Last weekend, we flew to Dublin for ELT Ireland’s 2nd annual conference, and despite it only being their second annual conference, we were impressed by the organisation and execution of the event, and the variety and quality of the conference talks.
Here’s a summary of a selection of talks I went to on the first day of the conference.
Attracted by the conference talk title, I went to Christopher McLaughlin’s ‘Ask the right questions to get the right answers’.
With the use of some pairwork, he got the audience thinking about classroom discourse, which often includes elicitation techniques and teacher-student interaction, both of which incorporates the use of questions.
Differentiating between genuine questions and pseudo questions, Christopher defined genuine questions as those to which the teacher does not already know the answer to.
While display questions served the purpose of checking understanding and boosting the students’ confidence, Christopher pointed out some of the disadvantage of using display questions:
- They tend to elicit brief responses;
- They are teacher-centered;
- The teacher’s role is not to interact but only to pursue the desired answer;
- The teacher is often not aware that the students’ knowledge is constrained by the structure of the questions;
- The students tend to get bored.
But most importantly,
- Display questions generate answers that are generally different from everyday discourse.
Christopher then contrasted this with examples of the use of referential questions – higher order cognitive questions. For example:
Student: I went to a party yesterday.
Teacher: What did you think of the party?
(*This is not the exact example given.)
Referential questions are more complex and requires greater effort and more depth on the part of the learner. The teacher therefore needs to give the learner more thinking time to respond and a chance to really negotiate meaning.
Seeing that one of the main tenets of the communicative approach is based on how interaction can promote language learning, it is ironic that some of us have fallen into the trap of only asking pseudo questions and display questions, neglecting the essence of authentic interactions.
As Christopher surmises, referential questions form 76% of questions we hear outside the classroom, yet it only makes up a mere 14% of questions asked by teachers. Shouldn't this discrepancy be fixed?
Head of Teacher Development of the Centre for English Studies, Chris Farrell was up next with his talk ‘CPD – where’s the evidence?’.
CPD (Continual Professional Development) should be by its very definition continuous. It should be needs driven (as opposed to a one-size-fits-all programme) and evaluative (as opposed to being prescriptive). The responsibility for CPD also has to fall on the practitioner.
Making a clear distinction between TD (Teacher Development) and TT (Teacher Training), Chris defines Teacher Training as being pre-set in its structure (e.g. a 2-week course), is based on a transmission model, is a one-off event, has a professional function (helps get you the DOS position) and authoritarian in nature.
Teacher Development, however, is a cyclical process involving the personal processing of knowledge. It is concerned with the development of the whole person, is on-going and is democratic in nature.
The decision to implement CPD in an institution requires us to consider the concerns of the primary stakeholders. While teachers receiving the development might be doing it for job security, better pay, or simply to expand their repertoire or develop as teachers, the management might be concerned about the ease of implementation and the resulting competence of their workforce and client satisfaction. To convince an institution that CPD is worth investing in, we might have to take into consideration the costs, the marketability and the result on staff morale.
A useful external framework that teachers and institutions can make use of is the EaQuals TD Framework, an open-ended inventory of descriptions of professional competences across difference phases of development. A framework like this one can help practicing teacher to assess and reflect on their own language teaching competences and encourage them to conduct CPD on their own.
Chris stresses the importance of first knowing why we are embarking on a particular CPD event, and not forgetting to follow-up and reflect after the event. He suggests the following cycle:
Justification (Why?) – Event (What?) – Evidence (How?) – Reflection
And we could also consider using SMART goals to help us make the CPD experience more measurable.
Attracting their fair share of overseas speakers, ELT Ireland saw Czech-Republic-based Filipino Louel Ross Calleja in ‘Sexing up the teaching of lexis’.
In a wonderfully charming yet sincere presentation, Louel discusses what clearly is his favourite topic: the learning of lexis. He shows the audience how he uses the ‘key word technique’ with his learners to learn new words by encouraging them to create their own aide-memoire (mnemonic device). It reminded me of how I tried to learn the Spanish word for ‘juice’ by picturing about a Sumo wrestler drinking orange juice. The Spanish word for ‘juice’ is ‘zumo’.
Reminding us that increasing one’s word power does not just mean learning new words, it also means expanding your knowledge of a word, Louel manages to surprise the mainly native-speaker audience with a list of meanings for the word ‘wing’ that we never realised existed.
Using the example ‘The soldier was winged by a sniper’, Louel explores the etymology of such a usage, taking us back to the days where hunters would ‘wing their prey’ (to wound without killing) with such passion that we felt as fascinated by the evolution of lexis as he was.
My favourite part of Louel’s talk must have been when he shared a list of new words that have appeared in recent years and got us thinking about what they might mean:
- five-second rule
- boomerang kid
- time suck
- helicopter parent
Clearly a walking dictionary himself, and an expert at making the audience look at their own language with fresh eyes, Louel’s succeeded not only in offering us tips on teaching vocabulary, but in making us enthusiastic about it all over again.
After a lovely sandwich lunch that the conference organisers laid out for us, I was excited to attend Trinity College’s Ben Beaumont’s talk ‘Applying research evidence to develop and support positive teaching environments’.
Ben opened his talk with the thought-provoking question ‘How much is your lesson worth?’ and regaled a tale of how a teacher he knew conducted some daring research in his classroom by asking his students to place a monetary value to their lesson.
Although this might not be the sort of research we want to conduct in our classrooms, it exemplified the feasibility and achievability of classroom research. It is something we as teachers can do, and it doesn’t have to require large amounts of time and/or resources. It can be something as simple as polling our students.
So what types of research can we do? Here is a selection:
- action research
- focus groups
- data analysis
- literature review
- case studies
- evaluative research
And why would we want to do any research?
Because it helps us question the beliefs that underline our teaching, makes us think about what we do, increases our knowledge and helps make us better teachers.
Ben then goes on to dispel the concerns that many teachers might have about conducting research, emphasizing that the research is for our own reflection and for our own development and does not need to encompass large numbers of test subjects or full transcriptions of long interviews.
And when we’ve conducted our research, help other teachers to benefit from it by sharing what we know. And this can be in the form of TD sessions at your own institution, online blogs/vlogs (like this one!), school journal/SIG articles, or writing for magazines or trade papers like ETp or MET (Thanks for the plug, Ben!).
After motivating the audience to start conducting our own research, Ben wraps up his talk by leaving us with the Super 7 to think about:
1. Don’t accept what writers say without thinking about it in your context.
2. Be critically analytical of techniques you use.
3. Try something new and reflect on how it went.
4. Be prepared for things not to work.
5. Be prepared for things to work.
6. Share what you do with others. Create a community of positive practice.
7. Be honest about what you need.
Conducted at DCU (Dublin City University), the conference venue was small enough so that we didn’t have to be traipsing around from floor to floor to get to our chosen talks, yet it was big enough for several exhibition stands and a sitting area for us to meet and chat to old and new friends between talks.
Although we felt sad that we couldn’t make it to the second day of the conference, we thoroughly enjoyed our conference experience and look forward to going back again next year.
As the Irish would say it, it was great craic!
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com