in the next lesson, we started off with a review of what we *had* done, before proceeding to complete the final activities. I did this review phase in a different way with each group:

Class 1:  I put learners into groups to make a mind-map of what they remembered (modelling with an example on the board first), and then each group contributed to a central mind-map on the board. Unfortunately, I mismanaged this somewhat, so learners referred to their papers from the previous lesson part way through the process and gathering the ideas centrally was a bit laborious.

Class 2: I elicited what they remembered orally, giving them time to discuss in groups before they responded to each elicitation. This worked really well, there was lots of discussion at each point when this was required, and learners demonstrated that they had retained a very substantial portion, the majority, of what we had looked at in the previous lesson, both in terms of content and language (e.g. the vocabulary learnt). I was/am so proud of them! 🙂

The remaining activities involved considering the meaning of the Fair Trade symbol (none of the learners had come across it, but it does appear on some chocolate in the supermarkets here e.g. the Carrefour supermarket own brand dark chocolate, and I had an example packet to show them), how this could help children like Aly (the boy whose experiences are depicted in the reading text that learners had looked at in the previous lesson) and then brainstorming other ways that the children could be helped. This all culminated in learners writing a letter to Nestle, to express anger at the situation of children working on the cocoa farms and asking Nestle to become a Fair Trade company so that their chocolate would no longer be produced by child slaves.

Learners had plenty of ideas for how people in general could help the children (raising awareness of the issue through television/internet/radio, education etc.) and what they, themselves, could do (buy Fair Trade products, talk to their friends at school about it, encourage their families to buy Fair Trade products etc.)

When it came to writing the letter, I scaffolded it with some chunks of language that they were able to use to frame their thoughts/ideas and they managed to produce some good pieces of writing. (Again, very proud of them!! 🙂 )

My reflections on the Global SIG Food Issues Month concept: 

Firstly, I enjoyed the challenge of creating a lesson plan and materials that fit within the parameters of the Food Issues Month and weaving this in to the syllabus my learners are following, to increase the benefits for them. I think ‘events’ like this are perfect for stirring a teacher’s creative juices, which can only be a good thing.

I also thought it was a very interesting idea, to have a month where teachers all contribute ideas/materials/sources etc. on a central theme, taking something that is very bog standard in EFL materials (e.g. food) to a different level; looking at a common EFL theme from an uncommon perspective.

It encouraged me to look for unusual sources to turn into resources, and in the process I, myself, learnt things that I wasn’t previously aware of. In this case, that child workers on cocoa farms are still, today, far from uncommon and do live in terrible circumstances. I think twice before buying chocolate now, and do look for the Fair Trade symbol. So, I think such events also enable teachers to learn, which, much like the challenges and the stirring creative juices, keeps things interesting and fresh for us.

Such an event also provides a good opportunity for experimentation, reflection and evaluation (so, experimental/reflective practice), even if you don’t create the materials yourself: Using materials and resources you wouldn’t usually use, to teach something in a way you wouldn’t normally teach it helps you to break out of any rut you might be in. Even if you are not in a rut, it provides the perfect excuse to try out something new and see how well it works. You can then reflect and evaluate, to decide what you would do differently next time around, as well as what was effective enough that you would do it that way again. Of course, if you did create the materials, the reflection/evaluation could/would be applied to the effectiveness of these too.

In conclusion, then, I think the Global SIG Food Issues Month concept offers both learners and teachers a valuable opportunity: Learners, to break away from the run of the mill treatment of typical EFL themes that they usually meet in class, and teachers a chance for some extra in-work professional development.

I hope there will be another such themed month again before too long! Thank you, Global SIG, for a most enjoyable challenge! 🙂

Low-level Teens and the Global SIG Food Issues Month (some more materials!)

When Lindsay Clandfield posted a comment on my blog, bringing my attention to the IATEFL Global SIG’s Food Issues Month, it immediately grabbed my interest. For the month of October, teachers around the world are sharing ideas, lesson plans, materials, resources, projects – anything and everything they are doing with learners that is of relevance to this event. (You can read more about how to get involved here.)

Background:

In order to participate, I decided to make some materials to use with two classes of mid-Elementary level teens.

This would be my second lesson with both classes, taught back-to-back with just ten minutes between them. The first lesson was a ‘Getting to know you‘ lesson, and in classes to come, we will be getting stuck into the second half of Pearson’s Choices Elementary course book. Part of the introduction to the unit we will be starting with involved review of vocabulary related to jobs, so I had this in mind when I planned the lesson and materials. Outside of this, I had no idea what I wanted to do.

A lot of brainstorming and googling later, having realised just what a massive content area is covered by the Global SIG’s event, I fixed on the issue of child workers on cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. I must admit, I hadn’t realised how prevalent child slavery still is in the chocolate industry. I think it’s something that gets swept under the carpet a lot, in the interest of £££.

I thought/hoped it would work well to take something very well-known, well-liked and very part of the average western child’s life i.e. chocolate and use this as a starting point/springboard for an exploration of the lesser known, darker side of it i.e. child slavery on cocoa farms as part of chocolate production. The progression from known to unknown is also present in moving from familiar jobs to unfamiliar jobs i.e. baker, farmer, waiter etc. to chocolate taster and cocoa farm worker.

In Practice:

The lessons were 1hr20 mins each and we did not manage to complete all of the activities in either class. I think I possibly spent too long on the lead-ins. However, the learners were engaged by the materials, and learnt some new vocabulary (which they did then proceed to use receptively in reading the text and productively in speaking and writing about it! Yay, teens!) as well as doing some reading, speaking (so therefore listening too, though this wasn’t the skill focus) and writing. I pre-taught a bit of vocabulary for the reading text, and elicited possible content based on this, so when they came to read the text, it was manageable for them.

The chocolate quiz was, of course, much enjoyed by the learners, and served to highlight the contrast between the sweetness of chocolate in rich, western countries and the bitterness of life on the cocoa farms, echoed in the contrast between the job of chocolate taster and the job of cocoa farm worker.

I found that when they worked together in groups, for example when I asked them to discuss their response to the text/gist question, they would say a few words in English, then lapse into Italian with chunks of English woven in, then worked together to attempt to reformulate their shared ideas in English. I was happy with this, because they were discussing their understanding of what they had read in English, related to a very meaty issue. It was also very obvious that they were not being lazy! 🙂

It was interesting using the same set of resources with two classes in a row. Even though I had little time in between the classes to reflect, I did make several changes in how I used the materials in the second class: I felt the first time round that the lesson had been too teacher-centred. I think this had a lot to do with it being my first time to use the sophisticated technology that IH Palermo is endowed with – i.e. interactive e-beam whiteboard, projector – in combination with this being a level/age group combination with which I also have little experience. So I missed a few tricks in terms of involving the learners. Live (or teach) and learn!

The materials consist of:

  • A powerpoint-based chocolate quiz
  • A handout for the learners
  • Teachers notes

(These can all be found here – scroll down to number 2.)

To this I added a few e-beam scrapbook pages – one with a picture of a chocolate taster  (an ad-hoc ‘flashcard’ to introduce this job – which the majority of learners expressed a certain keenness on doing in future!) and one with the pictures I used for pre-teaching the vocabulary (those pictures included in the teachers notes) plus one with pictures and words, which I got the learners to join up after I had elicited the vocabulary.

Note: I see one class again on Friday, the other on Monday. I plan to review what we did today and finish off the writing task before moving on to the course book. It will be interesting to see what they remember, i.e. what they took away with them, from today’s class… <watch this space!>

If you use these materials or adapt them for use for a different age/level, I’d be very interested to hear what you did and how it went! 🙂

Some materials – at last! (Part 2)

I have just added another section of materials to my Materials page!

The materials are some of what I produced for the Materials Development module that I did as part of my M.A. in ELT at Leeds Met. The linked page contains further information and links to the materials themselves. I’d be interested to hear what you think (but understand that this may not be possible until I’ve uploaded the whole of the unit!) 🙂

I have now uploaded the second section of the unit – some reading and language focus – plus teachers’ notes. However, because I haven’t got copyright of the reading text – which is taken from Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man – I have blanked out the text. You could still use the sequence by sourcing the book and pulling out Chapter 14 pages 20-23 from “All right the bell has rung.” to “Just take the story and feel sorry for the kid and the mother with her countenance and, maybe, the dad, and not analyse it to  death.”  This follows on from the speaking section, which I uploaded previously.

Enjoy – and if you use them, please do let me know how it goes by commenting below or on the Materials page…

Some materials – at last!

Finally I have added some materials to my Materials page!

The materials are some of what I produced for the Materials Development module that I did as part of my M.A. in ELT at Leeds Met. The linked page contains further information about them and links to the materials themselves. I’d be interested to hear what you think but understand that this may not be possible until I’ve uploaded the whole of the unit! (I have only uploaded the first section so far…)

🙂

MATSDA July 2013 Presentation – Is enjoyment central to language learning? A snapshot of M.A. student materials developers’ perspectives (The write-up)

Before I finally consign my cue cards for this presentation to the bin, I thought I’d write up my talk from July this year… 

Is enjoyment central to language learning? A snapshot of student materials developers’ perspectives.

My small-scale project and presentation both emerged from a combination of ruminating on the conference theme, Enjoying to learn: the best way to acquire a language?, and doing a materials development module as part of my M.A. in ELT at Leeds Met. Being an annual two-day conference of the Materials Development Association, the conference theme gave rise to a few questions in my mind:

  • Is enjoyment central to materials development and learning?
  • If it is central to learning, how much control do materials developers have over it?

I decided to focus on the materials development perspective, thinking that it would be interesting to see what lesser-heard materials developers’ voices had to say, since the views of the great and good in ELT are already widely known,  and contrast this with what I could find in the literature.

My intuition told me that the themes of motivation, affect and engagement would feature prominently in my exploration of the issue and this was backed up by the data I collected. Thus, I decided to focus on these themes for my literature review, in addition to the theme of enjoyment itself.

Motivation

Dornyei (2005; 2013) coined the L2 Motivational Self System. This consists of 3 components:

  • Ideal L2 self: This refers to a learner’s future self image, hopes and aspirations in relation to using the foreign language.
  • The ought self: This refers to the attributes a learner believes he or she ought to possess, in terms of using the foreign language. So this relates to someone else’s vision with regards a learner’s foreign language usage.
  • The L2 learning experience: This refers to “situation-specific motives related to the immediate learning environment and experience (e.g. the positive impact of success or the enjoyable quality of a language course)”

Enjoyment, then, fits into the third component of this L2 Motivation Self-system: The “enjoyable quality” of a course may motivate learners to continue learning, as may success. Of the three components, this third is the only one that relates directly to the current learning environment and the effect this has on motivation, and we can draw the conclusion that enjoyment may be a factor in motivation. However, it is worth noting  it’s an “or”, rather than an essential component. How essential a component it is will depend largely on the learner’s personality and learning goals.

Affect

Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis aims to account for lack of acquisition in the face of appropriate input. Within this theory, the affective filter is “a metaphorical barrier that prevents learners from acquiring language even when appropriate input is available” (Lightbown and Spada, 2006:37). Where does enjoyment fit in with this? If we enquire in to what makes the affective filter go up, we find that “a learner who is tense, anxious or bored may ‘filter out’ input, making it unavailable for acquisition” (Ibid). Thus, lack of confidence, worry, insecurity, nerves, or as mentioned by Lightbown and Spada, tension, anxiety or boredom, may all contribute to the affective filter going up and preventing acquisition. This being the case, the learner would certainly not be enjoying him or herself.

However, enjoyment is not the opposite of all of these things, though it may emerge if the opposites are cultivated. The opposites themselves are confidence for lack of confidence/insecurity, interest for boredom, calmness and relaxation for anxiety/worry/nerves. These enable learning by lowering the affective filter. Do they arise from enjoyment? Possibly, but not necessarily.

Engagement

Engagement appears with high frequency in the literature. It often collocates with ‘cognitive’ and ‘affective’:

Cognitive Engagement:

“Thinking while experiencing language in use helps to achieve the deep processing required for effective and durable learning (Craik and Lockhart 1972)” (Tomlinson, 2010:88-89)

 Affective Engagement:

“Affective engagement with language in use also has the considerable advantage of stimulating a fuller use of the resources of the brain (Bolitho et al. 2003:256)

The argument for engaging learners cognitively is that the increased depth of processing that results leads to a greater degree of learning taking place. It requires the transfer of higher level skills such as predicting, connecting and evaluating.  An example of a cognitively engaging activity would be a consciousness-raising grammar-based task.

The argument for engaging learners affectively is that this fires up neural pathways, which enables the multi-representation of language that is required for deeper processing of language and more meaningful learning.

It is widely agreed that both of these are central to language learning and acquisition. Now, one could argue that affective and cognitive engagement equal enjoyment. However, enjoyment does not necessarily equal affective and cognitive engagement. As an extreme example, a learner could be sat in the back of class happy as a clam, daydreaming about the hot date they have planned for that evening – they’d be enjoying themselves but they would not be engaged.

Enjoyment

Having explored the above three themes, I also investigated the role of enjoyment itself in the literature. A search, using Evernote’s search function, of Tomlinson (2012)’s literature review of Materials Development for Language Learning, only identified a single allusion. This was to Grant (1987) and was being used as an example of a poor evaluation criteria. Questionability of criteria aside, this was a case of appropriacy to context/age/level of learners that would be the design goal rather than ‘enjoyment’ per se. Enjoyment may emerge, but not necessarily.

I also searched a few other key articles (see list of references) and then did a database search of the ELT Journal. I looked for “enjoy” and “enjoyment” and limited the search to titles/abstracts as key words should be mentioned in these. This gave me ten results. 8 were related to reading and listening, 1 related to writing and 1 related to strategies, recommending that learners try to enjoy performance anxiety.

There are obvious limitations to this exploration – I did not search all the articles that have ever been written and my database search was only of one journal. However, I felt that if enjoyment was important for materials development, then it would have been mentioned in Tomlinson’s 2012 literature review. I also did not search for synonyms of enjoyment, but this was deliberate: synonyms are tricky and can mean subtly different things. For example, engagement. I found in my study that people often associate enjoyment and engagement, using the two interchangeably in some cases, and of course engagement is prominent in the literature, but they are different.

To illustrate this difference, one need only look at the definitions of each term in the Oxford Dictionary. This clarifies that enjoyment can be passive but engagement is always active. Enjoyment can and might emerge from engagement but it is not necessary for it. For example, that cognitive consciousness-raising task might not be at all enjoyable but learners may be very engaged and learn from it.

In summary:

  • Learning plus enjoyment = fantastic.
  • Learning minus enjoyment = fine, especially in certain contexts.
  • Enjoyment, minus learning = arguably pointless?
  • None of above = the learners will probably not be returning to class tomorrow, given the choice.

When might there be learning but no enjoyment? As per the previous example, the CR grammar task – analytic learners may enjoy it but experiential learners probably will not. Both types of learners, however, may be engaged and learn from it, if they understand the purpose and view it as useful. There could be parallels drawn between this and musicians who practice their scales in order to play beautiful music. A hobby musician like me may not bother with this but the musician who wants to play in a top-class orchestra or pass a grade 7 music exam will. It’s not enjoyable, but it can be worth it. This is where motivation comes in – it affects what is considered important.

The Study

The context for my study was Leeds Metropolitan University’s M.A. in ELT Materials Development module. I had 4 participants – 3 students and 1 tutor – and I had one research question: Is enjoyment central to the development of language learning materials? My hypothesis was No, because I didn’t recall it being prominent in classes, individual tutorials or informal chats with colleagues. Of course, this could have been a flawed recollection, so I decided to explore my course mate’s perspectives on the role of enjoyment in learning materials, by interviewing them and looking at a sample of the materials they produced for the module assessment. I also interviewed our tutor in order to gauge the possible effect of her influence over their answers by looking for similarities and differences and tutorial input vs tutorial take-away. The interviews were all 1-1 interviews, and I asked each course mate the same set of questions. I asked my tutor a similar set of questions but slightly adapted so that they were relevant to her role.

The limitations of my study are, of course, it’s size, imposed by the number of willing participants. However, it still provides a snapshot. I believe the interview effect was not present in either the interviews with my course mates, or that with my tutor – my course mates and I have a symmetrical relationship and they had nothing to gain by trying to impress me, while my tutor and I have an asymmetrical relationship, but in which she is superior to me, so again nothing to gain by trying to impress me.

When I presented this project, before showing and discussing the results, I showed a sample of each respondent’s materials, together with the set of questions used, and asked the audience to confer to infer possible answers.

Results

I organised my results around the themes I used to conduct my literature review, using colour to differentiate between ideas that arose from my course mates (blue) and ideas that arose from my tutor (orange). I used a 50% split of colour for the ideas common to both. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as our tutor’s views were bound to be very influential during the course of this module, there is a substantial amount of overlap. However, my classmates did express ideas of their own that weren’t echoed in the answers given my tutor. Here is a summary of the results:

Motivation

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.13.02

Results slide 1: results related to motivation

These are the ideas relating to enjoyment that I thought were linked with motivation. Some relate to intrinsic motivation, some to extrinsic motivation (or the ideal self/ought self) and some relate to the L1 learning process leading to motivation. So, motivation is certainly important, according to both my respondents and the literature.

Affect

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.15.01

Results slide 2: results related to affect.

Enjoyment was also linked to positive affect. Thus, relief, relaxation, interaction, camaraderie, confidence and connection with topic all contribute to the lowering of the affective filter, and if these are present then it is safe to say that enjoyment would not be far behind.

Engagement

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.15.08

Results slide 3: results related to engagement.

Enjoyment was also linked strongly with engagement. My respondents seemed to agree that enjoyment emerges as a result of engagement. Thus, interest, challenge, the learning process, studial activities, concepts and games/competitions were all associated with both engagement and enjoyment – possibly because if a learner wants to be engaged in these ways, then when the need is met, their enjoyment will likely emerge.

Enjoyment

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.15.16

Results slide 4: results related to enjoyment

This is what emerged with regards to enjoyment itself:

  • The importance of it depends on context (age, purpose of learning etc.) and personality (it’s subjective, important to some but not to others).
  • It doesn’t necessarily mean learning.
  • It probably means happy students, unless they are more interested in learning than enjoying themselves and feel that enjoyment is being promoted at the expense of learning.

Materials design/development

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.46.21

Results slide 5: what’s important for materials design/development?

This is what emerged in terms of what is important in the design and development of learning materials. The three factors listed at the bottom of the slide in a different colour from the rest were put forward as factors that make learning materials enjoyable. What also emerged is that for young learners, “fun” and “enjoyable” activities may be more important, as this engages them. It was also agreed by all participants that the role of the teacher is very important, perhaps more so than the materials.

Discussion of results

1. Design implications:

Trying explicitly to build enjoyment into language learning materials may backfire; it may be better to let it emerge from other elements, e.g. cognitive/affective engagement and interest.

2. Goal implications:

Enjoyment can make learning more pleasurable, can emerge from and contribute to the motivation needed to continue learning but it does not CAUSE learning, and language learning is goal of language classes. It could of course be argued that this goal could be better achieved if enjoyment is present.

3. The issue of subjectivity:

As enjoyment is so very subjective, perhaps it is better to cater for different learning styles, embody principles and theory that are widely considered most effective, aim to engage cognitively/affectively and to motivate learners.

Returning to goal implications, you could argue that enjoyment is an indirect goal of language learning and learning materials development: We want it to be a by-product, because we do not want miserable learners. However, there is a problem inherent in this: In Gilmore, 2004 we see: “As Cook (1997) points out, terms such as ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ and their opposites ‘fake’, ‘unreal’ or ‘contrived’ are emotionally loaded and indicate approval or disapproval whilst remaining ill-defined. I would argue that, from the classroom teacher’s perspective, rather than chasing our tails in pointless debate over authenticity versus contrivance, we should focus instead on learning aims, or as Hutchinson & Waters (1987: 159) call it, ‘fitness to the learning purpose’.” – if we substitute enjoyment and it’s supposed opposites in here, then perhaps the same applies, and if the issue of emotionally loaded terms does apply equally to enjoyment, then perhaps it is equally important in this respect to focus on fitness to the learning purpose.

Who would say, “I don’t want my learners to enjoy themselves. No.” If somebody said this, they would probably be labelled the wicked witch of the west. BUT, how about enjoyment at the expense of learning:

Scrivener and Underhill believe “we may have misinterpreted ‘humanistic’ and ‘facilitation’ as a bland ‘being nice to students'” i.e. not doing anything students might not enjoy. Meanwhile, Dellar, in the comment thread of a blog post dated June 9th 2013, remarked on “classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.” One respondent of this blog post quoted their learner as saying “games are fine but they won’t help us enough”. Perhaps, then, it would be more effective to focus on the learning aims and fitness to learning purpose. Therefore, aim for engagement, interest, effective and principled activities and worry less about ‘enjoyment’ as an end in itself. The enjoyment that emerges as a result of these is the type of enjoyment that is surely most conducive to language learning, as distinct from the enjoyment of dreaming about a hot date, or, indeed, playing a particularly pointless game with no pedagogical purpose.

Provided materials engage learners cognitively and/or affectively, and of course there may be more of one than the other and vice versa at various points in a sequence of activities, then enjoyment of the right sort should emerge,  also catering for the learners alluded to in results slide 4, who do not care about enjoyment and probably do not want it rammed down their throats. This approach is likely to be more successful than aiming for enjoyment itself, which is hit-and-miss due to the subjective nature of it, and may be downright annoying, for example if learners did not come to class to be counselled or play games etc. but to learn English. (See Gadd, 1998, for  a criticism, in this respect, of some humanistic language teaching approaches)

Conclusions

The conclusions of my study are that, for my participants

  • Affect, motivation and engagement ARE central to language learning and to materials development, as materials can aim to stimulate these.
  • Enjoyment may emerge from these, or be generated by a range of factors, not necessarily relating to the materials in use, e.g. rapport with classmates and teacher, but it is not the central goal: learning is.

As Swan famously quotes his learner in saying:  “I don’t want to clap and sing, I want to learn English”

As our tutor said to me: “I’m more interested in whether students are going to learn language from these materials than whether students are going to enjoy them.”

References:

A list of references referred to in the talk and in this write-up can be found here.

This was an interesting project to undertake and I much enjoyed the opportunity of presenting my findings at the MATSDA conference. Many thanks must go to my participants for giving up their time to be interviewed and contributing samples of their work for me to show in my presentation, to Brian Tomlinson for allowing me to present, and to my tutor for all the help/support/advice she gave while I was planning and preparing my presentation for the conference. 

Summary of BESIG Online Conference Session – Nick Robinson: “How (and why) to join a group of materials writers?”

This session was delivered by Nick Robinson, who is one of the coordinators of the Materials Writing SIG (MaW SIG) – at impressively high speed due to technical difficulties taking over the first half of the session!

The aim of the session was to give a short overview of MaW SIG, in terms of why it was set up and what the coordinators hope that members will be able to get out of it. Thus, rather than a “how to” session, it was more of a “why to” session.

So, why was MaW SIG created?

Well, until now, with the creation of MaW SIG, there hasn’t been a special interest group aimed especially at materials writing. (It is important to note the -ing there: materials writING, not writers. It is aimed at anyone who is interested in the process of materials writing. You don’t need to be published, or a big name, in order to be a member of this group. The only essential is interest in the process of materials writing.) However, nearly every English language teacher in the world writes all the time – you may not call yourself a materials writer, but every time you produce a worksheet or a quiz, you are writing materials. Some people do write to be published or to sell their materials, others write materials to share, and others write just for their students to use. The common thread, though, which runs through all of these reasons is the act of writing. MaW SIG wants to bring together a group of people around that thread.

The world of publishing is changing very fast, especially in the past ten years. This creates both a need and an opportunity for people to come together in order to share best practice and ideas and to give advice on how to adapt to this new environment. What MaW SIG provides is a single forum for people to come together and do this, a single forum for the sharing of materials writing knowledge, best practice and continued professional development.

Why should you join MaW SIG?

Publishing is still a who-you-know business, so the connections you make are hugely important. MaW SIG intends to run two conferences a year. In terms of what is forthcoming, the first event will hopefully be held in October, while the second will be a Pre-Conference Event at IATEFL. These events aim to offer you the opportunity to network with established writers, authors, publishers, editors and anyone else who is involved in all the different aspects of materials writing.

This SIG is all about professional development and training, so therefore the stand-alone conferences (like the one planned for October) will be very hands-on. This will help you learn to write better and best practice will be promoted; it is an opportunity to learn from experts in the field.

MaW SIG also has an active Facebook page, through which you can access people who have been doing materials writing for a long time. There is a lot of knowledge out there, which can be shared and this page aims to provide a platform for this.

Finally, if you are interested in getting work published, it is worth remembering that publishers don’t only look at the quality of your materials. They look at a range of other things, like how you interact with the wider ELT community, how interested you are in the field, how active you are in blog-writing and on Twitter, how active you are in attending conferences. Joining and being part of MaW SIG is another way of demonstrating commitment to the field as well as the willingness to learn and develop as much as you can.

How can you join MaW SIG?

You can join by adding MaW SIG to your IATEFL membership, alongside any current SIG membership. (You can also wait until your current SIG membership runs out and replace it with MaW SIG if you so desire!)

You can also join the Facebook page  for which you do not need to be a member. (But of course you’ll gain more from the SIG by joining it!)

You can follow the Twitter handle (@MaWSIG) (As above, you do not need to be a member to do this but the same applies in terms of benefits!)

And you are also welcome to email Nick or Byron to ask any questions you might have. (I didn’t catch the email address but I’m sure you can get it via the Facebook page or Twitter!)

MATSDA (Materials Development Association) Conference, 13-14 July, University of Liverpool

On the 13th and 14th of July, the University of Liverpool will be hosting MATSDA’s annual 2-day conference. Well worth attending to catch up with the latest developments in the world of ELT materials!

You can find an advert for the conference here, and a full programme of who will be presenting on what topics, including abstracts, here. Please do download them and share them with anyone who might be interested in going!

These are the plenary speakers:

  • Mark Almond
  • Thom Kiddle
  • Alan Maley
  •  Hitomi Masuhara
  • Brian Tomlinson
  • Jane Willis

I’m going to be presenting on the Sunday too! All very exciting.

So if you have any time to spare and are able to get to Liverpool for a weekend on the 13th/14th July…

You know you want to! 🙂

Dissertation Diary 4

I’ve decided to use my blog as a reflective tool while doing my dissertation project – the final component of my M.A. in ELT –  hypothesising that this will make it an even more effective learning experience for me, by mapping it, enabling me to look back on my thought processes and decisions and see what effect these have on the project development. (Other posts in this series can be found here) Once I get to the end (13th September is D-Day!), as well as looking back over the experience of doing the project, I plan to try and evaluate the effect of these reflective blog posts on it.

Yesterday (a day earlier than planned, by necessity, but it worked out well in the end, happily!) I had my second tutorial with H. It was fantastic! Much better than the previous meeting (which was also really, really good, don’t get me wrong!), because I’d done some proper work on the project, so there was something to properly pull apart and get our teeth into. So, this post will summarise what we covered in 45mins of tutorial as well as the next set of goals that have emerged. Boy, do I ever have my work cut out for me now! (Both in synthesising that little lot AND implementing the resulting plan of action!)

(But a quick aside before I start: I think doing a dissertation project like this, with an experienced supervisor whom I trust implicitly (important because it means I feel comfortable discussing my [often questionable] ideas), a.k.a. a “more experienced other”, means exactly working in my own “Zone of Proximal Development” (a la good old Vygotsky) – I’m being scaffolded to work beyond my current capabilities and produce something that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce, acquiring valuable skills/learning in the process. Socio-constructivist learning in action. And I LOVE it! :-))

Right, to business…

We began with a somewhat timid “What do you think of my ideas?” from me, and the first thing addressed was a glaring gap in my reading thus far. So, next on my list to read is:

Willis D. and Willis J. (2007) Doing  Task-based Teaching Oxford University Press.

Or it might be…

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for Task-based Learning. Longman.

Ach, why not both! Basically, there is a Willis (and Willis?)-sized hole to be filled! I don’t have to follow the Willis framework but it can be a starting point, even if it becomes a case of simply rationalising why it isn’t there or using it as a point of comparison when discussing Ellis’s version. Not unreasonable – a dissertation project based on TBL with no mention of Willis OR Willis might be rather questionable!

H likes the combining the Language Awareness work with Task-Based Learning idea, so that was a good start. I need, though, to clarify exactly what the cross-over is between Ellis’s Consciousness-Raising and Language Awareness – if I claim they are similar, I need to be very clear how they are similar and how they are different.

Regarding the culture element, for the rationale I need to be aware (and state) exactly what my approach is:

  • what cultural content am I including?
  • what exactly is it that I am aiming to do AND aiming not to do in terms of culture? E.g. I’m not trying to get them to learn about the Queen/parliament!, it’s a different kind of culture and a different approach, an enabling approach.
  • what exactly are the materials doing and not doing with culture?
  • what about intercultural capability?

We discussed how I am approaching the syllabus. My task cycle is preparatory tasks, the main task (exploiting the ESE), then tasks using the information gathered, then ending up with it on the wiki and then reflection. I need to think about/justify in the rationale my approach to language focus (in terms of selection).

Then we moved onto the (somewhat half-baked) framework I produced yesterday (just in time for the meeting!) and spent the rest of the meeting pulling it apart in great detail, which was very useful (genuinely!).

Here is the framework as it was: Framework Draft 1  

One of the criteria for calling something “task” is that it must have a non-linguistic outcome. (NB: A non-linguistic outcome needs to be tangible e.g. for the task “Find 3 pieces of dirt under your table”, the outcome would be the three pieces of dirt!) “Page 1” involves scaffolding use of the self-access centre. However, that may be the pedagogical goal of the sequence but it isn’t an outcome – as far as the task goes it’s a means to an end. The leaflet that the learners are going to produce is an outcome but it’s an outcome of the post-task element rather than the main task. In the end we established that the data collected through use of the self-access centre (scaffolded via a worksheet which will be a photocopiable resource in the teacher’s book) was the non-linguistic outcome of the main task. Getting from the outcome of the main task (the data collected) to the outcome of the post-task (the completed leaflet) will require more scaffolding for the learners. Another task…

And herein lies a major flaw in the current framework: The word “task” is repeated so many times that it becomes at best confusing and at worst meaningless. I need to decide what I am going to label a “task” and what I am going to label an “activity” and I need to be careful in applying these labels.

  • What I call things needs to be principled and thought out so that it is clear when the big task is coming, which will have all the qualities specified in the literature.
  • Avoid the trap of calling everything a “task” and then not knowing what is meant anymore. It will make things seem more sensible.

“Page 2” – With regards to the vocabulary focus, I need to think very carefully about how to focus on form in a) Task-based learning and b) Language Awareness approach. Is this going to be teacher and materials led or is it going to be students finding what they find useful? Need to link back to the theory – look carefully at what L.A. says about how much it should be teacher/materials-led and how much it should be open to students to look for examples of x and work out the rules for yourself. Need to think about exactly how I am going to do this.

  • Will the students be able to work out the rules?
  • What happens if they can’t?
  • Are the resources there for the teacher to guide them?
  • Is the L.A. approach suitable for everything? Or suitable only for some language points?

For the materials-led form focus, I can have a language reference in the book as well as the L.A. stuff, but I need to justify why I am combining these approaches. Now is the time where I need to go backwards and forwards between this initial draft framework and the theory, it’s a good stage to do this. And keep asking for every step of it:

  • Is this compatible with the theory or am I just trying to shoehorn something in for the sake of it or something that doesn’t quite fit with the ethos of what I am doing?
  • What am I going to put in my rationale to justify this?
  • Is the world ready for this?! Or might I want to include something a bit more traditional (e.g. the language reference vis-a-vis Language Awareness approach) to make it more palatable?
  • What are the non-linguistic outcomes for each of the tasks in the task cycle?
  • What exactly is the purpose of each main task?
  • Exactly which part of the task is the main part? (It is from this that the non-linguistic outcome must emerge.)

“Page 3” – It starts to become clear that I am taking the students through a process, almost like a research process, some input at the beginning and preparing them for the main task (exploiting E.S.E.) through making questions/a questionnaire and then exploiting the data collected. So each of the stages is a mini-task but the whole thing is also one big task cycle.

To make it easier to understand:

  • I need to make a framework of the macro task cycle, divided up into stages, A/B/C/D etc however many stages.
  • That framework then should be reflected in the mini-tasks that go on in each lesson so that each lesson is going to take on a task cycle.

It’s a matter of the labels and the language I use around it that will make my pattern transparent.

  • I need a formula that will be followed for each mini task and for the overall task.
  • A diagram in the rationale would be good.
  • And I must pay attention to the headings for everything and the language used to describe everything (very important!).

That’s what will (hopefully!) make it understandable for me/H/teachers and students who use the materials/to anyone who looks at the materials: They would be able to look at the pattern, understand it, see how everything fits in. That will also make it fit what I say it’s doing, vis-a-vis the theory (Ellis and Willis and so on), which will be important for the rationale: bringing it all together in perfect harmony… (ah, can you just imagine it…somewhere wayyy up the dissertation mountain…)

So, next goals:

  • Address all the above bullet points/questions
  • Think about how long each mini task cycle is going to take and therefore how long the macro cycle will take as well. (This is important because if it’s a 20hr cycle, then I only need to make one but if it’s a 10hr cycle, then I need to make two)
  • Make sure the task sequence that is followed each lesson is clear (in terms of non-linguistic outcome, duration etc)
  • Maintain the inclusion of different kinds of tasks.
  • Map out the the materials – an outline (what is each task going to be, what is each stage in each lesson going to be, that kind of thing)
  • Draft a rationale if possible (or headings and notes and references otherwise)

There’s no one way to structure the rationale, but I do need to consider and include:

  • Description of the context
  • What theories I’m drawing on (methodology, SLA, materials design…) [this is the biggest part of it]
  • Main principles behind what I’ve chosen to do.
  • Make an argument for the design of the materials in the way that I’ve done it (why I’ve chosen the methodologies/principles that I’ve chosen )
  • Why TBL? What task cycle am I using? What kind of tasks? How are the materials organised? Exemplify it.

Essentially it’s a whole justification of what I am doing. So I can make a diagram of the task cycle, relate it back to the theory and justify why it is that students will be learning from this task cycle in that context better than they would if done in a different way. It answers the question: “Why are my materials like this?”

At this point time ran out (I reckon we could easily have gone on for another 15mins or half an hour if H hadn’t had back to back appointments all afternoon – we only talked through the first two pages of the plan and touched on the third!). Next meeting will be at the end of June. Plenty to be getting on with meanwhile… So many questions to answer, so much thinking to do, so much to produce. I think I might still be in the foothills of this dissertation mountain!

First things first, time to go to the library and dig out the Willis collection…

As ever, any thoughts/criticism/comments etc all very welcome! 🙂

Dissertation Diary 3

I’ve decided to use my blog as a reflective tool while doing my dissertation project – the final component of my M.A. in ELT –  hypothesising that this will make it an even more effective learning experience for me, by mapping it, enabling me to look back on my thought processes and decisions and see what effect these have on the project development. (Other posts in this series can be found here) Once I get to the end (13th September is D-Day!), as well as looking back over the experience of doing the project, I plan to try and evaluate the effect of these reflective blog posts on it.
    Having spent the last 24hrs reading and grappling with the theory behind Task Based Learning, what does and doesn’t constitute a TBL task, how to design a Task-Based Syllabus, how to grade tasks in terms of their complexity and the different criteria that need to be considered in order to do this, how to sequence tasks to maximise learning and so on and so forth, (the beginnings of) my plan (well, plan A anyway – no guarantee that this will actually be implemented, more than likely it will just be the first to be discarded!) is slowly emerging. In fact, according to Ellis (2003:229), I may just about have started to establish my “starting point” – “the determination of the goal(s) of the course in terms of its pedagogic focus (general or specific purpose), skill focus (listening, speaking, reading, writing, learner training) and language focus (unfocused or focused)”…
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