Posts Tagged ‘EMF5’

My final talk summary from E-merging Forum 5 is a summary of a plenary talk by Jane Allemano on assessing speaking, in which she analyzed what it means to be ‘a good speaker’, compared that to what’s tested in many modern exams and suggested how we can bring assessment closer to what we need to be testing. 

Two questions to ask about a test:

  • Does the test test what it’s supposed to test?
  • Does it have a positive effective effect on what happens in the classroom?

Before we can answer the first question, we need to understand what it is that we need to test.

What we need to test when assessing speaking

Ostensibly, the factors that we need to take into account (and they are assessment criteria of most modern high-stakes exams, e.g. IELTS or Cambridge Exams suite) are:

  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Pronunciation (though this is a contentious thing – We don’t need to be native-like, but what is comfortable intelligibility – which depends on the listener?)
  • Coherence and cohesion – organization of speech, ability to produce a long utterance
  • Interactive competence – responding, turn-taking, agreeing-disagreeing, listening, body language

However, are they all equally important? What’s also crucial?

You talk to your friends differently from the way you talk to your boss, which is an example of choices we make while speaking. Where does that fall in the criteria outlined above? Nowhere, it’s absent.

These choices are studied by pragmatics: 

  • ‘The study of how meaning is created in context’ McCarthy (1991) Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers
  • Context dependent rather than context independent’ Levinson SC (1983) Pragmatics Cambridge:CUP

Let’s look at those choices from the perspective or Hyme’s Speech acts.

Act: a joke
Event: conversation
Situation: Party
Community: friends
Outcome: easy to make a joke because there’s shared understaning of what counts as a joke

Act: a joke
Event: presentation
Situation: International conference
Community: the audience
Outcome: you might choose not to make a joke because you’ve got no understanding of what counts as a joke

Here are some other pragmatic functions that me might want to realize in daily communication:

we do in order to gain
amuse/impress appreciation
inform understanding
promote action support
exchange cooperation, you’ll want your listeners to take part in the conversation.

Doing this successfully is not just about semantics.

Take, for example directness in Russian vs English. Living in Russia, J.A. was getting increasingly annoyed with the Russian way of giving advice because it came across as an order.

  • The Russian way of giving advice: ‘You need to take the dog to the vet’ (not even saying ‘I think’). ‘You don’t eat enough meat.’
  • The English way of saying this: I’ve just noticed that the dog is limping a bit. Maybe you’ve seen this? I think that maybe you might want to take it to the vet.

(J.A. mentioned that there’s a PhD thesis on that, if you’d like more detail.)

Factors that inform good choices: 

  • physical context (time and space)
  • social context (status, relationship, shared knowledge)
  • function (persuasion, entertainment, advice)
  • culture (convention – e.g. Relevance, organization).

So what do good speakers have?

  • Socio-cultural knowledge
  • Genre knowledge
  • Discourse knowledge…
  • [and so on]

and use appropriate

  • framing
  • register
  • tone
  • [and so on]

What do we in fact test?

Let’s go back to Speech Acts to to analyze a typical exam situation.

Act: giving an opinion
Event: Discussion
Situation: Exam
Community: judged and the judged

Emerging issues. In an examiner-test-taker interview:

  • restricted range of types of talk
  • unbalanced power distribution (examiner manages the interaction, suddenly saying ‘Thank you’ and asking you another question)
  • interlocutor frame (examiners adhere to a script so that all candidates get the same language from the examiners and so that; examiners can’t respond, even backhannel or encourage)
  • focus of the examiner (how you’re speaking, not what you’re saying).

An answer:

A paired or group format?


  • reflects the real world (most of the time you’re speaking to your peer);
  • encourages interaction in the classroom, so this has positive washback on the classroom;
  • allows a broader range of language functions because candidates are not just answering question;
  • creates more speaking time for the candidates; allows more interactional symmetry.

Is this a fair test? Not always. Research findings:

  • The test takers have more turns, compared to the examiners
  • The test takers has more opportunities for initiating topics
  • There is more collaborative development of topics
  • The effect of background variables is higher
  • There’s more variety of speech functions


  • language level
  • personality (extrovert/introvert), familiarity (husband and wife might be candidates – lots of shared knowledge that they don’t overtly say, so they say less + they’re not used to speaking to each other in English)
  • cultural capital
  • gender
  • status

However, the significant amount of research show that those factors don’t make that much difference. Also, one might argue about these variables that this is life!

So, suggested approach:

  • A range of task types, only one of which is paired
  • Use of analytical and global criteria and scales

Further issues

Does introducing paired tasks make the test situation completely life-like? Not quite. If we look back at pragmatic intentions of everyday life, they are to amuse, inform, instruct, etc. However, during the test, the candidate’s intention is to demonstrate linguistic and socio linguistic competence (Simpson 2006), and this mismatch might affect the candidates’ level.

To demonstrate, Jane Allemano gave an example of a test she observed. Candidates were given the task to describe the place where they lived. They were clearly not interested neither in the topic nor in each other and were going through the motions of answering the question. However, at one point of the conversation, one candidate mentioned that they moved from a certain London neighbourhood because it wasn’t safe. Another candidate got interested, because they were staying in that same neighbourhood. Interestingly, as soon as the discussion turned into a genuine one, with candidates reassuring each other, their level of English went up.



One of the most exciting sessions of Day 2 of the E-merging Forum 5 for me was Alexandra Chistyakova’s workshop on teaching grammar to kids. Other participants clearly loved it too and after Alexandra’s talk there was a bit of a battle for handouts. Here are the notes that I took during the talk – but also read a post on Alexandra’s blog.  

Alexandra’s teaching experience is very diverse and it taught her one simple truth: we never teach adults and children in the same way. This realization made her look for practical ideas to make lessons with YLs more effective and more fun. As a result Alexandra came up with the idea of Lesson shells.


Shells in the picture provide structure and secure the living creature or the structure. In the same way, lesson shells provide a structure for the lesson and secure the learners. Especially when we talk about teaching grammar to YLs, they need ‘securing’ because a lot of them think of grammar as hard, dull, lifeless, etc.

So, what could provide a structure and the sense of security? Alexandra suggests shaping lessons around stories 

  • to explain grammar rules;
  • to practice them

Explaining grammar through stories

One of the stories that Alexandra shared was called ‘Town of Verbs’:


Verbs were very very happy because they lived only in the present and they didn’t remember the past. Once two little verbs climbed to the attic and found a chest with memories. When they opened it, out of the chest flew the memories of town dwellers. The memories started floating around the town and the verbs got their memories back. Not everyone responded to their memories in the same way. Some just accepted them. Some lit up like candles, delighted with their memories. Some blocked them. Some underwent complete transformation. But little kids didn’t change at all, because they didn’t’ have any memories!

  • Alexandra shared more stories for explaining grammar, and she promised to write another post about them on her blog.

Practicing grammar through stories

  • Turning sorting tasks into stories:IMG_20150313_150531_1As the lesson progressed, this idea was developed and the final ‘test’ took the form of a ‘Lie detector’ (the verbs that the learner remembered ‘went home’ and when she forgot them again, they went back to prison).
  • Hungry octopuses & Jelly fish – getting the learner to feed the correct words to the correct monster.
    If her student made a mistake, Alexandra made some funny digestive noises, which was a lot of fun!
  • Quick Games. Broken Magic Wands.
    The task was to write past tenses of verbs – which would be boring for a YL. Alexandra came up with the idea of saying that crayons are magic wand that makes the learner write the verbs correctly. If she made a mistake, the magic wand had stopped working and she needed to take another one.

Tips for good grammar stories

  • Make the story close to learners’ lives. E.g. in one story Alexandra used the name of the learner’s pet – to arouse interest and to establish an emotional bond with the story.IMG_20150313_145615_1
  • Draw ideas for stories from the environment (the mood of the learner, recent event, surrounding noises, objects that can be used as material) to come up with new stories and establish the emotional bond with your learner.
  • Make the story cohesive – it should sound logical, truthful and natural.
  • If the story is a bit sophisticated, use the mother-tongue – the target is to create a picture in the learner’s mind!
  • Invite learners to help you create the story.
  • Magic is magic – don’t overuse it!


Another very inspiring session. Unfortunately I don’t teach young learners, but hope to come up with a way to sneak some of these ideas into my classroom. 

Memes – by analogy with genes – transmit information, carry cultural ideas, symbols or practices. They self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. In her highly dynamic session, Anastasia Fetisova made a very strong case that memes can be a highly motivating teaching tool.

Possible uses of memes:

  • Introduce vocabulary / slang through memes. Students will be motivated to ‘crack’ the meme in order to get the pun!
  • Introduce grammar
  • Explore cultural norms – e.g. the fact that they didn’t understand this picture, set Anastasia’s students on a webquest
  • To spark discussion – e.g. on internet addition
  • Get the students to create their own memes – to try out language (they’ll do lots of editing) or to give you feedback in a fun way

Sources: and are teacher and student friendly

You can also create them using online meme makers, e.g. using keepcalm-o-matic (also teacher-friendly).

 Hit meme types

  • One doesn’t simply – e.g. to introduce class rules.
  • What I really do  is a great springboard for discussing pros and cons of different careers.
  • Chemistry cat – could great for ESP
  • Terrible teacher – to look at ourselves from a different perspective. =)

A very inspiring session!

Catherine Walter started off the second day of E-merging Forum 5 with a plenary reviewing current approaches to teaching grammar and how their efficiency is corroborated by experiments. I’m very interested in this topic, particularly in the overview of evidence, so I was really looking forward to this talk.


  • How to teach grammar? Overview of approaches
  • Why this way and not that way? Overview of evidence
  • When – before or after the task? Who chooses what to teach – the teacher beforehand or should we react to the learner’s need?
  • How much explicit grammar teaching?
  • How to teach x2: what is ‘a good rule‘? A good example? A good exercise? In what order should they appear?
  • The role of pronunciation

NB The ideas on teaching grammar outlined here are based on research applicable to middle school and above learners – not YLs.

Catherine Walter started the talk with a quiz for the audience. Grammar: True or false?

  • If people learn enough vocab, they’ll acquire the grammar of the language
  • The best way to teach grammar is to wait unteel the need for a specific grammar point emerges, and then teach it
  • The best way to teach grammar is via tasks
  • There is evidence that teaching grammar rules works

For a quick overview of the answers and the talk, here the final slide. For more detail, read on.

Catherine Walter

How to teach? Overview of approaches:

Explicit (through rules) or implicit (through exposure, examples, etc)? How to provide practice?

  • Exposure. Necessary? Sufficient?
    Just exposure is insufficient, which was clearly demonstrated by Canadian immersion programmes who were trying Krashen’s idea that comprehensible input is enough: after 12 years of all-day-long immersion the students’ spoken and written production was still non-standard.
  • Explicit teaching. Input-interaction-output model says conscious knowledge is useful – ‘crutches’ that hold you until you can walk w/o the crutches – which sounds Vygotskian!
    >>> Explicit teaching helps noticing: Example: if your L1 has only one word for ‘yes’ and L2 has more, you might not notice that. But if someone tells you about this, you’ll notice;
    >>> encourages comparison of noticed input with the learner’s output, can convert directly into unconscious knowledge and
    >>> can provide negative feedback, i.e. the knowledge of what doesn’t happen in the language (which is more difficult to get from input)
  • Tasks. When tasks appeared, they were seen as a panacea. But now it’s not clear how well they work so that’s definitely not ‘the obviously best way’. Explicit grammar instruction can be (and should be) part of task-based instruction.
  • Skills approach: the behaviourism is re-emerging in a way: we do need to practice to build our skills.

Why? Overview of the evidence

Is there any evidence that explicit grammar teaching works?

Norris & Ortega review (2000) found that explicit teaching is better than implicit

Gass & Selinker (2008) review: after early childhood, acquiring complex forms requires both meaningful input and explicit grammar focus

Spada & Tomita (2010): explicit better than implicit on simple & complex features, effects last

A possible counter-argument: if you teach them grammar rules, do they only learn grammar rules?

Spada & Lightbown (2008): form-focused input leads to conscious and unconscious knowledge over time

When to teach what?

Two options: first teach then give a task, or feed in grammar exactly when the learners needs it.
Problem with the second approach #1: different people in class will have different needs.
Problem #2: you won’t be able to always think on your feed to respond to the needs.
Relax: Spada & Tomita (2010) found that it doesn’t matter, Both isolated and integrated form-focused instruction lead to conscious and unconscious grammar knowledge; no clear advantage for either kind of form-focuses input.

How much explicit grammar teaching?

Catherine recommends checking out Paul Nation’s (2009) work. The four strands of language instruction, which according to Nation need equal time:

  • Meaning-focused input
  • Meaning-focused output
  • Language-focused learning (rules/pron/how writing works/..)
  • Fluency development (activities tat help you get faster and more automatic – activities might be quite artificial, like scales in learning to play a musical instrument).

So according to Nation, and Catherine Walter agrees, Language-focused learning (rules/pron/how writing works/..) takes up one fourth of the course.

How to teach x2. The three Es

  • Explanations (rules). However: there are different kinds of rules.
    g. ‘No cycles, whether ridden or not!’ is imposed by an authority
    ‘At sea level water boils at 100 Celsius.’ – an expression of an observed regularity.
    very often s/s think that language rules are bicycle rules, but they are boiling water rules
  • Examples
  • Exercises

The order of the 3 Es

  • Deductive: explanations > examples > exercises
  • Inductive: examples > guiding the s/s towards the rule (explanations) > exercises; useful to demonstrate to s/s that our rules are ‘boiling water’ rules + more appealing to the s/s who don’t like authority + means that they cognitively process the rule more deeply, so they might remember it better

What is ‘a good rule’? According to Swan (‘Design criteria for pedagogical rules’) a good rule should

  • be true (not like ‘The past tense refers to a DEFINITE time in the past – what about ‘Once upon a time?’)
  • clearly what are the limits on the use (a pika is a smal rodent with small ears – this definition doesn’t differentiate the pika from the mouse; ‘The present perfect continuous tense is used for an action which began in the past and is still continuing, or has only just finished – does not demarcate. ‘I’m speaking to you’ fits that ‘rule’)
  • be clear and simple without sacrificing the truth
  • (preferably) only uses the knowledge that the learners currently have (e.g. for the first teaching of ‘much and many’ – can we not use ‘countable and uncontable’?
  • be relevant: should answer the question that the learner is ‘asking’
    My sister Marie-France is hairdresser. She works in Lyon.
    My sister Olga is hairdresser. She works in Volgograd.
    The two learners who produced that have very different L1s and so they will need completely different rules here!

A good example:

  • Needs to be prototypical
  • Natural sounding & not containing irrelevant difficulties (inspired by corpora, but not necessarily from a corpus – might contain too difficult vocabulary, cultural references etc) – The oxen are stepping on my feed is not a good example =)

How many examples:

Just one-two not enough: Goldilocks principle (not too big, not too small, just right


  • Nothing wrong with exercises! Our concentration capacity is limited (which is exemplified e.g. by the fact that mobile phone use has overtaken alcohol as the biggest cause of accidents in the UK), exercises let one focus. Also, they develop fluency + there’s evidence that focusing on one or two language features is better than focusing on a range of language features.
  • A good exercise combines quality and quality to ensure deep cognitive processing (a communicative ‘have you ever’ might look like a drill but not be a drill in terms of processing)

Productive and receptive pronunciation

  • Grammar teaching should go hand in hand with teaching receptive pronunciation, because some grammar points are very difficult to hear
  • Examples of grammar points that are difficult to distinguish: Regular present simple and regular past simple (She walk to school / She walks to school);
    questions: Do you work on Sat / Did you work on Sat, etc
  • How to teach receptive pronunciation?
    Decoding activities: A or B? Same or different? Odd one out (walks, walked, walks, walks); Write the word; how many words? Sentence dictation

Back to the quiz

  • If people learn enough vocab, they’ll acquire the grammar of the language
    Yes, but they’d need to learn a huge amount of lexis and they’ll never learn enough vocabulary.
  • The best way to teach grammar is to wait until the need for a specific grammar point emerges, and then teach it
    Probably true.. but this isn’t possible in most instructed language
  • The best way to teach grammar is via tasks
  • There is evidence that teaching grammar rules works


All in all, this was a very enjoyable, informative talk and I’ll definitely be digging up some of the articles that Catherine Walter mentioned. 

Zhenya shared his tips for running an online course. He has done this twice, running a writing course called My First Preprint (online) at Higher School of Economics Academic Writing Center.

Course description:

  • Completely online (first delivered through wiziq, but then they switched to anymeeting, which is free of charge), group size: 20 s/s
  • Learning by doing – working and re-working their own texts. A product-oriented course
  • Very intensive with strict schedules (writing a paper within a 3-month period – a challenge, but a manageable one)
  • Peer review
  • ‘One size fits all’ approach (people from a range of fields, e.g. economics, logic, linguistics)

Technology stack (all free of charge):

  • Anymeeting to deliver webinars
  • Skype for one-to-one meetings and group discussions for peer feedback
  • Schoology – a platform where they created virtual classes – discussions, threads, materials. Zhenya recommends creating an account because this will allow you to transfer all your materials to another course.

Structure of the course

Six 180-minute webinars – each covering one part of a paper (Intro/literature overview / methodology & results / findings / … ), led by two different tutors – interlaid with homework done through schoology. Between webinars, 1-2-1 proofreading sessions with tutors or native speakers, distant proofreading, online peer correction with a tutor.

Potential problems and some tips

Creating webinars:

  • Webinar preparation is time consuming (It took Zhenya up to 4 hours to prepare a one-hour class)
  • Requires clear structure. Plan well ahead and know what you’re doing – you can’t ‘go with your students’, since they can’t even see you
  • Show consistency – let each webinar follow the same structure, because you’re also educating s/s to work with you
  • Should be entertaining! Zhenya’s rule of thumb is ~1 slide per minute. To add interactivity, get the s/s to type their answers in the chat box – works a lot better than online converstation because headsets normally don’t work, there’s echo etc

For a successful online course:

  • To avoid high drop-out rates, make the structure of the course crystal clear. S/s need to know what happens when, what the rules for attendance are, etc.
    Start each webinar by reminding what has been covered, when you meet next, etc
    Send the s/s a reminder 3 days before each deadline, so that they don’t lose track and don’t start procrastinating. On Zhenya Bakin’s course drop-out rate was ~35%
  • Be prepared to support s/s with technology – they’ll have technology issues, be ready to come up with tips what to do
  • Show enthusiasm. Online teaching is like fairies: they die if you don’t believe in them. Give people support.

Check out Zhenya’s group and his website or email him at

Olga Rotko did an very interesting session on how cultural differences play out in academic discourse. I don’t work at university, but I still really enjoyed the insights into cultures and the examples that she shared.


  • International writing styles (contrastive rhetorics)
  • Differences between Russian and American academic discourse

International writing styles

  • Semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrey, etc). These languages use a lot of metaphors and prefer long-winded descriptions to short ones.
  • Oriental (Japanese, Korean) etc avoid stating things directly (they start with explanations and then arrive at the main point. E.g. instead of saying ‘I feel homesick’ and then explaining why, speakers will first talk about their life in their motherland and only then conclude I feel homesick).
  • In English the rhetoric is traditionally linear, explicit and takes the reader straight to the point. English text employs a lot of discourse markers

Problems begin when a style is used with an audience that expects a different style. E.g. the English way or organizing a workshop is to provide an intro and a summary: Here’s what I’m going to tell you about > telling you about this > here’s what I’ve told you about.  However, a Russian audience might feel patronized.

How to address this?

Very often this is simply a matter of awareness. E.g. Petric, ‘Contrastive rhetoric in the writing classroom: a case study’.  Experiment: Petric asked the s/s to write an essay and identified that they didn’t use topic sentences. She then explained the principles of English essay writing explicitly and over 90% of the students produced the second essay ‘the English way’.

In Olga’s university they used the same approach (pre-test writing > explaining the theory > writing #2). Pre-test stage allowed, when some of the students started dismissing the information as ‘obvious’, to refer them back to their original piece of writing and demonstrate to s/s that in fact they did not adhere to those ‘obvious’ rules.

Differences between Russian and American academic discourse

Russian or Easter European rhetoric:

  • The topic is stated in the beginning. However, it may not be stated as explicitly as in English.
  • Russian discourse is deliberately complex – this is seen as a mark of intellect
  • No text organizer devices (it doesn’t feel like the writer cares about the reader)

Russian vs British. What is considered ‘simple’ greatly differs in those cultures. For instance, when Olga was creating a talk together with a colleague from Britain, here are the simple titles that they produced for exactly the same material:

  • Teaching Phraseological Paronyms: Ways to Tackle Confusable Idioms at Secondary and Tertiary Levels vs 
  • Do certain idioms and phrasal constructions confuse your students? Let’s talk (a) about (b) through (c) round it!

Of course there are exceptions, even among scholars.  For example, Judith Butler, a person considered to be one of the ten smartest people on the planet, got a prize for bad writing. Here is the sentence she got it for!


A similar example from an ELT publication: This is no place to enter into the subtleties of glottodidactic lapsology (meaning, ‘I’m not going to discuss what error means in teaching languages).



Reader-writer responsibility

  • Again, in different languages and cultures the expectations are different: for Russians, explaining the terms is patronizing. For the English, this is expected.
  • The use of ‘I’. In Russian we use ‘we’. But when writing for international audience about something she had been researching for eight years (and hence confident using ‘I’), Olga was advised to rephrase ‘I’ with Research on the typology of phraseological paronyms reveals that…
  • Explaining the methodology (in Russian, often omitted as the reader knows how this is done; in English explaining the methodology is a must).

A summary of the talk: It’s important to remember that all of these rhetorical approaches are valuable. But we need to be aware of the differences and think about the audience we’re writing for.


A lot of EAP looks like this: E=>AP: we start with’ English’ and assume that the ‘academic’ will follow. Lots of books teach the academic vocabulary and so on, and then assume that the students will have the skills. Let’s reverse the arrow.

The plan of the talk:
1. the university and its practices
2. text & language
3. curriculum | design
4. teacher practice

1. the university and its practices

At the beginning of the talk, Steve Kirk invited the audience to discuss: What is a university for?

  • university should be about knowledge building
  • however knowledge differs across subjects:
    (Jim Martin) the science tradition tries to build ‘the theory of everything’ (a single model for everything in the universe) / in social sciences (linguistics, sociology) there are several ‘conflicting’ theories  / humanities (history, literary studies) is focused on dispersed items, e.g. Keat’s poetry
  • So, science is characterized by empirical and objective, quantitative methods, highly structured genres; humanities: explicitly interpretive, discursive argument, more varied readership, more fluid discourses – e.g. someone recently produced a PhD thesis that has a pull-out section in the form of a comic book!

This inevitably reflects on the academic language used in these disciplines.

2. text & language 

So ‘it turns out that engineers show, philosophers argue, biologists find and linguists suggest.’ (Hyland, 2009)

In other words, in academia the context leads to certain language practices and language practices reinforce the context. In terms of EAP, this means that language work can’t be done separately from academic work and and should be part of it.

3. curriculum | design

The process: 

  • s/s get a reading pack of 4-6 journal articles / book chapters and essay questions (no choice);
    content-based lectures related to the reading.
  • Sullabus organising principles: the syllabus mirrors the academic process (reading > note taking > discussions > writing).
    So in class: sessions on dealing with those long readings (at lower levels, as s/s are ~IELTS 5.5-6.0) – understanding paragraph structure, navigating the texts effectively, etc; then on note-taking, etc; taking part in academic discussions; writing, etc.
  • The language work is integrated into that, emerges from that

4. teacher practice

Redefining EAP as Participation in Academic Practices through English.

A teacher needs to be not  just a ‘discourse analyst’ but ‘an ethnographer’ who understands the academic practices and can help the learners see how they inform linguistic choices. Also, seeing the knowledge practices and understanding the (target) academic context allows us to give the students a much more coherent picture of Academic Language.

  1. How would you respond to this question asked by a student: ‘Can I use ‘I’ or ‘we’ in my writing? I see this in the articles that I read..’
    The wrong answer is ‘yes’. The simple correct answer is ‘well, it depends’. To get into the detail, let’s get back to the difference between science (objective) and humanities (interpretive). For science, academic knowledge is valued. In humanities, academic knowers are valued, the particular interpretive gaze. So in scientific writing ‘I’ is less used, unlike in humanities (which is even reflected in referencing conventions).Kirk went on to show a ‘counter example’ to that: an extract from an article on Quantum Physics that uses the expression We demonstrate. But why? Because the authors use it to report their main result. This demonstrates that we can talk of tendencies but not rules. 
  2. Passive vs active voice? ‘We conducted research in…’ or ‘Research was conducted..?’ The choice of the passive/active is a reflection of writer perspective informed by their difference –  a lot more than a mechanical transformation.
  3. In science, we use a metaphor: I/We = The Research (Process) 
    So, we don’t say I aimed/investigated/found/required/conducted – we say the research did.

So a one-sentence summary of this talk would be: Teach the ‘why’ – and ‘why not’. 

NB: check out #tleap on twitter and the #tleap Google plus community.



This was the second plenary of the first day.

In this talk we’ll stop and think about some fundamental issues connected to teaching young learners and things that we take for granted. Malgosia Tetiurka invites to audience to discuss these statements:

  • YLs learn L2 in the same way as L1
  • YLs learn L2 effortlessly, just like L1
  • YLs learn by doing
  • Learning L2 should be fun
  • Anybody can teach YL, you don’t need high qualifications

Do YLs learn L2 in the same way as L1?

MT showed us a clip of a father talking to his child in mother tongue (the child playing with a toy stalk during breakfast, father interacting with the child giving him instructions F: Give the stalk some tea! The stalk likes tea! Give the stalk some yogurt! Where’s the pear? Give the stalk some pear. And give dad some tea!)

The video illustrates some facts about learning L1:

  • L1 is learnt in a context-embedded situation, and there’s lots of context to fall back on if you don’t understand
  • there’s a lot of input: the father says a lot and isn’t discouraged that the boy doesn’t say anything
  • there’s lots of repetition
  • there’s emphasis on meaning
  • when the boy produces some language, his dad doesn’t correct pronunciation

Do YLs learn L2 effortlessly, just like L1?

MT showed us another video clip from this talk by Deb Roy, who wanted to understand how his infant son learned language and so installed audio recorders all over his house. Roy ended up with 900 hours of recording which he’s now analyzing.

The extract MT showed us contained recordings of Roy’s son trying to produce the word ‘water’ on multiple occasions over 6 months. It’s clear that the boy was struggling with the word for 6 months (something that would probably put a L2 teacher’s patience to trial!) Also, the boy started out with ‘gaga’, then learnt to say ‘water’, but then at some point reverted back to ‘gaga’. So it takes lots of effort, trial and error to learn our L1.

Penny Ur: If I’m in charge of alooting foreign language teaching hours, I’ll invest most of them in the older classes where I’ll get a better return for my investment’. 

Starting early may not be a good investment. But our aims might be other than getting better results faster. 

MT went on to compare L1 acquisition and school learning in terms of

  • exposure (acquisition: high; sl: almost none)
  • communicative need (a: ever present, because whenever a child needs to achieve something they have to ask; sl: in most cases the teacher speaks the child’s L1 and the need for L2 is somewhat artificial and needs to be somehow generated)
  • the varieties of language the child is exposed to (a: we don’t limit the child’s contact with dialects on the grounds that the child might not understand; sl: limitis)
  • opportunities to interact with other people (a: numerous; sl: it’s a great problem to make children speak)

So to sum up, the school situation is artificial compared to L1 acquisition and we cannot draw analogies between these two settings.

Do YLs learn by doing?

Yes, learning a language is a skill that can’t be learnt by hearing about it, like learning a car. There’s place for gap-fill exercises, but what else can we do?

  • [inside the classroom] Get students produce a puppet of themselves – this will make acting out dialogues a lot less contrived, this reduces the amount of stress, makes language practice a lot more playful and dramatic. ‘What a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow’ Vygotsky – here the puppet is the assistant
  • Get the students outside the classroom. One possibility: into the virtual reality. But for now MT will focus on taking the students out of the classroom literally. She showed us a clip of learners in a forest doing meaningful things, inspecting a tree through a magnifying glass and deciding whether it’s healthy.

Should learning L2 be fun?

Of course, because this makes it more digestible. However, fun does not always equal engagement.  Malgosia Tetiurka has observed quite a number of lessons where fun didn’t lead to engagement and language learning.

Defining engagement:

  • devoting substantial time and effort to a task
  • the intensity and emotional quality of children’s involvement in initiating and carrying out learning activities
  • energy in action

Engagement as flow: cognitive and emotional engagement, attained as a result of balancing child’s skills/abilities and the degree of challenge presented by the task at hand. So engaging tasks = the tasks that are on the border of the learner’s abilities, matching the capabilities of the person.

Example: children listening to a story, ‘receptive engagement’. Evidence of engagement:

  • non-verbal, e.g. focussed facial expression, prolonged eye contact with the teacher and the material the teacher is using, occasional gasps, etc
  • verbal

Problem: what’s accessible by some learners might be too challenging for others in the classroom. Solution: scaffolding. Malgosia Tetiurka demonstrates scaffolding:

  • she recites a nursery rhyme accompanying it with gestures
  • recites it two more times (first slowly, then very fast) getting the audience to repeat the gestures

Anybody can teach YL, you don’t need high qualifications

Malgosia Tetiurka’s opinion is that you can transfer from teaching YL to teaching teens, adults etc, but you can’t do the other way round. The best teachers should be sent to primary schools.

For the next three days I’m going to be posting my notes from the talk I attend at E-merging Forum 5, the biggest international conference for teachers of English in Russia. This is the flagship British Council event in Russia, and this year there are participants from 260 cities. If you aren’t attending in person, you can still enjoy ten plenaries, which are going to be live streamed.

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This post is a summary of the talk by Herbert Puchta, who started the conference with a plenary on teaching very young learners.

The content of the talk:

  • The differences between very young learners and young learners.
  • What is the best age for learning another language?
  • Lessons to be learnt from SLA (second language acquisition) research
  • Looking into classrooms – 2 examples

So, what are the differences between very young learners and young learners?

Can you imagine what your life would be life without being able to read or write? If yes, then you might have innate understanding of what it means to be a very young learner. But we struggle to imagine life without note-taking.

So the key characteristic of from the teaching point of view is their pre-literacy. They represent what’s called the primary oral culture.

What is it like to be pre-literate? Kieran Egan: [there are] ‘similarities between some forms of thinking evident in adult oral cultures [from early human history] and in children’s thinking.’

  • One obvious similarity is that for both of them language is perceived through sound. Sound is extremely attractive for very young learners, which is why they are so deeply attracted by any sound effect. Basic instincts compel us to pay attention of to sounds.
  • There is relationship between thinking and talking. In modern cultures we ‘think before we talk’ – for pre-literate oral cultures language and children language and thought are much more closely connected. It’s through speech that children clarify and develop their thinking.

What is the best age for learning another language?

How early should we start teaching children?

When families immigrate, it is the youngest family members that fully acquire the language. This observation led to the development of Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) some 20 years ago, which claims that the best time for learning a foreign language is between ages 2 and 12 and that humans are unable to learn a foreign language to a native-speaker standard after the age of puberty.

Over the last 10 years, intensive research has been carried out on CPH. In spite of this, the language teaching practitioner is faced with a dilemma:

  • There is still no agreement if  CPH exists or how age influences language learners. So for an uninitiated reader it is difficult to know who to believe.(Dornyei, 2009) Even for pronunciation, it is not clear. There is solid research evidence that there are exceptional adults who started to learn a new language in an instructural context late in life and definitely achieved the performance level of native speakers .
  • There are some voices against starting early (e.g. Dornyei: we cannot transfer the benefits of natural language environment into classroom.)
  • Puchta doesn’t agree with those critical voices: in his opinion, it is possible to create the conditions that turn language learning in school contexts into a meaningful and successful activity – a belief based on observing primary educational programmes around the world, especially in private language schools. Lessons to be learnt from SLA (second language acquisition) research

 Lessons to be learnt from SLA (second language acquisition) research

There was comprehensive study of immersion programmes Survey by Nikolov and Djgunovic (2009):

  • There’s no scientific backing up of the claim that learning a second language will negatively affect the development of the first language.
  • Young learners learn more slowly, but this is not a reason not to teach them: if done well, teaching L2 actually contributes to v.y.l. cognitive development and their motivation, which is importance for later, life-long learning and ultimate proficiency levels.
  • Very young learners benefit from activities that are meaning focused, and rely a less on rules (and e.g. phonetic transcriptions for 4 year olds is a no-no).
  • Very young learners’ teachers need to have high language skills.
  • We need to learn from SLA, gaining insight into how language is learnt the natural way.

What can we do to provide children with opportunities similar to ‘natural’ SLA contexts?

  • Quantity matters: 20-60 minutes of instruction/week is clearly not enough – the only positive impact might be the learners’ motivation.
  • Quality matters:  in an article in Meaningful Action, Scott Thornbury stresses that learning is based on cognitive processes that go far beyond input-output processes. In a primary classroom, we teach learners nursery rhymes – that is, launch the input-output process, but we need to go further.
    (1) The Learning Body, embodied interaction – something that is probably even more important for young learners than in any other classoroom.
    (2) Language is embedded in social context with learning happening through active participation in the language classroom. We need to create an emotional response.
    (3) Language learning is an ‘extended process’. Western tradition has viewed cognition as something accessed only by the individual. Vygotsky: if learners happens, cognition is socially shared between the participants – learners and teachers. And when you interact with a child teaching them their mother tongue, it’s that shared condition that we’re using – this is a reflection of the point made earlier that for very young learners language and thinking are interconnected.
  • So, we need to  move beyond language and look into silence, gesture, gaze and movement in the language space.

Looking into classrooms 

1st example:

Puchta went on to show us a transcript of interaction in a primary classroom:
T: look at the girl here. Is she happy or sad?
Ss: Happy!
T.: She’s so happy! Do you think she likes apples?
S Yes.
T: Yes yes yes! Do you think she likes cake?
Ss: Yes yes yes!

Why does the T. say yes yes yes three times?  The teacher knows that she’s going to later introduce a song which has a line ‘yes, yes, yes’, and she uses this moment to introduce that: she speaks rhythmically and that is why the learners pick up on that.

T puts on the song. At this moment one girl stands up and tries to go past the teacher towards the free space in front of the room. The T: trying to stop her and asks: can you sit down? Student: NO! The teacher notices that the girl is swaying slightly, so the student is communicating that she wants to dance (she doesn’t have the language to say she wants to dance yes).

T: Do you want to dance? S: Yes, dance! T: Dance. Good girl! You want to dance

Puchta: here we can sense how embedded the social interaction is in this learning space, how much rapport building is going on. In fact, the teacher is scaffolding the learner to express something beyond what she can at the moment.

Lightbown and Spada, 2013: ‘Teachers and researchers cannot read learners’ minds, so they must infer what learners know by observing what they do’.  Learning doesn’t happen simply through imitation and practice: the learning is based on internal cognitive processes and prior knowledge. 

2nd ‘classroom example’

Puchta’s nephews (5 and 3 y.o.) wanted to learn English. Puchta decided to try Total Physical Respons.

P: watch me and do what I’m going to do.

  • P: Stand up! > and they stood up.
  • Go forward
  • Stop
  • Jump!
  • Touch the floor
  • Touch the door

After carrying out these instruction several time, he said he was tired so they continued carrying them out on their own; after several repetitions P said: OK, now we’re going to jumble he order.

Puchta says that lots of people think this is TPR, these days everything is TPR if it includes a bit of movement. It’s not: the person who developed TPR has the fourth phase: novel instructions. And it’s only because of this phase that we get the kind of internal cognitive processing that’s based on prior knowledge.

So P gave the older of his nephew the new instruction: Jump to the door. And this was beautiful. You could actually read from his physiology and his body language, and from the big smile on his face, how these processes were going on.

This illustrates one more time that we need to go beyond ‘input-output’.

And another thing we need is storiesUnfortunately, when it comes to stories in v.y.l. materials, they’re not stories.

‘The story form is a cultural universal; everyone everywhere enjoys story. The story, then, is not just casual entertainment; it reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience.’ Kieran Egan

Puchta went on to show a story he wrote as an example of a badly written story that exemplified some inadequate stories from published materials. A story needs to live up to certain criteria. For v.y.l., stories are reality.  They will respond to them – cry, laugh and believe them. What are the quality criteria for stories? Kieran Egan: mythic understanding. 

  • clear beginning – middle – end
  • a little magic, somethign that can’t be explained through logic
  • a problem that’s resolved later
  • strong emptional contrasts, e.g. good-bad, happy – sad, huge – tiny, greedy – generous etc – these are the source of values that we can convey