A Critique of Hugh Dellar on Celta

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I don’t like to get involved in arguments or debates online.  It just happens from time to time.

This is one of those times.

Hugh Dellar, former Celta tutor, teacher, teacher trainer, coursebook writer, and presenter, recently wrote an impassioned and typically strident critique of Celta and courses of its ilk in the aftermath of what many are seeing as a seminal plenary talk by Silvana Richardson at IATEFL 2016 on the topic of native speaker vs. non-native speaker bias in our profession.

Hugh basically puts forward a case against Celta, and calls for its replacement with something better.

I have nothing against the idea of establishing better qualifications and standards for our profession, but this will only succeed when the argumentation is sound, and so I feel compelled to respond to Hugh’s key arguments.

As I make my living working on short introductory training courses like Celta, it isn’t surprising that I may defend them against criticism.  Before you let such ad hominem thoughts discount the rest of what I have to say, let me assure you that I will be careful to present evidence and give ground as I go along.

I hope to show that while they are superficially persuasive, Hugh’s arguments in his latest post frequently lack either logic or evidence or both.

Despite this, I will end up agreeing with some of what he says and present an (arguably) more strident conclusion of my own.

If you haven’t read Hugh’s post yet, stop here and go and do that now.  It’s worth it.  I’ll wait for you.
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going by the book

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I think even the most rabid of coursebook critics, amongst whom I count myself, would concede that, on the whole, published course materials have been getting better over time.

New examples of unsuccessful work will always come to light, and older gems will always lead us into the fallacy that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, but it seems quite undeniable that the range and quality of material, created by the depth of talent, available to teachers today is overwhelming.

Of course, my use of the word “overwhelming” is deliberate.  While it is wonderful to think that there is such an embarrassment of material for the modern teacher, it is also obvious that this sea of stuff requires skilled navigation.

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Shaving and Innovation in Education

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Note to the reader: this post originally appeared on the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG website. As a year has gone by and I like having stuff in one place, I’m republishing it here.

I recently started shaving with a straight razor.  No, this isn’t going to be a post about how manly I am.

It’s going to be about how I decided to make this change, and what this has to do with my becoming increasingly mistrustful of innovation as a force for positive educational change.

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Unplugged Radio Episode 6 – The Whites Of Their Eyes


Hello! Welcome to Teacher Training Unplugged Radio – my name is Anthony Gaughan.

(if you can’t see the podcast player above, click this link for the audio.)

There has been quite a long gap between episodes as Christmas and New Year got in the way. I had to do something to convince Father Christmas that I had been a good boy, however, so In the run-up to Christmas, I collaborated with Phil Wade and co-authored a short eBook on 5-minute self-reflection activities for teachers, which was a lot of fun and which you can get for free.

Now that we are well past the season to be jolly, I find myself back in the Hanseatic North of Germany, doing my day-job of working on Celta courses.

I’m working with a talented, thoughtful and enthusiastic group of beginning teachers at the moment, and they are making my job very easy in lots of ways.

We have just spent the past week getting to know the language learners who have signed up to participate in the Teaching Practice classes, and over the past few days, my trainees have dreamed up, designed and delivered some great lessons.

These lessons have focused on offering the students opportunities to listen to, or read, personal stories that the trainees were willing to share.

The teachers told stories ranging from losing a bunny out of a moving vehicle on the freeway, or seeing the Real Santa Claus doing his rounds, to the exquisite suffering brought on by not heeding a culinary warning.

This prompted the students to share wonderful stories of their own, my favorite being a childhood memory of a puppy running off with the Christmas goose.

No bunnies or puppies were harmed in the making of these lessons, by the way.

Though I’m afraid a goose was.

While I was watching these lessons, and while much was going well and was enjoyable to observe, I couldn’t help but notice something very small going on that was sometimes having quite a big impact on proceedings.

When I say “I saw something going on”, what I really ought to say is “I saw something not going on”, or at least, not when it really mattered.

Things are looking up

Let me take you into an imaginary classroom to show you what I mean.

Picture this: we are observing a teacher make the transition from their lead-in or warmer stage to the first of their listening tasks. It’s a simple, classic global understanding (or “gist”) type reason for listening, and it’s written on a handout that the teacher is about to give to the students. The teacher has checked in with the students and listened to what they got out of the warm-up task, and they decide now is the time to make the move to their story.

The teacher looks to their left, checks their notes, picks up their handouts, and starts to give their instruction. To save time, they get up, and start passing round their material, doing each student the courtesy of handing it to him or her personally. While the teacher is doing this, they continue to give their instruction, taking great care to pass out one handout to each student, and negotiating the crowded back end of the room, squeezing between the class table and their observing colleagues and me.

They get to the front of the room again and settle into starting their story. There is a mild disquiet in the room, and one of the less demure of the students gets the teacher’s attention and asks “what is it we should do?”

Now, you may be thinking: “if the teacher had only given the instruction before handing out the material, this would never have happened!”

And perhaps you are right.

It’s just that I have also seen the same outcome when materials followed instructions, so there must be something even more basic going on.

Or, as I say, not going on.

What was the teacher spending most of the time not looking at?

That’s right: the students.

“Keep an eye on the class” – but not for the reason you think

Eye contact is hugely important for all kinds of reasons in the classroom. Apart from helping in relationship building, which is important in itself, what I am noticing more and more is that were eye contact is lacking, class management problems increase.

When teachers give instructions without looking their students in the eye at the outset, and without maintaining this reasonably during the instruction-giving, then it makes no difference how otherwise clear, concise, comprehensive and concise the instruction was – students often don’t understand, or their attention was elsewhere and they missed it.

When teachers give instructions after getting everyone’s attention – and after they know that they have gotten everyone’s attention because they can see the group looking back at them – then even a sub-optimal instruction can do the job.

The importance of eye contact may be so obvious to those of you listening that you might think it is bizarre for me to make such a point of it.

But it is precisely because it is so obvious that it’s worth being reminded about.

Because when you are already heavily taxed by engaging in a new activity, managing a raft of paperwork and other strange artifacts like board-pens, with half a dozen people watching your every move in silence, insufficiently hidden behind the students you are determined not to let down or embarrass yourself in front of, then your ability to look out into the world and stare it in the face diminishes very quickly.

The unavoidable self-absorption of the novice – whether it be the novice teacher or the novice driver – leads to shortsightedness of very particular kinds.

For the driver, it starts with a difficulty to see much beyond the dashboard. Over time, peripheral vision opens up and something approaching safe, observant driving can occur.

For the teacher, it starts with a difficulty to lift our eyes from our lesson plan notes or other paperwork, and look the people with whom we are working in the eye. Over time, this channel of communication opens up and something approaching genuine, open communication can occur.

But given the importance of not only seeing the other people in the room, but really looking at them, what can we do in the mean time to help speed up the developmental process?

A second’s glance

One thing we can do is do one thing at a time – literally. The observed classroom is a very pressurized environment whatever we try to do to alleviate it, but precisely for this reason we need to focus on what we are doing, not on what is going on at the back of the room with our colleagues.

One way of doing this is to become willing to pay the price in time for focus.

Accept that each single step we take in the classroom may require our total focus and then give it that focus for the moment it requires.

So if we need to consult our notes, we consult our notes.

If the notes tell us to gather our task sheets and tell the students what to do next, we gather our task sheets.

Then we look up. And we make eye contact with the class.

And we move on from there.

That’s it for now on Teacher Training Unplugged Radio. If you liked what you heard, please share it, like it and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. For now, this is Anthony Gaughan, saying thank you for listening, and see you next time.

A gift for the season

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Because Santa knows that teachers are always good girls and boys, the Great Bearded One asked me to help him out a bit this year with his deliveries.

So here is a link to your very own Christmas present from me and the mighty, mighty Phil Wade – a one-month teacher development experiment, 5 minutes a day of reflection for a working month!

Quick, easy and absolutely free: http://papyrus.yourstory.com/b/62264/TEACH-REFLECT-DEVELOP-A-MONTH-OF-REFLECTIVE-TEACHING-ACTIVITIES

All the best,

Anthony

Unplugged Radio Episode 5 – teaching without terminology

Hello! This is Anthony Gaughan for Teacher Training Unplugged Radio. In this episode I’d like to talk about focusing on form in the language classroom, and how not to waste time on it. Let’s get started…

Quite often when people try to teach grammar, they make one or two things hard for themselves, and their students. One of these is thinking that in order adequately to analyze a grammatical structure, you need to label its component parts, particularly using jargon or technical terms.

This isn’t true.

Let’s assume that students need to know two basic things about any given new structure in order to start to use it: what it means and how it’s made (we could add how it sounds, but that’s a kind of subclass of how it’s made, so let’s leave that for now). Let’s further assume that what it means has already been clarified and understood.

The next job for a teacher is to help the students understand how to construct this structure, how to replicate it.

india_basic_wb

For many teachers, this begins with an example sentence on the board (e.g. I have been to India), which they then proceed to break into its component parts, labeling them as they go along: subject – auxiliary HAVE – past participle/3rd form verb.

india_syntax_wb

The process is usually repeated for the three basic structural variations: positive utterance, negative utterance, interrogative utterance.

In a “student-centred” classroom, instead of the teacher simply declaring this information, the students may be involved in this process, with the teacher pointing at each item in the example in term, and asking “and this is (the)…?”, in the hope of eliciting these technical labels from the students.

This approach is frequently successful in eventually generating a formally accurate analysis of the target structure, but it tends to take a long time, be quite repetitive in terms of the information elicited, and crucially, it does not seem to contribute a great deal to students actually performing any better in subsequent controlled practice.

There may be many reasons for this, but for now I’d like to simply ask why it is that teachers, especially novice teachers or those on initial training courses, feel that this kind of thing is necessary at all.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is because a candidate’s ability to “clarify meaning, form and phonology to appropriate depth (criterion 2e in the Celta framework) is something they are expected to be able to do and must therefore demonstrate. But there is nothing in this criterion that demands a labeling of form, merely a “clarify(ing)” of it.

So if using jargon is unnecessary for assessment purposes and ineffectual in revealing useful patterns, what alternatives to it are there?

One is to think in terms of drop down menus, like a computer program menu bar. At each point along the utterance, imagine a drop down menu opening up wherever there is something that could be varied or exchanged for another example of the same type. So, taking our earlier example, and assuming the various personal pronouns are already strongly acquired, our attention would stop first at HAVE, and we would open up a drop-down below this to include HAS.

india_has_wb

Thus we end up with S + HAVE/HAS

Then, when we move to the main verb, here in its past participle form, we open a drop down list and add 2-3 further examples (say climbed Mt. Everest/gone shopping in New York/eaten lobster/worked for an international company) By choosing 2 regular verbs and 2 irregular verbs, we present adequate data to suggest the underlying rule of form, which we can then check with simple questions, unless we haven’t already tacitly done so by eliciting the participle form from students by cuing with the base form, thus killing two birds with one stone.

india_examples_wb

Once the positive form has been unpacked in this way, the negative only requires those slots to be covered that are different. So in our example, we only have to establish a slot for the negation – all else remains equal so there is no point in ploughing the same furrow over and over again.

india_negation_wb

The same applies for the question form – once the inversion has been established, the work is essentially done.

india_wb_complete

In this way, an analysis of form should usually be a matter of diminishing detail, rather than increasing.

Once students have noticed the kind of thing that needs to go into any given slot, assuming they are clear about the overall meaning that the completed structure conveys, there is no need for them to know or to enunciate the technical label for it. Much like competent drivers have little to no idea what most of the technical markings on the roads are called, they are still able to respond to and interact with them perfectly safely and effectively.

(This is why road theory tests with questions asking for road features to be labelled are a total waste of time, and why it was grossly unfair that I failed my theory test first time on the basis of getting such a question wrong. But I digress…)

Apart from the relative economy and lack of need to be au fait with jargon, what other benefits are there to this approach? Well, as I see it, there are a couple:

1) instead of non-generative labels, students get more ready-to-use language
By providing 3-4 possible utterances, we are adding to students’ resources in a useful way. These utterances can be put to use in controlled practice or communicative practice later in the lesson, if well chosen, and thus serve at least a double purpose, of illustration and arsenal.

2) it emphasizes the concrete nature of language, not the abstract algorithms underneath
While I appreciate the elegance of a syntactic tree diagram as much as the next man, I’ve never found them especially useful for learning language, because they look so little like language doing its normal thing. A straightforward set of examples, with the key elements highlighted and presented so that the patterns stand out works much better for me, and I suspect for most people.

So if you are one of those teachers who, like me, sometimes feels like the focus on form stage in a lesson gets a bit too abstract for anyone’s good, then give this a try and see how it works for you. Any comments, queries, disagreements or death-threats, feel free to leave a comment below.

In the next episode, I’ll be talking a little about some of the challenges in understanding published materials, and how to overcome them.

Til next time, this is Anthony Gaughan, for Teacher Training Unplugged Radio, saying thanks for listening, and goodbye.

(Note: I will add whiteboard images to illustrate this shortly, so if anything isn’t clear from my description, check back later!)

Celta hamburg podcast episode 3 – practice made pointless

I took a few minutes to record some thoughts about the past week on my current Celta course for my trainees, focusing on the question of what makes good controlled practice.

I focus mainly on the problem of making controlled practice more than a mechanical exercise, and how to make it easier to check whether students really understand what they are doing.

It’s under 8 minutes long, audio only, so make yourself a cup of tea and let it run in the background.

If you find this useful, give it a thumbs up, and feel free to leave a comment.  Or just do the old fashioned thing and talk to me about it on Monday!

Celta Hamburg Podcast Episode 2

I just made a short podcast for my current Celta trainees up here in Hamburg, where I talk a bit about our general approach to training, teacher talk, language grading, task-setting, work management (less generally interesting unless you are on the course) and tips for passing the Focus on the Learner assignment (these tips may be generally useful for anyone).  It was recorded for a very select audience (you eight people know who you are!), but perhaps it’s interesting for anyone who likes reading my posts.

Shortcuts:
00:00 – introduction
01:27 – Using problems to drive learning
05:25 – teacher talk, keeping instructions simple, and task before text
11:50 – workload management and tips for passing the FoL first time
14:23 – closing

I’d be interested to hear what you think if you give this a listen (especially about whether you would like an audio version to accompany any future blogposts), so drop me a line if you do!

Mr. Gaughan goes to (IH) London

Back in September, I was honoured to be invited by Varinder Unlu to give a short talk for her colleagues at International House London about unplugging teacher training.

IH London record these sessions and so – thanks to their efforts and the magic of the internet – I can share this with you all!

Huge thanks to Varinder and all of her colleagues who showed up, took part and made me feel welcome.

You can also find the video and a short synopsis over at the IH London Blog.