The importance of experience

I often talk about evidence on this blog (the name is a giveaway) but experience also has an important role. My various experiences as a language learner shape everything I do. Like most everyone, I generally get my opinions initially from my emotions, not from anything empirical. 

For example, I studied GCSE French in school because I used to love French in secondary school. I thought I was pretty good at it. Clearly my teachers disagreed. A few weeks into the course I found out I was in the bottom class and dropped out. I figured I’d never be any good at languages so I did music instead.

To this day, while the rational part of my brain tells me that levels are necessary and important my experiences makes me hate them. 

I studied a lot!


In summer 2000, I started my first teaching job in Japan with zero Japanese. In winter 2004 I passed the 1 kyu (now N1) Japanese test, the highest level of the test. This isn’t to brag…well, OK, it is , yeah me! But it’s also to say that everything about that experience colours my attitude toward teaching. I’ve done, what many of my students set out to do. I’m the “after” photo of slick advertising campaigns. and everything I do is filtered through the prism of being a language learner.

Firstly, I had no classes. I didn’t attend a school, have a textbook or get a tutor. This makes me suspicious about the value of these things. That’s right, I’m suspicious of the value of people like me. Research suggests that Instruction can aid language learning but It’s also possible that teachers can potentially also do a lot of harm to students. So another conclusion from my experience is that an ineffectual but ‘nice’ teacher is much better than a teacher who bores students or embarrasses them. 

I also never found out what my ‘learning style’ was, I didn’t know which was my dominant ‘intelligence’ nor did I meditate on the ‘here and now’. What I DID do was study a lot of Japanese words with flash cards, listen to a ton of people talking and singing in Japanese and tried to speak (and drunkenly sing karaoke) as often as I could; Lots of input, lots of studying, lots of practice and high levels of motivation and encouragement.  


Every week I see articles extolling the virtues of the flipped classroom, reflective practice, discovery learning, Dogme and technology. Many of these posts are passionate, articulate and convincing but my experience tells me they are also often peripheral and “A balance is needed between ancillary concerns and the central language teaching priorities that they are ancillary to” (Swan, 2013:170). In order to learn a language students have to learn the language

The problem with all this is though is that experience, isn’t always a great guide for what we should be doing. What worked form me may not work for someone else. I’ve seen some kids come out of 6 years of grammar translation classes with great English. Experience is powerful but it can also mislead us. We can see what we want to see, and also be unwilling to change our minds. And yet many teachers happily accept ‘experience’ as a good enough justification for just about anything. But this argument cuts both ways. 

I know many English teachers who, while claiming to know the best way to learn a language have failed to do so themselves, despite many years abroad. If ‘experience’ is going to be our benchmark then where does that leave teachers like this? Would anyone claim that these teachers are not as capable as those who have mastered a foreign language? And if it doesn’t matter, why doesn’t it matter? 

 

E=MC hammer

I follow a fair few teachers on twitter and so I get to read a lot about education. One of the  faces most commonly peering out of tweets and retweets at me, is that of Albert Einstein; usually with some pithy quote attached to his name. More often than not these quotes are attributed to Einstein, but he didn’t say them. As with the following examples.
he didn’t say this
he didn’t say this either

nor this

nope


he kinda said this, but not in these words

 

I recently got involved in a spat with a guy who posted one of these quotes. The klaxon of “someone on the Internet is wrong” began buzzing in my head. No. resist. I said to myself, but the urge was too great. Our conversation went like this: 
 


he does agree!

Leaving aside the argument as to whether facts matter or not (hint -they do) just why is Einstein such a popular figure for educators to (mis)quote? What is it about the German Jewish physicists that appeals to some modern educators? Einstein isn’t popular among all teachers. Instead you tend to see his stuff quoted by teachers who have a strong disposition towards things like creativity, student emotional development and imagination. The kind of teacher who derides tests and wants students to ‘think outside the box’. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these ideas .I’m just merely pointing out the  odd correlation I’ve noticed between Einstein and beliefs of this sort. I say ‘odd’ because a gifted mathematical genius, smart in the most traditional sense who excelled at school doesn’t strike me as the poster boy for the values being espoused by these teachers. What’s that you say? But Einstein didn’t do well at school!  Ah, before we continue, there are a few myths that need debunking. Here’s a quick recap.

 

Myth: Einstein did badly in school
No, he did really well in school. He aced almost everything except French. He tried to enter university when he was 16 but his French held him back (damn you, French!!)

Myth: Einstein failed maths
Nope, he could do differential and integral calculus by the age of 15 whereas I don’t even know what those words mean.

Myth: Einstein had learning difficulties and was an average student
This one is tricky because Einstein didn’t speak a lot until he was about 5. He did speak though. His biographer Pais (1982) claims that Einstein started speaking in whole sentences between the age of 2-3 and at age nine he was accepted into a prestigious school. It would seem quite odd for an ‘average’ student with learning difficulties to be accepted into such a school. The only ‘learning difficulty’ he seemed to have was in that he hated the way his teachers taught, -i.e. memorising large amounts of data. This to my mind, makes Einstein quite a ‘normal’ child.


Myth: Einstein was dyslexic/autistic  

There is little credible evidence to support this claim. Mostly these claims were made retroactively. Also Autism and dyslexic are both somewhat problematic terms. Autism is a spectrum disorder and dyslexia is not one condition with a clear definition. Thus to say Einstein was autistic or dyslexic is probably not true and even if it were true probably doesn’t tell us very much.

So it seems there are in existence, two distinct Einsteins. There is ‘physicist Einstein’ who was a smart kid, good at school (with the exception of French) and brilliant at maths. This Einstein went on to publish hundreds of ground breaking articles concerning physics and won the Nobel Prize. Then there’s ‘educator Einstein’. A young boy with learning difficulties who was written of by foolish teachers unable to see his potential. He failed at maths and yet went on to become a world-renown genius. He spent much of his later life poised before a blackboard making pithy statements about education to his enrapt students. 

While it is true that Einstein trained to be a school teacher and lectured at various Universities, it’s also true that for two years he failed to find a teaching job and his only teaching was at university level. It’s also likely that none of the teachers quoting his thoughts on teaching have any idea how he fared as a lecturer. Was he any good? Did his students like him? Did he teach well? Among Einstein’s hundreds of papers not one dealt with teaching or education. Despite this he’s claimed by teachers as one of their own, there are even (flawed) academic papers speculating about Einstein’s views on teaching

 

reverse halo -or ‘Devil effect’. Retweet anyone?

So why exactly is Einstein popular among  some  teachers? It would seem that Einstein is a kind of short-hand for ‘genius’. Stick his picture next to a quote and the quote gains 9000 Internet points more of credibility than just a normal quote. This is an example of the cognitive bias known as the Halo effect. This is where one attractive characteristic can lead people to assume more favourable things about a person in general. The halo effect is well known and well studied. It’s what leads to attractive teachers getting better student ratings than less attractive teachers, and to attractive criminals getting shorter sentences than plainer ones. Einstein wasn’t hot, he was smart, but the effect still holds. E = S = T or Einstein = smart = true. Smart guy A says B so B must be true because smart guy A is smart. Of course, this is a non-sequitur. If Einstein was talking about Physics you would do well to listen, but would you want his advice on marriage and dating?

 

What’s strange about all of this is that fans of ‘educator Einstein’, those who quote him  regarding ‘imagination’ and stress his poor school record are often the same people who would normally bristle at ‘outsiders telling teachers how to teach’ especially ‘ivory tower academics’ and ‘men in white coats’. How many times have we seen researchers or scientists dismissed because they’re not at the ‘chalk face’ and don’t understand the realities of the classroom, even when that researcher is/was an educator themselves?

Also odd is that teachers often use Einstein to back up things like creativity, imagination and alternative conceptions of intelligence, focusing on the idea that ‘standard’ definitions of intelligence  are not the be-all and end-all of education. Yet Einstein was as ‘traditionally smart’ as they come. He was not smart in a ‘fish climbing trees’ sense, or a ‘bodily-kinaesthetic’ sense but smart in a ‘discover how space and time works through complex maths’ smart. So why do teachers promoting the notion that ‘everyone is clever in different ways’ use the guy who is smart in the most vanilla way to push that point home?



Sure Einstein hated the way he was taught, he hated memorising facts and thought that imagination was important, -but so what? If an idea is good, it doesn’t matter who says it, be it Einstein or Hitler. That is why when vested interested attack, for example, Charles Darwin they are missing the point. Darwin doesn’t matter. The theory of evolution matters. Good ideas are good whether Einstein said them or not, -and bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of who said them. We need to focus on the text, not the image.

 

So we have teachers misquoting a famous physicist, and academic, who may or may not have been a good teacher, but was certainly very good at maths and science to support the view that education isn’t just about being good at things like maths and science.
 
Am I missing something here?


 




 



Researcher or teacher?

Dear blog,

Sorry I haven’t written much recently, I’ve been busy getting married.

Around this time last year I had a piece in Modern English Teacher. About six months later Simon Andrewes wrote a critical response to my piece (I don’t think it’s online though you can see another of his articles here.) I’m pleased to announce that my response to his response is out in MET today. I’ll probably put it up on the site later this year but this is just a short post with a couple of points.
First is a big thank you to Dave Francis who published the original article and the follow up. I don’t know if I would have continued with this blog if it hadn’t been for him. He recently told me he’s resigning as the editor of MET and that October 2013 was his final issue. Thanks for all your hard work Dave!
Second is a quick point relating to the article. One of the themes is whether it’s true in education that ‘researchers are researchers and teachers are teachers and never the twain will meet.’ It’s an issue I touched on earlier in the year.
Anyway, I’m currently writing a piece on student feedback for BALEAP in Oxford Brookes this year and during the research I came across this rather interesting paper. The authors attempted to find out if being a good researcher was in any way linked to being a good teacher. What’s interesting is that they come at the research from a different angle, -namely, they were trying to discover if the myth of “good researcher = good teacher”. I personally didn’t know this a myth and always tended to hear the opposite in TEFL circles (including Andrewes article) namely researchers are clueless about teaching.
As it turns out the researchers managed to find no relationship between being a good teacher and being a good researcher. some excellent teachers sucked at research and some poor researchers were also poor teachers and vice-versa. This result really shouldn’t surprise us. A thoughtful and intelligent teacher can make a thoughtful and intelligent researcher or they may just be awful.
Some musicians can also write songs, -some can’t and some folks can neither play an instrument nor write songs. Surely no one would be surprised by this so why does the odd myth of the teachers and researchers being different species persist?

Skimming and scanning

For those of you who are firm believers in teaching skimming and scanning feel free to skim this post and answer the questions at the end…you have 1 minute…go! For those of you, like me, who are more sceptical…read on.

This is the second in my “reading skills” series, following up the piece on prediction. Like prediction, skimming and scanning are very attractive to teachers as they make the rather mysterious process of reading eminently teachable. Without “reading skills” teaching reading would resemble teaching the ‘Cinderella skill’, listening. But should we teaching skimming and scanning at all? I will argue ‘no’ for two reasons. Firstly, skimming and scanning don’t accurate reflect the way people usually read and secondly because most students already know how to do them.
 

Skimming and scanning are pretty popular in EFL, with hundreds of web pages offering lesson plans for skimming and scanning classes. St Martins University are keen on them  as is the ‘teaching English’ website and Harmer includes lesson plans with these skills as targets. Textbooks like Oxford’s “Well read” and “Headway” include these activities and   Grellet’s book, which as Paran notes is probably responsible for the popularity of these skills in the TEFL world, has a whole section on “from scanning to skimming”. Telling though Grabe doesn’t mentioned them once in his book on the reading in a foreign language, something which Kerr describes as “eloquent commentary” (2009:29).

Skimming and Scanning are so pervasive that a large number of teachers, (like the one pictured above and me, for the longest time) have managed to convince themselves that this is actually how people read. But it isn’t. At least, not usually. Usually we read one word at a time as you’re probably reading now.

Skimming and scanning are classed as “expeditious reading” (Nation 2009:70) skimming is reading quickly and for the general or “gist” meaning. Scanning is trying to identify specific information in a text. The classic example was always a “name in a phone book” until phone books went the way of tape cassettes and chalk. Nowadays “bus timetable” is the most likely example. Not only is this a reading skill that doesn’t need to be taught, it’s a basic human skill that doesn’t need to be taught. People who disagree should read “where’s Wally”.
 

Gist in laymen’s terms means a general understanding devoid of specifics as in “I wasn’t really paying attention but I got the gist of what he was saying”.  But is this a teachable skill? Or even one that we should be teaching?

We may do reading activities like setting time limits for our students while reassuring them that they “only have to get the gist” but is this teaching them anything or merely expecting them to apply a skill we assume they already have. Is a teacher who says “skimming is just trying to get the general meaning” teaching or explaining a concept we expect students to already know? If it’s the former, we have failed as we haven’t ‘taught’ them how to do it; we’ve just explained what it is. If the latter, why do we assume they don’t know how to do this? After all plenty of monolingual EFL teachers seem to be able to manage skimming without prior instruction –hell they’re so good they can even teach it!

 Secondly, what exactly is reading for gist? If it were possible for me to read faster than I do now then I would do it. But sadly I can’t (so the pile of unread books and papers grows ever larger, staring accusingly at me). If a person reads for gist then they are necessarily losing something. Otherwise they are just reading. If I read faster than normal, then I ignore parts of the text –I miss bits out. These bits may be important, they may not. I just take my chances.

Often with skimming students are told to read the first and last sentences of a paragraph; or the first sentence, or the first and second sentences. Sometimes they are told to “run their eyes over the text” whatever that means. This advice might work at times but other times it may not. Would it work with the paragraph directly before this one? I think it possible could for a test question like “what is this paragraph about” but probably not for understanding the text. 
 
I have heard it argued that these techniques could be useful for EAP students looking through texts and trying to find useful ones in a hurry, or trying to locate relevant sections in a book, but students will almost certainly not be doing these things under timed conditions. They’ll probably while away many pointless hours in libraries reading the wrong books, -much like native speakers do. It’s also quite likely that once the “don’t use a dictionary –just get the gist” bullies are out of the picture and the students successfully make it onto their courses, they’ll probably sit there (sensibly in my opinion) with a text in one hand and a dictionary in the other slowly trying to make sense of whatever tortuously dull and impenetrable academic text they are unlucky enough to find themselves having to read.

 
In fact, and rather ironically, these skills seem to be most useful for doing English reading tests. That is we, the EFL community, design tests which require students to employ reading skills they probably already know and then ‘teach’ them these skills in order for them to pass the tests we wrote! Genius! Perhaps we should also invent writing upside tests and tests of underwater listening.

Don’t teach grandma to suck eggs

Skimming and scanning are at times, very useful; so useful in fact that every person who comes from a culture with a written language already knows how to do them.  Arguably though they are more useful to teachers than to students as they give us something to teach. Thornbury notes

 


Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist.”

The point he goes on to make, and one also made by Swan is that student likely already have reading skills in their L1. “Much of the teaching of reading skills is predicated on the assumption that learners do not already possess them” (Swan 2008:266) but they almost certainly do and we almost certainly don’t need to spend time teaching them.Swan and Walter in a piece called “teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time” refer to research which indicates that students will be able to use these reading skills automatically when their language reaches a proficient enough level.

 
In defence of Skimming and Scanning
 

There aren’t many defenders of skimming and scanning these days but one article written by Phillip Kerr could possibly be described as a “defence” but that wouldn’t really be accurate as Kerr lists criticism and then suggests that there might be some reasons why it might be OK to use them:

1. They aren’t very difficult and they don’t take much time and so they might motivate students to feel like they have achieved something.

2. Well-designed skimming and scanning activities can help students to decode and create meaning in a text.

3. The skills are short and though not perhaps helping students learn to read, may give them some impression about the text.

4. Good for tests

 
Number four has been already been discussed. Number two is the idea that these skills  belong to the psycholinguistic model of reading, criticised by Paran and Grabe. sampling a text is not how most people read, most of the time. 

 
But let me take a minute to talk about the other reasons. If you read the article you’ll notice Kerr wraps up his reasons in such apologetic language that you almost feel sorry for skimming and scanning and want to teach them just so they don’t get thrown in a bag with some Cuisenaire rods and drown. Kerr seems to be saying, “Well, look, we all know we don’t need to teach these skills but they’re awfully quick and they might make the students feel good about themselves and oh please! It’s awfully cold outside; these skills have no place to go!”

But don’t feel sorry for these skills. Feel sorry instead for the poor students who are forced to do them, and the poor teachers filling up their DELTA lesson plans with skimming and scanning targets. Isn’t it time we stopped teaching students to do things they can already do?







 

A note on Mindfulness

When I saw that the most recent ELTchat topic was ‘mindfulness’ I was a bit worried because I’d never heard of it before. Being someone who likes to keep abreast of EFL developments, I thought I should check it out and so to Google went I.

My heart sank a little when I came across the world ‘therapy‘ in  relation to this (the bizarre neuro-linguistic programming also comes from therapy/psychology) and sank further when I spied the word ‘Buddhism‘. I recalled Scott thornbury’s article The Unbearable Lightness of EFL in which he notes:

 

An alternative to TEFL’s lack of respectability is to construe it as a form of therapy.  Professional self-esteem is achieved by co-opting both the discourse and the procedures of certain new age practices, and by investing the teacher with an almost shamanistic function.(393:2001)

But what is “mindfulness”? Well if you drive to work then you probably have days where you get in your car and then you just seem to arrive at work, almost like you were on auto-pilot. This is known as ‘automaticity’, a feature of your amazing brain, and seemingly the opposite of ‘mindfulness’.  Processing information is hard work for your brain.  Think about how you feel after marking a lot of badly written essays (as oppose to well collocated ones) or if you’ve recently met a lot of new people (social interactions are very tough on the brain). Switching your brain to auto-pilot for task you do regularly is a great way to save processing power. In fact most of what you do is done automatically by your brain.  
 
Take picking up a glass for example.  You brain has to work out the distance of the glass from you, the weight, the position of your thumb and fingers. It has to move the muscles in your arm, exert the exact amount of pressure so the glass doesn’t drop from your fingers or get smashed to pieces in your grip.  This might seem pretty straight forward, but it’s something you learn and something that becomes automatic.  If you had to focus and think about things like speaking, walking and moving then you wouldn’t be able to do them. 

 Another good example is reading.  You are so good at reading that if you see a text in your native language you won’t be able to stop yourself from starting to process it. The famous Stroop test is a good indicator of this. Try saying the colours of these two sets of words.  The second set will be harder than the first.
 
 
set 1
RedGreen, BlueYellow, Pink, Black, Gold
 



set 2
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink, Black, Gold

 
Two different parts of your brain are competing here, the one automatically reading the word “red” and the one seeing the colour blue. 
 
For those promoting ‘mindfulness’, automaticity is painted as something of a bad thing.  This is a bit ironic as fluent speech, like fluent reading, requires automaticity, but let’s put that to one side. Mindfulness teaches that we should pay attention “in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally” and pay attention to the here and now on a “moment-to-moment basis” (Ruth Baer)
 
The idea of paying attention to the presents needs unpicking. With what we know about the brain, what does it actually mean to pay attention to the present? Is it to focus more on what you’re seeing and hearing? If so, isn’t that just concentrating?  And which here and now does it refer to? The here and now just a second ago when you started this sentence or this one, now….or now….or now?  Also aren’t students supposed to remember new language?  Probably unlikely if they are constantly trying to focus on everything that’s happening in the here and now.  Leon Wieseltier  writes “‘Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment’ is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics”

Some people in ELTchat linked mindfulness to ‘reflection’, but reflection is a process of reviewing past events whereas mindfulness is a focus on the  now. I was also not clear as to whether mindfulness was for the teacher or the student, or both?  And what would you actually have the students do in class?  From this video it seems a lot like meditation.

 

 
In the video the teachers were saying that “it works”. I’d like to deal with this idea in a separate post but briefly, students and teachers saying something “works” is not the same as something working. As with BrainGym, exercises may help student, with or without the posh name. Likewise, stopping, focusing and having students concentrate may be good things, but does that require a special term complete with an ancient philosophy?

In its defence, mindful teaching, as far as I’m aware doesn’t have any expensive courses or materials nor can you become a ‘master mind-filler’ for only $2,000, (not yet anyway). In this sense, mindful teaching is not doing anyone any harm and the activities it promotes may even be helping some teachers and students. I don’t really know enough about mindfulness to criticise it here and there is very little on the web about mindfulness & EFL so for the time being I’ll have to suspend my judgement. 
 
  
 

 References

Thornbury, S. 2001. ‘The unbearable lightnessof EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402
 
 


Brain bullshit

I’ve written about Learning styles and more recently Neuro-linguistic programming, and with the latter, felt that I had really reached the limit of silliness in ELT.  But low and behold, just as a I stagger, punch drunk away from my computer a new contender arrives.
 
If you’re a fan of Ben Goldacre, then you’ll have heard of BrainGym.  To recap, BrainGym is a series of exercises that kids do in schools around the UK and the US.  You might do these exercises in the middle of a class or at the start and it would look at bit like this.  The UK sense about science has criticised BrainGym claiming it “undermines science“.  The exercises on their own would be fine, but they are wrapped up in bizarre pseudo scientific explanations such as that humans have “brain buttons” and rubbing them (micro-interventions) will supply the brain with oxygenated blood.  Or that BrainGym can help with connecting the electrical circuits in the body.  They also make all manner of specious claims, from the sublime (Working with computers will lead to dehydration) to the ridiculous (processed food contains no water). 
 
I thought having been debunked thoroughly, the EFL world was safe, but no, it seems that no idea is too ludicrous for us.  As I searched for articles on the very odd NLP, I came across a teacher talking abut how he uses BrainGym in his TEFL classes.  And he is not alone, Phillip Kerr talks about his DOS having used BrainGym in the classroom.   I’m sure these are very nice, well-meaning people, -but it does matter what we expose our students to. 
 
Let’s be clear about this BrainGym, doesn’t “work”, it can’t work unless we can substantially alter human physiology.  Doing the BrainGym exercises in class may have benefits for students, but they are not for the reasons BrainGym suggests. In fact, having students stand and and move their bodies would probably improve their ability to concentrate, after all, there is evidence that sitting for long periods might not be very good for us,  but standing up and moving is not BrainGym.  BrainGym is an expensive program built on nonsense. Rubbing your “brain buttons” does not increase blood flow to the brain and if you tell your students this you are lying to them.  Now, while I think teachers often get a lot of undeserved flack, shouldn’t they be…erm…telling students the truth?
 
Unsurprisingly BrainGym seems inexorably linked to that other great lark, multiple intelligences and it’s not surprising to see people promoting it are also “master practitioners of NLP”.  I’m all for teachers trying new things and heavens knows EFL is a broad church but surely we have to demand a minimum level of accountability and ask that teachers have a little bit of healthy scepticism when it comes to choosing what to bring into the classroom.  By all means, do exercises in the classroom, it’ll probably be good for students, but don’t call it BrainGym.

Prediction

Imagine an alternative universe in which a large number of teachers, experts and textbooks promoted a model of teaching which was untrue.  Imagine that despite ample evidence of the flaws of this approach,  in the form of books and journal articles, teachers and publishers just carried on teaching it, -all the time taking students money for this “education”.   Unfortunately, many EFL teachers live in that world where reading skills are concerned.  I’m hoping to write more about reading skills, but this entry will only deal with prediction.

Prediction is a popular EAP activity.  One of the key principles of reading listed by Harmer is prediction.  He notes that things like the title can help students to form opinions relating to the work before they begin reading (2007).  Grellet (1990: 56)  adds that, “reading is an activity involving constant guesses that are later rejected or confirmed”.  The British council note that ” Prediction is a valuable stage in…reading activities. It mirrors L1 skills use, where predictions form an important base for being able to process language in real time.”(online)  Prediction is an idea that comes from one model of reading, “this model of how people read is called the “psycholinguist guessing game model”(Grabe 2009:102). 

Grabe makes two important points about this model of reading.  The first is that it is very popular among “applied linguists” and the second is that “it has been proven wrong in its predictions by accumulating evidence for the past 20 years” (Grabe 2009:102).   Grabe hammers the point firmly home noting that this approach “has no empirical validity and is problematic”(Grabe 2009:103)  adding “One needs only to pick up a newspaper in an unknown language to verify that background knowledge and prediction are severely constrained by the need to know vocabulary and structure.” (1991: 380)  

 20 years of being wrong and we still use it?  Still teachers may not be familiar with articles in obscure second language reading journals and Grabes book only came out in 2009.    If only an article had appeared in something more accessible, like the ELTJ a little earlier, say around 1996…….if only!

In 1996, Amos Paran in an article called “reading in EFL facts and fictions” published in the ELTJ bemoans the use of the “psycholinguistic model” of Reading in EAP courses, noting that it “was never accepted as an important model in the first place “(1996:29) and adds:

                As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how the Goodman and Smith view of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

A point made perhaps more worrying by fact the paper was first presented at IATEFL in 1992.  Despite this, I can still pick up textbooks, such as Oxford’s “well read” which include, in Swan’s words, “the standard battery of exercises designed to train students in ‘skimming’, ‘scanning’, ‘predicting’, ‘inferring’ and so forth, that one finds in textbook after textbook” (2008:266)

Swan, beating Paran by 8 years, noted another problem with this model, namely the assumption that non-native speakers lack the ability to predict.  With his usual finesse for cutting through bullshit he writes:



               One of the comprehension skills which we now teach foreigners is that of predicting. It has been observed that native listeners/readers make all sorts of predictions about the nature of what they are about to hear or read, based on their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with the speaker or writer, and other relevant features. Armed with this linguistic insight (and reluctant to believe that foreigners, too, can predict), we ‘train’ students in ‘predictive strategies’. (For instance, we ask them to guess what is coming next and then let them see if they were right or wrong.) But I would suggest that if a foreigner knows something about the subject matter, and something about the speaker or writer, and if he knows enough of the language, then the foreigner is just as likely as the native speaker to predict what will be said. And if he predicts badly in a real-life comprehension task (classroom tasks are different), it can only be for one of two reasons. Either he lacks essential background knowledge (of the subject matter or the interactional context), or his command of the language is not good enough. In the one case he needs information, in the other he needs language lessons. In neither case does it make sense to talk about having to teach some kind of ‘strategy’. (Swan 1985: 8)

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting our students’ time?

references

British Council (2012) Prediction.  In teachingEnglish. Retrieved July 6 2012, from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/prediction

Grabe, R (2009) reading in a second language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

Grabe, W. (1991) Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, no 3, 375-406

Grellet, F. (1990) Developing reading skills Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harmer, J. (2007a) How to teach English Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Swan, M. (2008) Talking Sense about Learning Strategies RELC Journal 2008 39: 262 261-273

Swan, M (1985) a critical look at the communicative approach 1 (1), ELT Journal 39/1, pp.2-12

MA TESOL /app ling or DELTA? Which to do?

DISCLAIMER: This is not a piece based on evidence but just personal experience.  If you feel there are any factual inaccuracies then please let me know and I’ll change them.
 
I recently got an email asking which of these is a better option for an EFL teacher.  Although the person asking probably didn’t expect such a long winded reply, it inspired me to put my thoughts down in this blog.  I’ve wanted to write about the DELTA for a while now but this is not that blog…hopefully it will push me to start writing that blog though…so I’m going to lay out some of the pros and cons of both here and let you make up your own mind depending on your needs and situation. 
Time
This is fairly straight forward.  The DELTAis a 2 month course (with 1 month to write the essay for module 3) and most UK based MAs take a year.  things get more complicated if you want to do part time, or distance learning.  A lot of people choose the DELTA because taking a whole year off work is quite tough for many EFL teachers -in terms of pay, EFL is hardly banking.    
Cost
Most DELTAs are being advertised for around the £2,000-£3,000 mark for a full time course including exam fees. Of course, if you do a full time course it is quite likely that you’ll have to travel somewhere or live in another country so you can add the cost of flights, accommodation etc to that.  I did my DELTA by distance with BELL and I think it was around the £3,500 mark.  If you’re lucky, your employer may be willing to pay for some/all of the fees.
In 2006 Masters programs cost about the same.   They have subsequently increased in price and I’ve heard they will shoot up in the near future to match BA courses, -though this could be a rumour.  I luckily did my masters in 2006 for about £3,600.  The same course now costs over £4,600.  On top of this you have the loss of earnings for one year, the accommodation and living costs.  This makes the number of people able to even think about doing an MA much smaller, I imagine.  The part time option for the same course comes in at about £7,000 over two and a half years.  There are, though, scholarshipsavailable it seems. 
There is a good chance that if you choose a fairly big university and have decent qualifications, there may be chances to work in the English Language centre on campus.  There are at least 4 people where I currently work who were in that position. 
Order of acquisition
There are a number of MA TESOL courses which offer exceptions for DELTA holders.  That is, if you have a DELTA you can receive credit for a portion of the MA without having to do it. The list ranges from nothing (Unis not on the list) all the way up to 60 credits.  Rather ironically, Cambridge, producers of the DELTA, offers nothing.  It thus makes sense to do the DELTA first IF you are planning on going to one of these universities.  I did the DELTA second and it worked out for me because, by that time I had a full time job in the UK and the institution paid some of the fees.  I did try to start the DELTA abroad but for module 2 you will need a trainer and it’s pretty tough trying to find one in Asia. 
Although it’s sensible to do the DELTA first, it might be easier (as it was in my case) to take a year off work when you are younger.  If you get a DELTA and then get a well paid job you might be more reluctant to leave it to start an MA with no promise of there being a job at the end of it.  However, the longer you wait to do the MA the more you’ll probably get out of it.  That is, you’ll probably have a better idea of teaching and more experience to give you a better idea of what it is you want to focus on. 
It’s also perhaps worth adding that as module 1 and 3 are exams, you can enter by yourself without actually doing a DELTA course.  So, you don’t have to take the course to apply for the exams and if you feel confident you might find this is a good way to save money.  I will add that the exam has some very odd expectations in terms of answers, so make sure you aware of these if you plan on doing this. 
What you will learn
The DELTA course is 3 modules.  The first is an exam in which you will have to define terms like “notional functional” and “unbounded morphemes”  and be able to say who started the “silent method” and what it involves.  Why this is important for a teacher to be able to do is anyone’s guess.  The test, which is actually two 90 minutes exams,  does have a few useful sections.  The section in which you have to analyse and correct a student’s work seems pretty authentic to me.  Also the section in which you must analyse a test and find its faults is quite useful…though you inevitably start to think about the flaws of the DELTA exam itself.
The second module is the practical part and this is the real meat of the DELTA.  you are assessed over two months and have to produce a huge amount of paper.  There are five lessons (including the experimental) four of which are observed and one of which is observed by a n external candidate.  If you fail that then you fail the whole thing.  you do have a chance to retake this though as I did.  One complaint about this module is that it doesn’t explicitly tell you what good teaching is, rather it just seems to allow anything so long as you can justify why you did it.  Another problem is the huge amounts of writing you have to do.  5x 2,500 essays plus a detailed lesson plan each time 500 word post class reflection and a 800 word linking piece between the essay and and the lesson plan.  There is also a personal development essay of about 5000 words, which you cannot fail and which is full of the kind of meaningless pseudo-babble that I personally despise.  “I feel I have developed as a teacher and met my objectives” –ugh!  (edit: I might be being a little harsh here)
The third module is quite interesting.  It is a long essay which is divided into sections and staged quite cleverly so that if you mess up the start you’re pretty much done for.  You have to firstly do a needs analysis with a class.  Using the needs analysis you devise an exam for the students to test their abilities and then finally you create a syllabus/15 lesson course around your findings.  It’s quite a neat intellectual challenge though I did have some issues with it as well.  The literature on needs analysis is a bit fluffy and lacking any real scientific basis.  It just seems likes opinions dressed up with academic language.  It also seems a bit questionable to me to take time out of lessons to test students for a course that, in many cases, they will not actually ever do.  I wonder how ethical this is?
The DELTA has also recently introduced a 3rd module for managers and those wanting to be a DOS which seems like an interesting move.
Though the DELTA curriculum is standardised,  MA courses are much less so.  It is also worth remembering that two holders of an MA TESOL could have studied completely different things.  For example:
[course A] Methodology/ Second language acquisition/ Intercultural studies/ sociolinguistics /phonology/
[course B] Syllabus design/ testing/ psycholinguistics/ corpus studies/ grammar
Therefore it’s probably worth thinking about what you want to study and trying to find a Uni which offers something along those lines.
Difficulty
in short, people can and often do fail or give up the DELTA.  It is very time consuming and I wasn’t always convinced I was doing anything other than busy work.  It would take some spectacular skill to manage to fail a master’s degree.  Universities are not very good at failing people and short of not submitting work or plagiarising it’s a good bet that you will pass.   
 
Opportunities
It’s a bit of a risk doing either one or the other because there are some jobs which prefer the DELTA and others, the MA.   There isn’t really one choice that will satisfy everyone and as the job market gets more competitive, the number of places asking for, and getting candidates with both is increasing.  The place I work used to require a DELTA or equivalent qualification.  Now they state DELTA essential despite it being essentially an academic department. 
Generally speaking the DELTA will get you further.  The DELTA is the British council’s baby and hence they will look favourably on people with it.  The DELTA is also more respected as a ‘practical qualification’.  Jobs in EFL in Europe will more often require the DELTA than an Master’s.  If your goal is university work in Asia, (particularly Japan where the British council doesn’t have a great presence) the DELTA is quite often unheard of.  A search of Gaijin pot (Japan) brought up about 3 jobs which asked for a DELTA (an then they were just listed as ‘desirable’) and 1 on the TEALIT (Taiwan) site.  A search for Master’s degree’s brought up slightly more but this time they were listed as essential. 
It is worth noting that a master’s degree is not the guarantee of lucrative university work in Asia that it once was.  Almost always the departments will want people with a MA TESOL or applied linguistics and almost always they will require some published papers.  Taiwan is also quite fussy about what kind of master’s degree you got and they will want it to be officially stamped by your university notary and then by their ’embassy’ in whichever country you are from.  they will also not accept MAs that were done part-time or those which are over 3 years old.  This legislation is apparently an attempt to avoid fake degree certificates. 
 Pro/cons
The DELTA gives you a chance to examine your teaching.  Unfortunately as there is so little actual solid theory in EFL teaching you can’t be convinced that what you’re being sold is actually worth anything.  OK, so now I know what a notional functional syllabus is, but I’m not sure if I should be teaching one or not.  The module three essay at least gives you the ability to try to set up a course doing a needs analysis and designing a course around the results.  It might not be great but it’s perhaps the best we’ve got a this moment.  For those with an MA though, the theory side of the DELTA might seem a bit superficial.  Getting a DELTA though has some kind of magic aura associated with it.  For English teacher’s it’s like being a war veteran or a karate black-belt.  You just exude confidence and authority (whether or not you have any is another question…)
I personally preferred the MA, so I’m probably quite biased but the MA allows you to investigate whatever it is you want to investigate. The DELTA essays do allow this as well, to some extent.  In short the DELTA seems to say “this is how is it” whereas the MA says “why is it like this?” I felt I got a lot more out of the MA and though I can’t say I became a better teacher by doing it (after all there is no practical element on most courses) it (cheesy cliche) enhanced my world view. 
 Notes
Any questions or correction please comment.  I would love to make this article more general as at the moment I can only go on my own experience. 
some interesting criticisms of the DELTA and a blog from a DELTA tutor, Marisa Constantinides
Here are a few threads discussing the topic in more detail. 

Is Korea the worst place to teach English?

Google “don’t teach” and what comes up on auto-complete?  “Don’t teach in South Korea” meaning that it’s a pretty widely searched for statement.  Although this is not evidence of anything it’s not difficult to find horror stories on the net relating to teaching in Korea.  So is teaching in Korea really so bad?
At the start of this blog it’s probably best to say that I’ve never taught English in Koreaand to also add that I’m sure there are plenty of people teaching in Korea who are having or have had a really great time there.  However, the shocking regularity of unsavory stories about the EFL world in Koreahas always made me wonder just what the attraction of teaching there is.

The first time Korea popped onto my radar was while I was teaching in Japan and I read a US government warning to avoid teaching in Korea.  The warning has since been removed but it was up for a fairly long time ( a couple of years at least) and reads as follows:

Due to the growing number and seriousness of problems experienced by American citizens teaching English in Korea, we counsel against  taking such employment, even at reputable colleges or universities, except upon receipt of a favorable written referral from a current American citizen employee.  We receive several complaints daily  from Americans who came to Korea to teach English.

Despite contracts promising good salaries, furnished apartments and other amenities, many teachers find they actually receive  much less than they were promised; some do not even receive  benefits required by Korean law, such as health insurance and severance pay. Teachers’ complaints range from simple contract violations through non-payment of salary for months at a time, to dramatic incidents of severe sexual harassment, intimidation, threats of arrest/deportation, and physical assault.

Now this is a pretty spectacular message for anyone in the EFL world.  We all know about dodgy schools that illegally employ uncertified English teachers, and we sometimes hear stories of schools conning teachers or teachers leaving early, or behaving in an inappropriate or even illegal way.  These things do happen from time to time.  However this is something quite different.  This isn’t just a warning about some schools but the US government were pretty much saying “just say no kids!”   Not even in the hallowed halls of universities were foreign teachers safe from being ripped off. 

I started to notice a pattern when I went to daveeslcafe job hunting in 2003 and found something quite odd. Not only did Dave have a separate section for ‘Korea Jobs’ (distinct from the Asian jobs section) but there was also a separate section called something like “complaints about Korea”.  Now things have changed in the 10 years since I started teaching and there is a separate section for Chinese jobs as well now but the Korea complaints section under the guise of “Korean job discussion“.  click the link though and you’ll find several stickied threads with some very telling titles (see picture).  It is also relatively easy to find some horror stories if you scroll down a bit further, like this oneSo many complaints and enough job offers to warrant a separate section…clearly something was going wrong! 

Yet it seems like there is a almost a perfect mirror of this situation among Koreans themselves.  That is to say that while Koreans are getting a bad rap for their treatment of foreigners, the Korea press seems to take great delight in bashing foreigners.  While I suppose foreigner bashing sells papers in any country, it seems to be somewhat more pronounced in Korea

So rather than sympathy for foreign English teachers who are being exploited and abused by Koreans (to the extent that the US government tells people not to go there) many people seem to hold a massively negative view of the English teachers themselves.  The most shocking manifestation of this phenomena can be seen in this story about a Korean man who spends his free time tracking (stalking?) English teachers.  The chap in question believes he is protecting Korea from dodgy foreigners, though how he manages to spot the dodgy ones is anyone’s guess though he claims he has this ability.  Some believe that the group’s activities lead to the compulsory HIV testing of foreigners working in Korea.

I’ve always felt when reading these stories the best thing for both parties would be to just stop seeing each other.  Korea’s relationship with its English teachers seems to be like a failed marriage that continues “for the sake of the kids”.  If some Koreans abuse English teachers and believe that they are all lazy sexual predators, the best thing to do would be for teachers to stop going.  Of course, the problem is that what tends to happen is that the ‘good’ teachers will find work elsewhere in Asia and the very worst teachers who can’t manage to get work anywhere else may drift to Korea where teachers are in short supply (that’s not to say teachers in Korea are all ‘the very worst’).  These are just the kind of people that the Koreans seem to be worried about and yet they are creating the perfect conditions for them.

Luckily help seems to be at hand!  Engbots!  The article notes that “ unlike human teachers robots don’t need salaries or benefits.” which is perfect as by all accounts the some Koreans don’t like providing them. (edit: check comments -Mike tells me the Engbots thing is a bit of a myth.) 

As noted at the start I have never taught in Korea, so if you feel some of the information here is wrong or misleading please get in touch or comment and I’ll make every effort to change it.