28 February 2016

No, I'm not a 'proficient English language speaker'

I’ve just been on Dave’s ESL Cafe. Not because I want to work 60 hours a week in a ropey kindergarten, but to see how companies are wording their recruitment ads these days. And amongst others, I found:

______ is recruiting female full time native-speaker teachers of English (Saudi Arabia);

We are currently looking for a full-time native English speaking teacher (Thailand); and

A small independent school in ______ is looking for experienced NATIVE English teachers (Japan – the caps are theirs).

So it seems that, yes, in spite of brilliant recent work from TEFL Equity Advocates and others, teachers are still being sought on the basis of their mother tongue instead of their qualifications. I want to say categorically that I think this is wrong. Utterly wrong. I’ve learned foreign languages from native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNS) and it’s been an insignificant factor in their competence. The former are quicker on collocations, perhaps, while the latter tend to have better grammatical awareness – but really, these are just stereotypes that cancel each other out. I want a teacher who knows what they’re doing and doesn’t stress me out. That’s it.

Click for bigger cartoon (credit http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/

But the debate is taking an interesting turn. Last month, Laura Soracco wrote a popular post about doing away with the NS/NNS dichotomy altogether, which was picked up this week in a heated (OK, gas mark 2) Twitter exchange between Russ Mayne and others. Russ tweeted:

NS and NNS may be ‘flawed terms’ but that’s no reason to stop using them.

…and to be honest, my first reaction was oh Russ come on. So were several other people’s, apparently. Then I thought a bit more and realised we’re in danger of conflating two separate conversations.

For recruitment purposes, it’s pretty clear we should stop using the NS and NNS labels. They’re vague, they’re used to discriminate, and the non- prefix can’t help but imply deviation from the 'normal' or the desirable. Laura suggests proficient English language speaker, bilingual or multilingual as preferable terms to NNS, which any sensible person would surely struggle to disagree with.

However. For real life purposes, you know what? I’m not a proficient English language speaker. (Hang on, wait for the rest.) I’m a native speaker. I’m a native bloody speaker, like a Dane speaks Danish or a Turk speaks Turkish. I can emit sounds in several other languages, but I'm far from bi- or multilingual. English is the language of my dreams, my crap jokes, my blazing rows, my memories, my 3am confessions. For better or worse, it's the lens through which I see the world. Does that make me a superior teacher? Emphatically, no. But English is a massive, integral part of my identity that also happens to be the international language. Do I recognise all the unfair advantages conferred on me because I grew up speaking it? Absolutely. But I can’t truly be sorry about something as random as the circumference of my head, nor can I adopt, without hypocrisy, any made-up word that obscures or downplays what I am. I am English; hear me roar!

The real point, I suppose, is that we should have each others’ backs. It's not a zero sum game in which one group must be quashed for the other to rise (see also: feminism). At work it matters not one iota whether we were, as kids, read bedtime stories or histoires or , and it’s all of our responsibility to challenge prejudice against bilingual English teachers in job adverts, from colleagues and students, or in the wider world. But by the same token, when we’re out of school we should respect each others’ right to define our own language use, however we see fit – and however flawed the terms may be.

12 March 2015

Yes, you can break a window with an ashtray (some thoughts on learning ภาษาไทย)

If you can see my scrawlings, don't read them.
I’ve been learning Thai for eight months now. I go to the Walen International School of Achievement (two-fifths of whose name can be taken at face value) and I’m having a pretty bizarre time, partly because of all the purple, but mostly because of their highly specific and counterintuitive method. So I thought I’d share.

This is our coursebook. Clearly there’s quite a lot to say about this in design terms, but that’s a wholenother post. The point is that it consists of groups of words, followed by questions and answers containing those words, and that’s it. Each lesson goes like this:

14:00-14:20  In a circle, student 1 reads a question aloud. Student 2 answers and reads the next question aloud. Student 3 answers, etc.

14:20-14:50  Teacher 1 reads questions to each student in turn. Students are meant to respond with the exact answer in the book, but teacher 1 allows some divergence from the model.

14:50-15:00  Break. Students frantically learn words for the spelling test.

15:00-15:10  Spelling test (15 words).

15:10-15:50  Teacher 2 reads questions to each student in turn. Students are meant to respond with the exact answer in the book and teacher 2 insists on this quite strongly. However, teacher 2 also makes up questions of her own and expects students to say the exact answer in her head, which is quite the parlour game.

15:50-16:00  Students exchange looks, collect spelling papers and go back to their lives.

I should probably add a note about the questions and answers here, which is that they’re not immediately usable at a bus station or the doctor’s. Two genuine examples:

She’s got four arms, hasn’t she? No, she hasn’t got four arms. She’s got two arms. (I suppose at a push you could slip this one in at the doctor’s.)

You can break a window with an ashtray, can’t you? Yes, you can break a window with an ashtray.

And one more note about the levels, because this is the second level class. In the first level class, the structure is basically the same, but the students just take turns to spell out words. For two hours.

So that’s Walen. Sort of Callanesque, except if I was at a Callan school I’m convinced I’d have twice the communicative competence by now. I dread the lessons and squirm my way through them, terrified of making mistakes, longing for just two or three minutes of explicit grammar instruction or any kind of fun at all. And yet. AND YET.

I can’t help wondering if Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr/Rev Walen is some kind of evil genius, because I can basically use Thai although I’ve been a dreadful student. I only have six hours of lessons a week, I do virtually nothing outside of class…and I can kind of read signs and menus. Slowly, but it’s Thailand and who’s rushing? Vocabulary I don’t remember learning will suddenly pop into my head, especially words with the diphthongs เอือะ (eua) or เอือ (euaa) in them, since they are two of the silliest and most satisfying noises humans are capable of producing. And again, I’m sure my tones are all over the shop, but it’s Chiang Mai and who’s judging?

Evil or genius? Lest anyone is thinking of signing up to the Walen International School of Achievement, I’ve knocked up a short list of pros and cons. You’re welcome.

Why the Walen method might be a bit genius

1. The initial focus on reading makes a lot of sense, because you’re not relying on unstandardised and imperfect transliterations of Thai phonemes. And the first time you manage to sound out ก๋วยเตี๋ยว (noodles) on a food stall without help you just want to jump in the noodles, whooping.

2. Thanks to the endless repetition of the same material (we’ve been through the book multiple times), it’s possible to absorb a lot of lexis by osmosis. Imagine what I could do if I actually put in the hours and left myself vocab post-its all over the house! Oh, good intentions, road to hell.

3. You’re forced to pay attention. Your turn to read aloud comes around every couple of minutes, so you can’t take your eye off the ball. It’s stressful, but it’s also stopped me doodling and staring at the Japanese ice-cream festival downstairs.

Walen. It's purple. It just is.
4. Experienced Walen teachers say very little. They don’t give you much time before they prompt you, and they often interrupt to correct your pronunciation (hello again Callan), but they don’t actually say a lot. That means you can focus on the key language in the book without having to decode the teacher’s stream of consciousness. However, see also point 4 below.

Why the Walen method is in fact unmitigated evil

1. It makes you feel rubbish. Walen operates a roll-on, roll-off system so you’re properly chucked in at the deep end and have no idea what’s going on. The first class vexed me so much that I managed to learn all 76 letters in the 48 hours before the next one, which was ultimately a good thing but seriously, hashtag affective filter.

2. There’s no explanation of anything, either written or spoken, so you’re forced to either (a) draw your own, possibly erroneous, conclusions about the language, or (b) ask the teacher, who may or may not have the English / ability to grade their Thai / subject knowledge to answer your question anyway.

3. The cognitive load is too heavy, too quickly. For example, I’m supposed to learn how to spell 45 words per week. In the first place I’m pretty sure there are some data somewhere that say people can’t deal with groups of more than 10 things, and in the second, because there’s no explanation of spelling rules, it becomes a sort of visual memory test. Which of the six /k/ consonants do I need? ARGH.

4. Inexperienced Walen teachers talk constantly and with scant regard for the fact that they’re in an elementary class. That is all.

I’ve got four months left on my current education visa, during which time I will likely be shunted up to the third level class. I’m horrified at the prospect – but also curious as to whether they’ll start actually telling us what’s going on. Or heaven forfend mix things up from one lesson to the next, or have us chat to another student for five minutes, or throw in a snakes and ladders past tense review. Dark laugh. They do say teachers are the worst students.

10 September 2014

Why everyone in listening texts is a moron

If you’ve ever done voice work for an ELT listening text, I apologise. This is not a criticism of your acting abilities. I’m sure you did your best to imbue the dialogue with the gravity, levity or Marco-from-Brazil accent it required – but you still came off as a moron. Wow, that film sounds really interesting! Shall we see it together? Hey settle, Malibu Stacy. I love science-fiction films! What kind of films do you like? What, seriously? Oh, right. I like romantic films. Can’t get enough of that shit, matter of fact. My favourite film is The Notebook*. Have you seen The Notebook**?

via http://savona93.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07
Why are listening texts so crap? If I was an actor, I’d probably blame the writer. But I’m a writer, so I’m going to say that actually, although I have penned 10 appalling dialogues this very afternoon, it’s not (entirely) my fault either. And this is why.

Listening texts are inherently crap, and they always have been. Back in the day, when men were men and a television set was a luxury, they sort of made sense. In 2014, it’s nothing short of madness (Dear Hackney Council) to persist with them. When, in the real world, do you listen to, but not participate in, a conversation between two or more people that you can’t see? EAVESDROPPING, that’s when. And while eavesdropping may be a skill worth learning in both a first and second language, it ought to be part of a much, much larger aural repertoire.

Listening texts are crap for the same reason that radio advertising is crap: in the absence of visuals, context must be made verbally explicit. In Listening World, if someone spills their milkshake on my skirt I have to say Ohhhh! The milkshake is all over my skirt! in a ludicrous Home Counties way, because you can’t see the milkshake or my skirt or my terribly British, trying-not-to-mind face. What would actually happen (in normal Britain) is something like

A: Oh god, I’m so sorry.
B: Don’t worry about it. It’ll come off.
A: Are you sure? Sorry. God, SORRY. I’m really sorry.

On top of the visual issue, writers are often asked, for the purpose of exemplification, to shoehorn particular vocab items or grammatical structures into their dialogues – resulting in formality where there should be idiom, full sentences where there should be ellipsis, and ‘short answers’ that make you sound like you’ve got a twig up your bum. Can you speak Turkish? Yes, I can. Bzzzz. The correct answer is either Yeah a bit (if you’re fully proficient) or Haha no (if you’re not).

And that’s before you’ve even started on level-grading and appropriacy. For its apparent simplicity, the dialogue above is a nightmare on toast: come off is a phrasal verb at C2 (i.e. the highest possible) level; Are you sure? actually means ‘thanks for being nice about this’; and you can’t put god in there because religion and don’t take the lord’s global marketplace in vain.

So basically there are three problems – visuals, shoehorning and levels – with, I think, three reasonably straightforward solutions. If I was a proper writer who designed her own materials from scratch instead of spooning and smoothing words into someone else’s template, I would of COURSE implement these straight away. But I’m not, I’m just having a grumble, so proper authors (and dogmeticians) will just have to take responsibility until I pull my finger out. Many thanks in advance.

Visuals. Why are we still just listening to dialogues, when we can easily watch them? We have DVD players, laptops, projectors, interactive whiteboards, tablets and smartphones. Yes, there are classrooms around the world where none of this technology is present, but right now we’re treating those exceptions as the norm to the detriment of everyone else. There’s no reason to keep churning out ‘pure’ listening texts except maaaybe for certain context-free pronunciation activities, or because That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It. Which is pretty much the worst reason for doing anything, ever.

Shoehorning. The issue here is that we’re working backwards. Instead of writing a dialogue around a lexical set or grammar point, why aren’t we finding authentic dialogues and highlighting the language that’s actually used? As long as we work in this arse-over-tit way, even well-intentioned writers with desktop shortcuts to four different corpora are making their own lives more difficult and feeding students artificial language in the process.

"Excuse me. Have you ever won a
competition? What did you win?"
Levels. But what about the levelz? You can’t just go chucking authentic dialogue at beginners. Or can you? In a short exchange, is there any reason why we can’t focus on short chunks and collocations? The lexical approach says not (example: I knew and used the common Thai phrase mai bpen rai – ‘no problem’ – long before I knew the meaning of its three component words). If we insist on sticking to present simple and continuous at A1, present perfect simple at A2 and so on, we condemn learners to endless spiralling drivel about what time Zhang Li eats breakfast and whether Mohammed has ever ridden a horse. Motivation? Relevance? Poof.

I know I’m oversimplifying. More nuanced takes on the issue would be welcome. I’m just bored of scripting vacuous conversations and cross with myself for adding to the problem. Everyone in listening texts is not a moron; they’re forced to speak a version of English that doesn’t exist outside of coursebooks. But if, in five years’ time, we’re still skipping to track 32 and wondering why grown people are not fascinated by Maria’s morning ablutions…well, that makes all of us pretty moronic.

* My favourite film is Jurassic Park. ** I have never seen The Notebook.

19 April 2014

Don't mention the blog

I had a frustrating interview on Thursday. It was for an 11-week job teaching peacekeeping English in Burundi, and given the unusual nature and duration of the post I thought we’d probably have a chat about the specifics of the work, and how stuff I’ve done before could be relevant. Which was naïve, as I’ve worked for this organisation on and off for five years, and I know that’s not how they roll. This organisation uses a set of ‘behaviours’ to recruit staff, asking every candidate the exact same question and awarding points based on how many boxes your answer ticks. It makes the process transparent; I get that. But all too often it becomes a game of guess-what’s-in-my-head.

I mentioned it once
Click for image source
The interviewer asked me, ‘Can you tell me about a time when you went the extra mile to seek information?’ I thought for a moment and told her how, as a teacher mentor in Bornean primary schools, I’d often felt disconnected from my colleagues. There was no mid-morning chitchat over Milo since the other mentors worked miles away from me. So I joined Twitter. I slowly cultivated a PLN (personal learning network). I started reading and commenting on ELT blogs. After a couple of months, I felt bold enough to start my own. I wrote about what was happening in my schools and got really useful feedback that I could use right away in my work. Based on recommendations from people in my PLN I began to read more widely, watch conference presentations online and attend webinars. Basically, I spent months of my free time connecting with people in the virtual world to improve my professional practice, because a gap in the real world needed plugging.

I could almost her ears glazing over (it was a phone interview). There was a pause, and she said, ‘OK. But can you tell me about a time when you really went the extra mile to get information?’

Excuse me while I stab this (four-colour) pen into my thigh. You mean that time I hiked across the savannah to get the final clue to Stephen Krashen's Best Treasure Hunt for Girls? I heard your question the first time. Did you hear my answer? Or did you just hear, ‘Blah blah internetz blah blah’? Because now all I'm hearing is, ‘I don’t use Twitter and I don’t blog, so I’m choosing not to understand what you said. I’ll repeat the question to see if you can give me one of the examples on my list right here.’

I dunno. Maybe my answer really was crap and I should’ve come up with something else. But I didn’t. I said (less eloquently than this), ‘Perhaps I made it sound easier or quicker than it was, because it was also enjoyable. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a better answer to give you.’

I’ll find out today if I blew the interview. I suspect I did, and it’s kind of fine, as I’ve been having second thoughts since a friend said to me yesterday – and was right – ‘You know, if you want to be a writer, you need to write more and stop taking teaching jobs for the sake of seeing interesting places.’ But it’s also annoying. 

Although I blog less frequently than I used to, I’m a Twitter evangelist to the point of irritation. I’ve learned more since I joined than in 10 years of inane compulsory INSETs, and I want to tell the world! Except that half of the ELT world, including a lot of managers responsible for recruitment, have little idea what I’m talking about and apparently little interest, either. It’s not that I think everyone should be on Twitter. If it’s not your thing, fine. But it’s my thing, and interviewer, I think candidates deserve to be listened to when they give valid answers that happen to be outside of your experience.

10 March 2014

Where's the pleasure in teaching?

A long time ago, in an ESOL context far, far away, I asked a colleague to cover my class because I had to take an exam …

Lovely colleague: Sure.

Me: Shall I leave you a lesson plan and some materials?

Lovely colleague: I'll do my own thing, if you don't mind. Teaching someone else's lesson feels a bit like wearing someone else's shoes.

… and that analogy has always stayed with me. Because that’s exactly what it’s like.

Lydia Mann, "teaching_5052" September 29, 2005 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

At the organisation where I’m working now – for three more days – we’re piloting a new project. How it works is this: adult students can enrol online for individual classes of 90 minutes. They can see which teacher will deliver them, and what the content will be. Each lesson is standalone, so learners can attend every day / once a week / once a month / just once, as they choose. The materials are pre-prepared, so teachers can simply turn up and print them off, and divergence from the materials is not allowed.

This blows.

And presumably it’s too late to sack me for saying this, so I will say again: THIS REALLY BLOWS.

The title of this post – ‘Where’s the pleasure in teaching?’ – is not facetious (i.e. ‘Where’s the fun in that?’). I mean, literally, what is it that makes teaching pleasurable? I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, because this pilot takes away three conditions that generally make teaching a great job: the scope for autonomy, creativity and connection.


I don’t want to wear someone else’s shoes. It just doesn’t feel right, even if they’re limited edition Converse, and to be honest, more often than not, they’re Bata sandals which could do with re-heeling. Sound the analogy klaxons!

The teachers at our centre are being asked to use materials designed by people who work in different contexts from ours, who may or may not be professional resource developers. This would be of no consequence if the materials could be adapted, but they can’t, so in many cases experienced teachers are delivering lessons of a lower quality than they otherwise might. Which seriously doesn’t make sense.

Maybe, just maybe, when I was fresh off my CELTA I would have appreciated this zero-prep, one-size-fits-all approach. But more than 10 years down the line, to have it imposed as a modus operandi with no consultation is frustrating and diminishing.


I’m slightly biased, perhaps, because I’m also an ELT materials writer. Turning complex ideas into coherent activities makes me very happy (oh yes, I shall impose my bento box order on the world). But of course, that’s not the only way to be creative. Braver teachers than me enter their classrooms with nothing more than a board pen and an idea, and run with whatever their students throw at them.

There’s an enduring cliché that most TEFL teachers are failed actors. Whilst I’m not sure that’s true, I think an awful lot of us are frustrated creatives. Some of the most brilliant people I know are underemployed TEFL teachers who only stay in the job because they have the freedom to experiment, and to design engaging programmes of learning based on what students actually want and need. When you take that away, you take a good chunk of teacher motivation away with it.


The biggest downside of this pilot is that you never know who will be in your class. OK, I can see how, on one hand, this might be an advantage. It keeps things fresh. But developing a rapport with students is one of the most rewarding and, I would go as far as to say, necessary elements of good teaching. There’s a reason why it’s assessed in observed lessons. It’s also important for students to build rapport with each other so they become more confident and take more risks, and it makes me uneasy to work on a project that immediately alienates more introverted students.

I want to find out over time what makes my students tick: what factors in their personal lives might keep them away from class; what kind of learning experience will bring them back again. I want to feel, at the end of a term or an academic year, that we’ve all somehow moved forward together. I just want to remember their names, frankly. But within this system, I can’t.

*  *  *

I always worry that I only blog to vent. I can’t pretend I’m not vexed right now, but in fact I just wanted to get my thoughts straight and take away something positive from this job. And I think the positive thing is that, if we consider what makes teaching pleasurable for us, we can ask better questions in interviews and find posts that support our individual priorities. So I guess mine would be:

* Will I be allowed to work autonomously, or are there systems in place which limit this?
* What opportunities for creative work are there for teachers?
* Are classes timetabled to allow teachers to develop a connection with their students?

For you, where’s the pleasure in teaching? What questions should we all start asking in interviews?