English UK 2013 teachers' conference

Event date: 
Saturday, November 9, 2013 - 10:00
English UK 2013 teachers' conference - hancockmcdonald.com/blog/english-uk-2013-teachers-conference

The opening plenary was a presentation by Russell Stannard on the use of screencapture tools as a ´revolutionary´ way of providing feedback to students. Screencapture tools effectively create a video of what´s occurring on a (portion of) computer screen, including highlighting, cursor movements and so on, plus the voice of the user as picked up on the microphone. This allows the user to effectively narrate what they´re doing. So, for example, if they´re marking a student essay, they may highlight or point to a section and think aloud their feedback to the student. In a screencapture tool such as JING, this video is automatically stored on the web, and a URL is sent to the teacher, who may then forward it to the student concerned. Similarly for speaking, students may record themselves talking about something on their screen – a photo, perhaps – and then forward the resulting video to the teacher. Russell has been developing these techniques since 2006, and the tech has been developing too during that time, making the procedures easier and easier to operate. Nevertheless, JING still has a 5 minute maximum length of video, which may be a problem, and the procedures are likely to encroach on a teacher´s private time – unless that time is budgeted for in the schedule. Russell has posted the slides for his talk here.

Among the workshops in first slot of the morning were Annie McDonald on authentic listening (see slides and a description here) and Mark Hancock on pronunciation for listening (see slides and a description here). Other speakers in the same time slot were Antonia Clare, Peter Moor, Claire Woollam, Richard Hamilton, Fiona Barker and Simon Borg.

In the second slot, Ken Paterson presented on the topic of spoken grammar – what is it, and is it worth teaching? The features focused on included clearly grammatical things like headers (That blue book, what´s it called?), through to more lexical features like exaggerated language (I´m dying for a drink!).  He argued that the 16 or so features on his syllabus were all teachable using much the same kind of techniques as any other grammar. However, he did say that it would not be appropriate to focus on all features of spoken English. His example was false starts or self-corrections – it would be absurd to pretend to start falsely – these things emerge of their own accord. While I definitely agree with this from the productive point of view, I would add that it´s worth making students aware of such features for listening. Ken´s presentation was based on the development of his book, A Handbook of Spoken Grammar,  DELTA 2011, with Caygill and Sewell.

Also in the second slot, Jo Tomlinson and Fiona Aish presented on developing academic listening skills. Listening can be one of the most difficult of skills to master, and the presenters expounded further challenges involved in listening to university lectures, for example, that they tend to be dense, and students have to multi-process in order to make notes. To counter these and other difficulties, Jo and Fiona presented a range of useful activities and strategies including predicting lecture content, listening to part of a lecture and correcting errors in notes, and recognising main and supporting points. The lectures are authentic, and the activities offered realistic practice. The tasks and activities presented by the speakers served to offer pointers for participants wanting develop their own materials for use in different contexts. See details of the speakers' book here.

Also speaking in this slot were Mike McCarthy, Jonathan Betts, Thom Kiddle, Helen Chambers, Ros Wright, Matt Steele and Karen Wilkins.

After lunch, Silvana Richardson demolished 4 of ELT’s ´sacred cows’, namely: 1. You must never use L1 in the classroom; 2. You should always get students to guess the meanings of unknown words; 3. Teachers should elicit answers from the whole class through concept questioning; 4. There are four skills, two productive and two receptive. For each of these four dogmas in turn, Silvana discussed its origins, the reasons why it is misguided, and the alternatives. The more general point was that teachers should always keep an open mind and not take any ´best practice’ as unquestionable.  

In a concurrent session, Dot Powell invited us to consider the extent to which we can evaluate whether or not teaching materials are suitable for learners, and if they are ‘scratching where they are itching’, based on the written feedback. Dot began by introducing the British Council ESOL Nexus project, designed to provide open-access website resource materials for ESOL learners. We then examined the extent to which various pieces of feedback received on the materials, ranging from the happy sheet approach of ‘Everything is perfect’ to ‘The film is funny and speaking is very clear. We understand more vocabulary about an emergency’. Clearly we have to accept that, in some cultures, direct criticism in the asymmetrical power relationship of student and teacher is not done. However, by being selective and unpacking comments, we can find useful pointers to the types of materials and activities students enjoy and find motivating.

Other speakers in the same slot included Paul Gallantry, Martin Sketchley, Sam McCarter, Edward de Chazal, Jon Wright, Chris Flint and Robert Hill.

The closing plenary was Hugh Dellar, calling on us to be critical and sceptical with regard to the tech ‘revolution’ in ELT – see a review of this talk here. The talk nicely counterbalanced the opening plenary by Russell Stannard, and was due to be followed by a 30 minute question and answer session with both of the speakers on stage. However, Russell was unable to stay. The session was replaced with a Q&A session featuring Hugh and two of the day´s other speakers, Mark Hancock and Silvana Richardson. In principle, the panel would take questions on any topic, but inevitably, in the mood set by Hugh´s closing talk, the questions tended to relate to tech in ELT. The tenor of the three speakers´ responses was that while tech is fine, its virtues are often overstated, and it must be used judiciously.

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