Review of ELT podcasts part 3

When I started reviewing ELT podcasts there were hardly any. Now we find ourselves drowning in them! At present I count more than 10 ELT specific podcast. However, over half seem to have fallen to the wayside. Elliott’s very good ‘lives of teachers’ podcast has very sporadic output these days. As does ‘Masters of TESOL’ which started strong and has since faded. The only three podcast that I have reviewed still regularly producing output are TEFLology, the TEFL show and the TEFL commute. Clearly the secret is having TEFL in your name somewhere. 

In my last review I had a wish list asking for, among other things, ‘a podcast with a female host’ and what do you know, three come along at once. 

1. One stop English podcast 

This podcast has only just started and is 8 episodes in but has made quite a nice start. Already the show has featured a debunking of learning styles, as well as featuring my former presentation partner Nicola Prentis, in the same episode. They have a ‘guest teacher’ slot, which is a nice idea and have so far featured, among others, the wonderful Natalia Guerreiro (who I cannot convince to write a guest blog post). In only 8 episodes they have had as guests, Hugh Dellar and Andrew Wakley, Adrian Underhill, Silvana Richardson and Scott Thornbury. This is quite a solid podcast, not too heavy and even including some practical teaching advice. It’s a pleasant addition to the pod-o-sphere and it will be interesting to see how it develops. 

Tea with BVP has everything I have ever asked for in a podcast. It has a well established academic (Bill Van Patten) talking about language teaching research. It has veryhigh production value. It also has a NNS female host. The main host is also a bilingual Spanish speaker so we get insight into MFL. It also provides a fascinating window into the American ELT scene (lost since the minimal pair podcast disappeared). With all this going for it, why don’t I love Tea with BVP more? I puzzled over this issue and it seems to me there are a few things which stop me enjoying this show more. 

Firstly, it’s not a podcast. Sure, it is released in podcast form but it is recorded as a radio show and a radio show it is. There are phone ins, there are awkward pauses when no one phones in, there are some quite ‘chatty’ sections and so on. Secondly, it’s very strongly wedded to a certain ideological position. I’ve listened to the whole 4(?) series and haven’t yet been able to work out what this position is. It seems to be something along the lines of ‘Krashen and Chomsky are right about everything’ (I jest, but only a bit). 

One of the frustrating things about the show for me is that ideas about teaching are presented as settled science. That is, that doing X or Y is the only way students will acquire language and that language is acquired through method Z. There is nothing wrong with having a position and arguing from that position per se, I just wonder if say Long, or Ellis, would agree with BVP’s take on language teaching. As a teacher with scant knowledge of the research discussed it’s hard to know what to think. 

The certainty with which certain views were espoused looked a little less convincing when, in a recent episode BVP gave some credence to the idea of learning styles. In the following episode he responded to listener who had written in to challenge him on this (not me, I promise) and his response was a little disappointing. Rather than say ‘yes, I got it wrong, learning styles aren’t real.’ he stated that individual differences don’t matter much in learning languages. 

Early on I wrote to the show and asked them if they would detail alternate views to the one espoused. I was hoping to find out what their position would be defined as and what other researchers think. The show is usually very good at responding to people’s questions on twitter and the like. They thanked me for my email but unfortunately this hasn’t happened yet.

Thirdly, related to the last point, they favour a teaching methodology called TPRS which I had never heard of. I kept thinking it was a mutant variant of TPR, but no, it’s something completely different. There are also frequent references to ACTFL which again, I had never heard of. But, it is interesting to learn that despite doing essentially the same job as these people, we seem to inhabit complete different worlds. TEA with BVP is a high quality podcast, but, for a British ELT teacher not familiar with the world of ACTFL, it can be a frustrating listen a times. 



This is a new and quite interesting little podcast. What I particularly like about it is that it seems to be set in China. The TEFL scene can be dominated by Spain/UK based teachers and so it’s quite interesting to get a podcast from somewhere else. The hosts are a Ross Thorburn, a British guy and  Tracy Yu, a Chinese woman

There are about 24 episodes now and it’s been around for less than a year, so the output is pretty high. The episodes are also really short at around 15 minutes each time. They generally tackle very general interest, practical issues like, monitoring, autonomy and materials. The format is usually the hosts (and perhaps a guest) reflecting on these topics. In that sense it’s similar to other TEFL podcasts, but the Chinese perspective is interesting. 


So that’s it! If you hear about a TEFL podcast (oh gawd, not another one!) please let me know. 

Other reviews of podcasts 

part 1

Part 2


 

Review of ELT podcasts

2014 was a great year for EFL podcasts with several sprouting up like veritable fungi. I’m a huge fan of podcasts and think they can be a great way of learning while doing other stuff. So what TEFL podcasts are there and more importantly are they any good? 


1. TEFLology 

TEFLology is 45 mins, fortnightly podcast. The three guys who host it are, I think, lecturers in Japanese universities, which perhaps gives the podcast more of a slant towards applied linguistics, over TEFL topics. The very early episodes were quite unpolished, and there are still moment where the conversation just seems to fade out into  ‘yeah…mmm….right’ kind of moments but they seem to be getting better at editing these out. The Podcasts is usually divided into a ‘TEFL pioneers’ section, TEFL news and a more general discussion of some ELT topic like DuoLingo, linguistic imperialism or TPR. Overall The podcast is well-researched and well worth a listen. In fact the level of research they seem to put into the episodes does make me fear they will burn themselves out. The podcast has recently had an impressive list of guests such as Nina spada, Widdowson and even an ‘explicit’ interview with Rod Ellis. It’s also worth listening to for the ‘home-made’ jingle at the start. 



This podcast is almost the complete opposite to TEFLology. It’s ESL focused rather than EFL and is hosted by two Americans,  Jean Dempsey and Stephanie Axe who I think are adjunct professors (?) at a US university. They have had a number of interesting episodes on things like ‘What’s the last P in parsnip’ and  recap of goings on at the TESOL conference. I find this podcast interesting because I feel I get very little exposure to US TEFL culture and ideas. Obviously ELT is big over there too and I know their system is somewhat different to the UK, but I’m not entirely sure how. That said, in a number of episodes they have talked at length about catering for student learning styles and then were quite positive about prescriptive grammar, -my two pet hates.  Consequently I wrote a rather negative review of them. Since that there hasn’t been another episode. I hope the two events are not related. They have reassured me they will be back in the New Year, so here’s hoping. 



I thought kKCL was a pretty good podcast, with fairly high production values and a nice style. Their fifth episode was on the topic of learning styles. Guest Marjorie Rosenberg, discussed her new book with host Phil Keegan. I thought this particular episode was a good illustration of the problems with learning styles and so I wrote about it here. Unfortunately the podcast seems to have stopped after this. I hope the two events were not related. The curse of EBEFL? I hope not. Will 2015 see a reappearance of KKCL? Only time will tell.  




This podcast is the brand spanking new kid on the block. With only 3 episodes so far it may not seem worth reviewing but host Andrew Bailey has already managed to bag interviews with Scott thornbury and Ahmar Mahboob.And if that weren’t enough he also got a guest anecdote from none other than the Master of TESOL himself, Mike Griffin.I f you’ve heard the ‘freakanomics’ podcast, you may feel this has a similar vibe.  This podcast is new so it’s hard to say how it’ll turn out but it’s compact and slick and I’ve got this on my ‘one to watch’ list. It certainly has a lot of potential. 


Last but not least is ELTchat, the companion to the twitter #ELTchat. I have to include this because James Taylor would kill me if I left it out. This is a great podcast which includes well known, tweeters and bloggers like Vicky Loras, Tony Gurr and Marisa Constantinides. However so far it has only had about 12 episodes over four years and has only had one episodes in the last year (2014) which makes me wonder if perhaps it isn’t in need of a bit of love and attention? James? 





Hopes for 2015
I hope some of the podcasts mentioned here are produced a bit more regularly. It’d also be great to see a podcast offering actual advice for teachers about jobs, something like “guide to teaching in…” and each week the country would be different. It’d also be nice if podcasts included more NNS as hosts and if we saw more women hosts as well.

Did I get anything wrong here? Anything I need to add? Did I miss out any podcasts you think are great? Let me know in the comments. 

Part 2 here

Woo watch: the minimal pair

I’ve always wanted there to be a good TEFL podcast on itunes, then two appeared at once. TEFLology and The Minimal Pair. Initially I was excited by this but recent episodes of the minimal pair have left me rather disappointed.  

Their most recent show touched on ‘grammar snobs’, something I have a keen interest in. From two university educators, I expected,  an enjoyable and thorough debunking of silly prescriptivist rules. Alas the hosts seemed keener to stress that people ought to ‘know the rules before they break them’ and further stressed how important it was for people to ‘follow the rules’. There was never any discussion of why ‘the rules’ are rules or whether they should be rules at all. One of the hosts seemed a little distraught that Steven Pinker had recently suggested we don’t need to worry that much about ‘dangling modifiers‘ and said ‘there goes my lesson plan for next week’. -A lesson on dangling modifiers? (O_o)

Oddly ‘the pair’ defined prescriptive grammar as ‘the real technical rules’ and descriptive grammar as ‘just making yourself understood’. This to me showed something of a lack of understanding of these terms, particularly when one host spent much of the segment relating descriptive grammar to ‘textspeak‘ and saying of it ‘if you’re in some sort of emergency state and you need to make yourself understood, then whatever’. 

Descriptive grammar (or more properly descriptive linguistics) is just recording  the way people actually communicate. Prescriptive grammar is the way one particular group believes everyone should communicate. One sentence can be viewed differently by both groups. 

For example, with my family I, like many British people, say things like ‘where’s me coat gone‘. Descriptive linguistics would suggest that ‘me’ is used as a possessive by some people in some situations instead of the more standard ‘my’. Prescriptive grammarians would tell you that ‘me’ is just ‘wrong’ here and you should stop saying it. Obviously there is a place for both of these approaches, but prescriptivism tends to be the one people take to heart. Humans, for reasons I can’t work out, adore being told what ‘the rules‘ are and enjoy even more the delicious thrill of telling others that they’re ‘getting it wrong’. 

This prescriptivism love-in though, would not normally be enough to land them in the woo watch column. In a later section, when ‘the pair’ discuss the pros and cons of using PowerPoint to teach, one of them notes how good PowerPoints can be for…you guessed it…visual learners! Apparently, “some students just learn better when they have an image presented to them.” It was with great dismay that I heard the host refer listeners back to a special they’d done on visual learners so back I went, and listen I did 

Now I’ve heard podcast episodes on learning styles before, but this went one further. They presented a segment on both audio learners and visual learners and promised an future episode on kinesthetic learners. were these really the same people who were suggested the use of PowerPoint to teach was controversial? 

So there you have it; prescriptivism and learning styles all in one podcast. Oh ‘minimal pair’ why must you taunt me!  Later in the episode one of the hosts noted how important it was to teach critical thinking. I couldn’t agree more. 

KKCL ELT podcast or why LS is so popular

Trying to explain something is never as effective as seeing the actual thing you’re trying to explain. With that in mind I recommend everyone rush over and listen to  KKCL’s new TEFL podcast in particular their latest episode in which they decided to tackle, -yes you guessed it, –learning styles. I recommend it not for the high production quality, friendly style and soothing tone of host Phil Keegan, but rather as a fantastic insight into why learning styles are so popular.

Me me me!

One reason for its popularity  is that it’s about our favourite topic,  namely us. Everyone likes to think they are unique and special, when the truth is, we share a lot of characteristics. However, subjective validation means it’s possible to see something personally meaningful and accurate in statements which are neither. Nowhere is this clearer than in episode 5 of KKCL’s podcast.
Guest Marjorie Rosenberg starts off with an anecdote about her learning experiences and how teachers in high school French class destroyed her motivation by not letting her visualise vocab. she then talks about how learning German was aided by carrying a dictionary around and looking at the words.
Next host Phil jumps in to let us know he’s a auditory learner and is very excited to learn it’s the minority ‘style’. He then tell us about how his students used to complain because he didn’t write vocab on the board, as he was an auditory learner and so didn’t need to see the words.
When Marjorie tells us about a further four styles of learner (in total she lists 2x4x4 possible types), and describes one of them as being someone who hates reading instruction manuals, to which Phil excitedly notes “that’s like me!”
Later the hosts of the podcast talk about what kind of learner they are and one recounts his experience learning Japanese with a book which showed the characters being related to pictures.
Finally although not strictly in the podcast, commentator Anna perfectly exemplifies how learning styles can have an attractive personal significance. After thanking Phil and his crew for the podcast she notes “I’m personally visual, analytic and definitely paying lots of attention to emotions and raport in the classroom”. 

Confirmation

Subjective validation goes hand in hand with confirmation bias which leads us to look for evidence that backs up our beliefs and dismiss evidence which contradicts them. Every single human being instinctively does this and it’s why the scientific method, which seeks to falsify things, is so valuable. In the examples above we can see Phil and Marjorie finding confirmation of their beliefs in learning styles, but then they’re not looking to disprove them.
One example of confirmation bias is that Phil believes not writing words on the board is evidence he’s not a visual learner, but many teachers don’t write words up on the board either and this has nothing to do with learning styles -it might just be inexperience or plain laziness. He also thinks not reading instruction manuals makes him a certain type of learner but could it not just be that manuals are dull? After all, research suggests no one reads them.

Phil also manages to find confimation of learning styles in his messy office. He’s not visual so he doesn’t see the mess. Oddly he later claims he’s a bit kinaesthetic as walking around “helps [him] to think”.

Similarly Marjorie ascribe her failure to learn French to the teacher not allowing her to visualise words, and similarly her success in learning German to carrying a dictionary around and being able to look at the words. Now call me a dirty old cynic but is living and working in a foreign country really comparable to taking a language class in high school? If I were looking at the possible factors that made a difference, “the right learning style” would be pretty low on my list.
Another example of confirmation bias at work is demonstrated by the commentator Anna. The total lack of evidence supporting learning styles is characterised by her as “supposedly limited scientific evidence of their efficacy”. She found the podcast very enjoyable presumably because it reinforced her opinion. If you believe in learning styles, then you can find anecdotal evidence for them everywhere.

Excuses excuses 

Finally Learning styles can be a great way to excuse failure. As with the example above, it wasn’t the fact that hardly anyone masters a language in high school that caused the problem but not being allowed to learn in the right way. It would be nice if there was a secret method that could ‘unlock’ learning and make our students better at languages, but sadly life doesn’t work like that.
If someone wants to believe in something they will believe in it, damn the evidence. This was brought home to me again this week by the story of a woman who (it seems) sincerely believes she can live off sunlight. As long as there is Breatharianism the battle against learning styles will be a tough one.

It’s clear from the get go that the host Phil and guest Marjorie are friends, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there are no tough questions, (like how kinaethetic and audio style teachers are supposed to deal with Marjorie’s book which is clearly visual-centric with its words and pictures and stuff, tsk tsk!) . The only time any criticism are broached at all is when Marjorie defends learning styles against the claim that they pigeon-hole students. It’s really interesting to me that proponents of learning styles seem so worried by this claim, but not at all worried by their being no research support for LS theory 
The EFL world needs a good podcast so I hope Phil and his crew will deal a bit more critically with topics like this in the future. If you would like to listen a podcast which makes a good job of dealing with learning styles, then try this one.