OK, I’m not going to suggest that a global, multi-billion-dollar, once-every-four-years spectacle like the Olympics is comparable to an English lesson. For starters, in my classes at least, there are no fake robberies or gold medals for best student. But look hard enough and we can all learn a thing or two. Here are six points that occurred to me:
1. Preparation beats adversity
Rumor has it, an Olympic kayaker was practising in Rio when he crashed into a submerged sofa. This story may be apocryphal, but in the lead-up to the Games, the media’s focus was clearly not on Olympic glory. Brazil’s woes took the headlines: the Zika virus, the failing economy, the impeachment of the president, and the unfinished facilities. But in the end, the Rio Olympics were a triumph.
What’s the lesson for educators? We worry constantly about how our lessons will turn out. Human interaction always involves an element of unpredictability, but if we prepare well, the chances are we’ll avoid disaster.
2. Being there means you’ve won already
In Rio, there was a Refugee Team from countries including Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having fled their homelands, these athletes were effectively stateless. Several of them had lived in refugee camps, and one of them had crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat. The Olympics is child’s-play to them. Their triumph was to be there at all.
We don’t always know our students’ life stories – what they’ve suffered and sacrificed to be there. Particularly in ESL contexts, some students may have escaped great danger to reach the host country. For them, obtaining any form of ongoing education is an achievement.
3. It’s about the participant
There are coaches and fans and journalists and sponsors. But the Olympic Games are about the athletes. In Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Education involves teachers and managers and institutions and publishers, lesson plans and materials and tests and equipment. But ultimately it’s about students. Experienced teachers understand that the focus isn’t on themselves; they realize the limitations of their lesson plans. Learning takes place inside the student’s mind and there’s only one person who can control that.
4. Try something new
The Rio Olympics had two new disciplines: rugby sevens and golf. These were an unqualified success. Fiji won its first ever gold medal (for rugby) – a great achievement for a small, underfunded country. At the Tokyo Olympics 2020, five more sports will be added, including skateboarding, surfing and baseball.
Educators, try something new! It might be a game; a role play; a change of classroom set-up (put the furniture against the wall!). Get the students to do a 10-minute teaching slot; combine classes to team-teach; bring in a speaker; take the class to a gallery or museum or park. You never know how it will go, but breaking free of routine often pays dividends.
5. Uphold the spirit
Many of us recognize that elite sport is tainted by corruption, commercialism, and performance-enhancing drugs. So forgive us our cynicism. But the Olympics always has feelgood moments and heartwarming stories, too. Usain Bolt secured his legacy as the greatest ever sprinter, but he also volunteered to guide a handicapped athlete in the upcoming Paralympics. In the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino tripped, crashing out of contention, but helped one another up and over the line.
Education is about people coming together in an act of transformation. Students collaborate, work together to complete tasks, and develop a classroom culture. These factors are as essential as good sportsmanship is to the Olympics.
6. Involve the community
Several reliable sources claim that communities in Rio were displaced in order to secure the Olympic site. And just how involved were the people of Rio in decision-making about these Games? While the favelas (shanty towns) were represented artfully in the Opening Ceremony, no one actually from the favelas would have been able to afford a ticket to see it. At least one Olympic superstar knew this. When U.S. basketball player Carmelo Anthony had a day off, he went to a favela and played ball with local kids. He later posted a message on Instagram: “I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.” Anthony had been raised in a rough Baltimore suburb, so he could empathize with those kids.
Education is always more powerful when we do two things: (1) go into the community, and (2) bring the community into the classroom. The most effective learning isn’t separate from the outside world; it’s part of it. Wherever you are, investigate the possibilities for involving the community in your students’ learning. It enriches both.
“Computers are useless. They can only give answers.” (Pablo Picasso)
Belvidere, Illinois, 1990, a first-grade classroom (6-year-olds). A student looks out of the window and sees a dumpster below. He asks the teacher where the garbage goes. The teacher arranges a field trip to a landfill site. The students are so shocked by the size and contents of the landfill that they start a recycling campaign in their school. Over several months, their efforts take hold and recycling becomes the norm.
And it all started with one question: “where does the garbage go?” One question, one answer, one concerted effort to take action: some say that’s how we change the world.
Children are natural questioners. They ask things like, why is snow cold? Why did my dog die? Where did my baby brother come from? Years ago a friend of mine overheard one of his sons asking, “Is Daddy older than God?” A tremendous question, and like all good questions, it leads to other questions: How old is Daddy? How old is God? How do we know? A good question is always an invitation to think.
Questioning has a long history in education, stretching from Socrates through Dewey through Bruner through Freire and beyond. It’s a vital technique, but it’s not always used well. The researcher Forestal found that when teachers talk in class, 60% of the time it’s to ask questions, but the vast majority of these are ‘display questions’ – questions for which there is only one answer, which is already known by the teacher. Years ago I read an exchange in a language class that went like this:
Teacher: Is it an elephant?
Student: No, it’s a pen.
Teacher: Very good, Paola!
And, apparently, back in the 1980s something called the British Rapid Method, used in Italy, was based entirely around meaningless questions for the sake of practising form at beginner level.
Forestal also found that the average ‘wait time’ in U.S. classrooms – the time between the teacher asking the question and getting or providing an answer – is one second. What kind of question can be answered after one second’s thought? Probably one with low cognitive demand.
Good questioning is both an art and a skill. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says that many Ph.D candidates drop out not because they have trouble answering the questions set by their professors – this is easy; they’ve done it throughout their lives – but because when it comes to doing research, they don’t have the creativity to ask the right questions.
Questions in ELT classrooms
The right questions can be the basis for an English lesson. They can be simple autobiographical questions about the students’ backgrounds or they can be more task-like. Here are some examples of the latter:
1. Look at this map. Where would you go if you could take a round-the-world trip visiting only ten countries and traveling only eastwards?
Students plot their routes, do some research on the countries, and present their ideas in groups, explaining their choices. Follow-up stages include choosing three travel companions (one friend, one historical figure, and one person to document the trip, i.e. a writer, musician, artist or film-maker).
2. Apart from family and friends, who is your hero?
Students prepare a talk on a person they admire. They hear a model of someone doing the same task; study useful vocabulary, e.g. personal qualities; do some factual research; and then describe their hero.
3. You are on a desert island. What five objects will you take with you and why?
Students come up with a list individually, then work with other students to come up with a better list, this time of seven objects. Finally, they present and justify their list to the class.
Each of these tasks lends itself to extended vocabulary, grammar, and skills work at any level above Elementary. The secret, of course, as mentioned above, is that these questions lead to other questions. “Who is your hero?” really means, “what did they do, and what problems did they overcome, and when/where did they live, and what did they stand for, and why do they matter to you?”
I’ve mentioned the questions our students ask and the questions we ask our students. A third type is the questions we ask ourselves. For teachers, the act of questioning is central to our development as professionals. As we become more experienced, the focus shifts from the lesson plan and what the teacher is doing to what the students are doing, and, more pertinently, who the students are. We ask: what is their background? What do they know? What do they need to know? How can we build on their knowledge?
As an extension of this, experienced teachers constantly question themselves: What is my identity as a teacher? What qualities do I possess in the students’ eyes? What are my deficits? How did I become what I am today and who influenced me? How will I be a better teacher tomorrow?
A Professor in a Pickle
Some years ago, H. Douglas Brown, a professor of TESOL at San Francisco State University, was traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Naples, Italy, a trip that would normally take a few hours. On this occasion it took nearly 24. One disaster after another occurred. Doug missed a flight, another was delayed, and then another was rerouted. He finally arrived at Naples Airport at 3:00 a.m. Without his luggage. Exhausted and frustrated, he looked around for help, but the airport was almost empty and he spoke little Italian.
Fortunately, Doug was able to use a variety of personality traits to get through the mini-crisis. His left-brain got him to take practical, logical steps. His right-brain got him to empathize with airport staff and to use alternative communication strategies. His ability to remain tolerant of ambiguity allowed him to keep the conversation going. He was impulsive enough to insist on prompt action, but reflective enough to understand where miscommunication might slow down the process.
Having finally got his luggage back and collapsed on a hotel bed, Doug, like all good educators, reflected on his experiences. His behavior had revealed that he possessed various interactive styles and character traits that had helped him to achieve his task.
Several of those personality traits that Doug used can be categorized as learning styles – a potentially powerful concept. If we know how people prefer to learn – for example, some are visual (they learn through images), some are auditory (learn by listening), others kinesthetic (learn by moving and touching) – surely we can adapt our teaching method to the student. This means pupils will have a better chance of learning and retaining the content.
Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? It ticks all the boxes. It makes logical sense; it appeals to our need for practical solutions; it seems to echo Howard Gardner’s influential Theory of Multiple Intelligences; and it explains why some students are dozing in class while others are bouncing off the walls.
Carl Jung first proposed a theory of psychological types in the 1920s, but it wasn’t widely applied to education until the 1970s. Since then, numerous questionnaires have been developed so that students can find out how they like to learn best, and scholarly and practical works have come thick and fast in both ELT and general education.
But wait. Is it really so simple? Could learning styles be the Magic Box that contains the answer to the only question really worth asking in language education: how to motivate students? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Let’s look a bit deeper and see why learning styles are problematic.
A Beautiful Fiction
Firstly, what is a learning style? It’s a personal disposition to learn in one way, as opposed to another. But that definition is so vague that it encompasses just about every cognitive, cultural, sensory and communicative factor you can think of. Indeed, some studies suggest there are up to 80 styles. Others say more.
The styles are usually bipolar, e.g. reflective versus impulsive, inductive versus deductive, concrete versus abstract. This begs the question: are people really one or the other and not somewhere floating in the middle? Aren’t our styles variable rather than fixed? I’ve known people whose personalities change completely depending on whether they’ve had their morning coffee or not.
The other issue with the notion of a person having “a learning style” is that information processing just doesn’t work like that. It uses multiple modalities. Just as Doug Brown, stranded luggage-less in Naples Airport, used both left and right brain, was both impulsive and reflective, people simultaneously process information in different ways.
Another problem is how to assess a person’s learning style. People commonly report having a particular style, but when tested they don’t do any better using that style than another. In short, people think they are visual or auditory learners, etc., but they’re wrong. They have no idea about their own learning style.
It seems that the concept may not be a Magic Box, after all, but rather a ‘neuromyth’ (a term used by Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries during their talk at IATEFL 2016).
Misapplied science or the accidental hoax
We language educators like to co-opt the findings of neuroscience. Our profession has the habits of a magpie, the great thief of folklore. Just as we “borrow” from therapy, games, drama, etc., so we happily borrow from science. The problem is, we don’t always see the full picture. An example: left-brain and right-brain theory. This theory came about because of Roger Sperry’s research on brain hemispheres in rats, cats, monkeys, and epileptics. There was no educational use for the theory and no empirical evidence that people are more inclined to be right- or left-brained. Yet we educators brought his work into our classrooms.
Something similar happened with Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner himself has looked on in horror as his ideas are played out in classrooms in the form of children writhing around on the floor because “they’re kinesthetic learners.” He has repeatedly said it’s only a theory. It shouldn’t drive entire educational methodologies.
Learning styles, which are frequently confused with Multiple Intelligences, have at times been similarly misappropriated.
While learners do report that they have preferences in the way they learn, the educational implications are controversial and inconclusive. Research studies that looked at the correlation between Second Language Acquisition and learning-style-tailored-instruction found negligible gains for the learner. In other words, there’s just no evidence that it works.
None of this means learning styles are worthless. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the concept has alerted teachers to principled variety: students have a variety of predispositions and teachers might therefore want to provide a variety of activities. Lots of pictures, some extended aural input, hands-on activities and games, some digital whizz-bang and some chalk-and-talk – the variety means we have more chance of reaching more students more of the time.
(*This story begins a chapter on Styles and Strategies in Doug’s book Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.)
1. Read deeply
Take any subject related to English Language Teaching – linguistics, pragmatics, theories of Second Language Acquisition, etc. – and read all you can: books, blog posts, journal articles. Then try to relate your reading to your classroom practice.
2. Do Action Research
Action Research usually begins when we identify a problem or issue in class. We experiment with a solution and monitor its effectiveness over a period of time. Finally, we evaluate the solution. It becomes a cycle: identify, experiment, monitor, evaluate. An extra stage of Action Research may be to write an article about it, to share what we learned.
3. Write articles
Writing articles changes our relationship with the profession. Instead of being consumers of other people’s research and ideas, we become producers of both. We join a community that drives the conversation about our profession. The good news is that, with the preponderance of online journals, there are now more places than ever to publish articles.
4. Write materials
Material that is tailor-made for particular students at a particular time and place can have big advantages over mass-produced commercial material. And writing materials is a great way for teachers to develop because it raises our awareness of aspects such as pacing, variety, creating and sustaining interest in a topic, balancing the four skills plus grammar and vocabulary, and balancing individual study, pair-work, and group work.
Collaboration could mean joining a SIG (Special Interest Group), working on specialized curricula, choosing materials, team-teaching, or doing collaborative lesson planning. Inevitably, collaboration demands that we conceptualize and justify our ideas – a good way to develop professionally.
6. Teach a new course
“Some teachers have twenty years’ experience; others have one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” Bearing in mind this well-known adage, we teachers need to get out of our comfort zones and teach classes we’d normally avoid. Depending on where we work, there may be opportunities to teach Young Learners, teenagers, Business English, English for Special Purposes, etc. Great teachers are often those who expand their horizons and thus keep learning on the job.
7. Give workshops
Find an interesting subtopic of ELT – something new or underrepresented in our field. Research it and come up with engaging ways to present it to colleagues. Giving workshops uses many of the same skills as teaching. In fact it is teaching, with the added twist that you’re teaching teachers, a surefire way to get critical feedback.
8. Keep a teaching journal
Make notes on your lessons. What went well? What didn’t? Why? If you keep a journal for long enough, you’ll begin to see continuities in your teaching: patterns and sequences you repeat, activities you rely on, materials you love, islands of safety in the shark-infested waters of the classroom! You will also see how your teaching subtly changes throughout your career.
9. Become a mentor
When experienced teachers help new teachers with lesson planning, troubleshooting, school routines and bureaucracy, interesting things sometimes happen. The person being mentored brings a fresh perspective and may question things that the mentor takes for granted. Being a mentor is great for the mentor’s development because it forces us to analyze and explain the things we do in class.
10. Use PLNs
Your Personal/Professional Learning Network might consist of bloggers you follow, facebook posts, tweets, friends in the profession, podcasts, clips on youtube, journals and newsletters. Your PLN is probably in a state of constant flux as you discover new outlets – other bloggers, other journals – which keep you up to date with the profession.
11. Participate in conferences and courses
Courses usually guide participants along a common path towards some useful destination (e.g., a certificate or a degree). Conferences may provide opportunities to explore a little – to go off the beaten track and find out about things we’d previously neglected. Whether we prefer convergent or divergent routes, conferences and courses give structure to our development and allow us to learn by interacting with our peers.
12. Learn a new language
Doing this will remind us of the challenges our students face: of how time-consuming language learning is; of how elusive words are even when we’ve heard them a dozen times; of the intricacies of grammar and pronunciation; of how listening comprehension can be like trying to catch butterflies in your hands. It also reminds us of the roles of the teacher: mentor, facilitator, cheerleader, expert.
13. Look at developments in other fields
Many developments in ELT originally came from elsewhere: Audiolingualism came from behavioral psychology; cloze tests (gap-fills) from Gestalt Theory; “input” from computer processing. Humanistic teaching methods, the use of recording devices, Big Data – all were imported into ELT from the big wide world. The “feeder fields” from which ELT takes its ideas include technology, sport, psychology, music, and many others. Whatever is in society will eventually filter down to ELT. Great teachers tend to be curious about such developments and look for their educational applications.
14. Learn from great educators
Read and re-read the great educators of the past: Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey, Freire, Ashton-Warner. Delve into your ELT gurus once again: Harmer, Thornbury, Burns, Douglas Brown. Our interpretation of their work changes as we change and grow more experienced. Inevitably, we begin to ask ourselves, “Where do I fit in? What do I believe? What kind of educator am I?”
15. Examine critical moments
Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have experienced a mini-crisis or a full-blown disaster. A student starts crying; a fight breaks out; a power-cut occurs during a video; the whiteboard won’t switch on; the students riot or fall asleep. What do we do? We fall back on our training and experience, and we remember these are human beings in the room and the best way to deal with human beings is to talk to them. Afterwards, in tranquillity, we reflect on what happened and learn from it.
When I worked in a private language school in London, I had a colleague – let’s call her Paulina – who stayed late every evening. I would see Paulina preparing lessons and grading papers as if her life depended on it. She was always the last to leave the school and often the first to arrive the next morning.
One day I asked her about this. Her reply broke my heart. She said, “My students found out I’m from Poland. They aren’t happy about being taught by a non-native speaker in England. I’m scared they’ll complain to the Director if my lessons aren’t perfect.”
Paulina spoke such good English that I’d thought she was British. She was dedicated, hardworking and very well-qualified. But, for some, it still wasn’t enough.
The world is full of Paulinas: brilliant non-native speaker teachers who, for no reason other than prejudice, are seen by some as second-class citizens in the world of English Language Teaching.
The Death of “Non-Native English Speaker Teacher”?
Maybe it’s time the term ‘non-native English speaker teacher’ (or NNEST) disappeared. Why?
*Because the term impacts negatively on these teachers’ confidence and self-esteem. It also unjustly privileges native speakers, whether they’re qualified or not, whether they know what they’re doing or not.
*Because the term breeds discrimination in hiring practices.
*Because the language learning industry has shifted from an attempt to produce native speaker clones to an attempt to produce competent bilinguals. NNESTs are often the best model of the latter.
In a plenary talk that was met with a standing ovation at the 2016 IATEFL conference in the UK, Silvana Richardson spoke about each of these points in detail. This post is designed to reflect on and reinforce her ideas.
The Deficit View of L1
There’s a tradition in ELT of seeing L1 (the student’s first language) in negative terms – sometimes called a deficit view. For decades, teachers were told not to allow students to speak L1 in the language classroom, and student errors were commonly assumed to result from L1 interference.
Teachers would also hammer away at pronunciation in order to ‘eradicate’ L2 features. One thinks of endless drilling of r and l sounds to Japanese students or attempts to get Europeans to produce th sounds in line with those in English. Many teachers now see this as a waste of time. If the problem area doesn’t hinder communication, it’s better to spend class time working on other things – new vocabulary or fluency.
Monolingual Teaching: Why?
The monolingual approach that precluded use of L1 was conceived and popularized in London, specifically at International House. It was regarded as effective and was then exported via teacher training all over the world. The question is whether this way of teaching actually suits other countries and cultures or whether it’s just more convenient for monolingual English speakers to teach like this.
Most classes around the world are linguistically homogeneous: the students all speak the same L1, whether it be Arabic, Chinese, German, etc. It’s hard to see how a knowledge of the students’ L1 can hinder the teacher, as long as she doesn’t conduct most of the lesson in this language.
Privileging Native Speakers
There’s an assumption in many quarters that it’s better to have a native speaker teacher. The argument goes: they have a stronger grasp of vocabulary, including tricky areas such as idioms and slang. They also provide a better model in terms of fluency and pronunciation. Finally, they have fewer difficulties with cultural understanding.
However, NNESTs have advantages, too. Having learned the language, rather than acquiring it naturally, they can identify potential areas of difficulty. They can make cross-linguistic comparisons, pointing out cognates and false friends. They have declarative knowledge: they actually know grammar rules because they had to learn them. Finally, NNESTs are in a better position to suggest effective learning strategies than those who never needed consciously to learn the language.
When it comes to privilege, we also need to look at hiring practices. Even in 2016, there are advertisements for teaching jobs that specify a native speaker is required. (Some even say “white native speaker.”) This specification entirely disregards the notions of professionalism, qualifications and experience, and amounts to discrimination.
School owners excuse it by saying that students prefer native speakers. They say it’s purely a commercial, market-driven issue: without native speaker teachers, a school cannot compete. As with my colleague Paulina, it’s true that students in the UK and elsewhere occasionally say things like, “I didn’t come all this way to be taught by a non-native speaker.” But any decent school chooses its teachers by their professionalism and experience, not their L1, and any decent school director will defend her NNESTs as long as they are good teachers. A good language teacher, by definition, will be proficient in the language they are teaching.
On top of this, it’s something of a myth that students prefer native speakers. Richardson quotes research that tells us students value professional and personal qualities over the idea of “native-ness.” Students aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference between an unqualified native speaker backpacker and a real teacher.
A Call to Action
The issues outlined above should be considered by everyone involved in ELT.
*School owners need to rethink their hiring practices;
*NNESTs need to be aware of the tremendous benefits they bring to the classroom;
*native speakers working abroad should keep learning more about how their students’ L1 and culture influence their English;
*conference organizers should give more say to NNESTs by offering them the big stage: plenaries and keynote talks;
*students need to see their NNESTs as models of bilingualism and to value what they bring as experienced professionals.
As usual, the world is in crisis. Ecological catastrophes, wars, corruption scandals, financial meltdowns, and politicians with bad hair. Do we keep our classroom insulated from these issues or do we incorporate them? For those inclined to the latter, here are some ways to do it.
1. Show & tell (who, where, when, what, why, how)
Show and Tell can be used with most students above Beginner levels. For homework once or twice a week, the students find an article or topical piece and present it to other students the next day. Provide guidance by showing them how to do it and by getting them to pick out new words and phrases they learned from the article. As a scaffold, ask them to focus on six questions (who, where, when, what, why, how).
2. Time Line
Many stories are long-running sequences. Get students to research the roots of these stories and create a Time Line. Keep the format open: the Time Line could be illustrated, horizontal or vertical, or anything students choose. Two examples of stories that worked well on a Time Line: The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, and the FIFA corruption scandal.
3. News you can use
Rather than only using the big stories about disasters and scandals, get students to choose articles from supplements on lifestyle topics. For example, they read about health, personal finance, travel and new technology. They then discuss which advice or insights they’d use in their daily lives.
4. Photo speculation
Cut out photos – the more, the better – from the week’s newspapers. The students speculate about what’s going on. As an extension, get them to match the photos to headlines and then choose an article to read. One teacher, Renée Watson, created jigsaw puzzles of the faces of five African American men killed by the police. The students did the puzzles before Watson elicited what they knew about the men. Then the class read about and discussed the killings.
Teach-ins are a way to inform would-be activists of an issue at stake. Organize an expert to come into the classroom to talk about an issue. Make sure the students are prepared with key vocabulary and questions. One example: a friend came to my class and spoke about a 6-month sailing trip and what she’d learned about the pollution of the oceans. The discussion veered from pollution to how to survive while cooped up in an 8 x 12 foot cabin space. The main thing was that the students were motivated to listen and interact.
6. Gallery walk
Gallery walks work especially well with photo exhibitions. If there are any in your area, try taking the students along. What did the students like and dislike? Why? What topics or themes are present? What did they learn about the photographer/artist? Several years ago, I took a group of adult students to an exhibition of photos by Sebastião Salgado. They were blown away, as was I, and we ended up developing a global issues map based on all the places and people Salgado had photographed.
Students focus on a topic of their choice and write an editorial or ‘think piece’. This needs to be planned in stages: show a model, highlight the structure, and point out useful phrases. If necessary, help the students to brainstorm the issues pertaining to the topic.
8. Cartoon captions
Collect topical cartoons. Blank out the captions and get students to create their own. This will need scaffolding: first, ask the students what the cartoons are about and do an example. Then have students work in groups. Finally, get them working alone.
9. Readers’ Theater
Readers’ Theater involves developing and performing scripts based on something the students have read. No props, sets or costumes are required. The students read a text and, in groups, turn it into a theater piece with dialogue, characterization, and movement. Some kind of conflict is essential. As preparation, students need to see what a script looks like, know how to highlight parts, read expressively, and use ‘the stage’. One group of young adult learners enacted a scene from the story of the Chilean miners trapped underground in 2010. Another staged a mock trial after a celebrity murder case.
10. Problem/Solution poster or Cause/Effect chart
For more visually oriented students, posters and charts are motivating and immediate. A basic kind is a T-chart with columns that match problems and solutions or causes and effects. But posters and charts can take almost any form: clouds, leaves, trees; the only limit is our imagination. After showing students examples, have them create their own chart or poster to represent a news story or issue.
11. News sources comparison
High level students can compare the treatment of a news story by different newspapers or media outlets. Which words are commonly used in both reports? How do the articles differ? Think about tone, length, detail, point of view, and language. A Venn diagram is a good tool for showing similarities and differences.
12. News article transformation
An interesting exercise is to get students to change the genre or the length of the article or to inhabit the story and rewrite it from the protagonist’s perspective (e.g., I instead of she). This requires higher-order processing and various subskills such as synthesizing, adapting, and extending.
How do you incorporate global issues into your classroom? Do you have any activities to share? Let us know!
In the 1970s, U.S. educational psychologists devised a program to ‘correct’ children’s language ‘deficiencies’. A documentary was made about the program. Here’s the transcript from one scene:
White Teacher (showing coffee cup): This is not a spoon.
Small Black girl: Dis not no ‘poon.
Teacher: No. “This is not a spoon.”
Child (softly): Dis not a ‘poon.
Teacher (annoyed): “This is not a spoon!”
Child (exasperated): Well, dass a cup!
So who’s the deficient one that needs ‘correcting’: the kid whose language communicates its message efficiently or the adult who says stupid, self-evident things to help the kid conform to standard grammar rules?
Ebonics – sometimes known as African American Vernacular English or AAVE – has a bad reputation among the self-appointed gatekeepers of the English language. They use a number of arguments to denigrate the dialect: people won’t take you seriously; you don’t know the rules; no one will understand you; if you want to get on in life, you need to speak real English.
These arguments are spurious and bound up with questions of power. Who decides what real English is? Invariably, it’s the elite – those with their hands on the levers of the media, the political scene, and the publishing industry – and ‘elite’ in America and the UK usually means white and wealthy. Why is “Dis not a poon” inferior to “this is not a spoon”? It isn’t. “Dis not a poon” is entirely logical and comprehensible, as is Ebonics in general. AAVE is rule-driven, structurally complex, and more than adequate for expressing ideas. In fact, the richness and vitality of the spoken word is central to African American life, and linguistic ability is a prized asset. This is the demographic that gave us rap and hip-hop, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.
The problem lies not with Ebonics itself but with the gatekeepers – Steven Pinker calls them language mavens – and what they deem to be acceptable. But acceptability is context-driven. Walk into a Detroit tenement or a Johannesburg shanty town or a Milton Keynes tower block and try speaking the Queen’s English. “Acceptable” and “standard” are culturally loaded terms.
The problem also lies in a lack of intercultural competence and a colonial attitude towards minority languages and dialects.
Take this anecdote from Suzanne Romaine’s Language in Society:
A senior professor of education visited a London comprehensive school and discussed with one class the languages they spoke at home. One boy put up his hand and said that his family spoke a French Creole. In an unguarded moment the professor replied, “That’s nice.” “What’s nice about it?” asked the boy.
This paternalistic view of the ‘other’ language is all too common. Some regard the home language as a cute game for children, while English, with its Shakespeare and Chaucer and the New York Times and the BBC and CNN, is the language of the grown-ups.
Ideology is at its most powerful when it’s invisible, when unsubstantiated ‘facts’ go unquestioned. When any form of oppression has worked completely, the oppressor doesn’t need to act, because the oppressed have internalized their ‘inferiority’. This happens in relation to language use as much as any other form of human interaction. It’s one reason why first-generation immigrants dissuade their offspring from speaking the mother tongue. They have internalized the idea that English is good and the mother tongue bad. It’s why African American parents are sometimes heard scolding their children for speaking AAVE. It’s why John Prescott, a British politician known for mangling his sentences, apologized for not mastering the grammar of his own language. It’s why arbitrary ‘rules’ survive and thrive, such as the ridiculous notion that one should never end a sentence with a preposition.
Communication and Comprehension
How then should we approach regional and ethnic variations of English? The first stage is openness. When Native Speakers are confronted with someone addressing them in English as a Second Language or in a dialect, they have a choice: listen to comprehend or do the opposite.
All communication works two ways. Listeners need to empathize, find common ground, and mentally turn the speech signals they hear into plausible propositions. As we listen, we constantly make judgments about these signals, from the phonemic level (the most basic of sounds) up to the pragmatic level (what the speaker is actually trying to achieve). We use everything we know in order to comprehend the incoming noise, and we reject all options but one. The ‘one’ is what we ultimately believe we heard. This process requires openness of both the ears and the mind. As the saying goes, ‘a wise man listening to a fool will learn more than a fool listening to a wise man.’
The Oakland Ebonics Controversy and Identity
Twenty years ago, the school board in Oakland, California controversially allowed some education to be conducted in AAVE. In the furor that followed, the TESOL organization (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) offered a voice of reason: “Research and experience have shown that children learn best if teachers respect the home language and use it as a bridge in teaching the language of the school and wider society.”
How we speak reflects our life story: our upbringing, education, class, social status, ethnicity, gender. It’s an essential part of our identity. When we demean another person’s speech, we demean that person and their history. We also perpetuate false assumptions about the superiority of one way of speaking. The truth is: everyone has an accent. It’s just that society values some accents more than others.