21 February 2007

Comments after the Beijing TEFL Conference

A teacher attended a TEFL Conference in Beijing and reported back on the key points (in italics below) with my comments.

1. The emphasis throughout was that students, not teachers should initiate most of the work.

Students can do this only if they are given some direction and training how to do it as well as the power and the freedom. What kind of work are they supposed to do? Preparing for exam work? That doesn't give them much leeway.

2. Don’t go to extremes. All new and no old usually causes problems. Add the new to the old and discard some of the old.

This is fine as long as they don't use it as an excuse to have all old and no new. Professor Li Xiao Ju introduced the communicative approach in 1980 and they nearly stoned her as a heritic. Around 1990 the Education Ministry accepted the communicative approach but had to back down over stiff resistence. Now they have the "eclectic clause" which means they pick and choose what they want from communicative approach often picking nothing.

3. Listening – Xian Medical College. Listening plus is the answer. Teacher of Listening is regarded as a ‘button pusher’ for a machine. Isolated skills impair learning. Each teacher, half their classes were left as normal and half the classes were given the new program. They used the same text book. Students in LISTENING PLUS listened in the normal way, and then listened seeing the text, with some words or phrases removed. In pairs (or small groups) they then discussed what the missing words were. They were also given exercises from the CCTV series ‘Let’s Talk’. The students discussed and so listening had a context, conversation, discussion.

This may be a good way to start off with new or lower level learners. It focuses intense concentration on one word rather than teaching the student how to glean meaning from a recorded conversation or lecture. Because some students try to do listening word by word it makes it difficult when such a strategy is impossible and they have to get the gist from the recording. The former is considered the "bottom-up" strategy of the traditional approach and the latter is considered part of the "top-down" strategy of the communicative approach.

4. English is imbedded solidly when a person is exposed to English for 90 minutes without a break. IMPLICATIONS: Whenever we interrupt the English learning with Chinese, we break the 90 minutes and thus the students’ chance to learn well. (Classes thus should not have a break.)

Interesting. Did they support this with research? You cannot just make a statement like this without some research behind it. Normally no one would assert such a thing unless they did some testing. Did they say anything about the long cherished habit of teachers explaining meaning of words or grammar in Chinese?

5. Essential to include tasks in learning, but not to overdo it. Task should come after the language has been learned, not before. Not TASK BASED LEARNING but TASK SUPPORTED LEARNING.

Using tasks before teaching, an alternative to the old PPP approach, is a way to stimulate the students' mind and get them engaged in the subject. Authors, movie directors and gamesters use the technique constantly. Throw out a challenging idea. "What is the one common characteristic all millionaires have that you may have, too?" "Can you connect the nine dots with only four lines without lifting your pencil?" "When she got out of the taxi she handed the driver a copy of an Email instead of the taxi fare. The driver objected but when he began to read the message he couldn't stop his tears."

This is the appetizer. It makes the student hungry for the answer. This gets the student activated on a certain subject. He calls into service all of his mental faculties, ideas, understanding and experiences. He sorts all of this and focuses everything he's got on the problem. When the teacher later offers more vocabulary, gambits, phrases and grammar it all gets added to the student's personal resources before all getting filed away again at the end of the exercise into the student's mind.

8. Computer testing; don’t just put the paper questions on the computer.

To fully use the computer the program should be designed to take the students' answers and analyze them.

CALL is Computer Aided Language Learning. But ICALL is Intelligent Computer Aided Language Learning, using the computer to guide the student a little more intelligently. ESL Blue on the web is a good simple example of this. The BULATS test, made by the same people that did the IELTS test, is a smart test which changes itself according to the perceived skill of the student allowing the test to more closely zero in on the students level of skill.

9. "Currently the standard expectation for College English is too high." Prof. Wen Qiu-fang. L2 speakers should be the model for L2 learners, not L1 speakers. Since 1880’s it has been advocated that L1 should not be used to teach L2. It is not new.

Interesting idea. This touches on the idea of Global English and the fact that the communication partner most students will have when they join the workforce may well NOT be a native speaker of English.

I have found, from learning some French, that I can communicate best with non-native French speakers who also learned a little French. It seems that we know the same vocabulary and our grammar is very simple and possibly primitive even to the extent of being incorrect but easily understood by those like us.

10. Grammar is essential AFTER the language is known, not to teach the language. Learn the words, the form, the context (internal as well asexternal) before you learn the grammar. Grammar is to allow the student to go on and develop the structure in other situations.

Right. That's similar to what Krashen says. Grammar instruction is more like repair work.

11. Obstacles to overcome. Fear of teacher; teach students to question. Fear of standing out; teach students to be original and, whether you agree or disagree, respect the opinion. Allow others to question it without degrading it. Learn to agree to disagree in many situations.

Very good. One big problem is the exam which reduces all comment, reaction and idea to "right" and "wrong" answers. Many of my students cannot accept a comment like, "Well, in American we would say..." The student answers, "On the test it has to be right or wrong." Since many teachers are getting judged by how well their students do in exams it remains to be seen if teachers will find a way to shake loose from the shackles of "teaching to the test".

Another teacher issue is the respect teachers customarily and traditionally receive. This is kind of nice and a great change to some of the attitudes some students in the west display towards teachers. Although many of us foreigners are casual or even too casual with our students, I think it will take time for this to change with our Chinese colleagues.

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