ELT in Difficult Circumstances: From whose point of view? Reflections on a plenary at IATEFL, Manchester

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The plenary by Harry Kuchah Kuchah at the recently concluded IATEFL conference held at Manchester was on teaching English in difficult circumstances: Challenges, possibilities and future direction. Yes, Harry dwelt at length on the challenges, but what impressed me most is the challenge that he put forward to the blurred ELT perspective that has distracted us over the years. Listening to Harry online during the plenary I wondered what is meant by ELT in difficult circumstances propounded by Michael West in 1960. DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES? From whose point of view?
The definition of ‘difficulty’ as given by Michael West 55 years back betrays a note of insensitivity to the hopes and aspirations of millions of ‘non-native’ learners of English globally. “… a class consisting of over 30 pupils ( more usually 40 or even 50), congested on benches ( not sitting at individual or dual desks), accommodated in an unsuitably shaped room, ill-graded, with a teacher who perhaps does not speak English very well or fluently, working in a hot climate.” Hot climate, unsuitably shaped room, people not sitting at individual or dual desk’…….Well, these may be ‘difficult circumstances’ for an English teacher coming to India or Uganda from a country blessed by a cold climate but not for the English teachers who are born and brought up in ‘hot climate.’
It is intriguing to note that ELT experts of the west do not consider our ELT world ‘ideal’. For them “ a huge amount of ELT in the world today takes place in situations that are far from the ideal world of pedagogical excitement and innovative teaching that western ELT researchers and practitioners would like to think they inhabit” (Maley 2001).
The so called ‘difficult situations’ and the absence of the Eurocentric ‘ideal world of pedagogical excitement’ are misnomer in the context of teaching English as a global language. Drawing from his experience of teaching very large classes (over 200 teenagers and 100 children) in under-resourced contexts in Cameroon, Kuchah Kuchah demolished the myth of ‘difficult situations’ and put forward a context specific ELT pedagogy that does not care for the illusory ideal world of the west.
To quote from Harry, “Teachers are indeed confronted with various types of difficulties in their daily work lives and this makes a definition of ‘difficulty’ very elusive. What is more, the circumstances which one teacher considers favourable, might actually constitute a difficulty for another teacher.” Though Harry referred to Michael West’s definition of ‘difficult circumstances’ he did not go by that definition. He defined difficult circumstances as: ‘Those circumstances that are outside the control of teachers and learners, but which affect their daily experiences of teaching and learning significantly’. These circumstances are global and are not peculiar to the non-native contexts of English language teaching.

In his plenary speech, Harry examined the pragmatic responses of teachers in otherwise ‘difficult circumstances’ and advocated a bottom up approach by creating the right enabling environment for teachers incorporating students’ and teachers’ perspectives.
During his deliberations, Harry was very emphatic in projecting the contextual realities of ELT classrooms beyond the so called ‘ideal world’. Large classes, multigrade classes, multiple L1 influences are the norms of ELT classroom in many countries of the world. A class consisting of 30 pupils, sitting at individual desks, accommodated in an air conditioned room, taught by a native speaker working in a cold climate is no more the norm of English language teaching, it is an exception. English, the global language is being learnt by millions of children across the globe in contexts which do not follow the contexts eulogized by Michael West. The democratization of English has turned the table in favor of the pupils who sit in ‘an unsuitably shaped room’ in a ‘hot climate’.
When Harry spoke about learners as partners, he signaled the emergence of a new ELT pedagogy. Learners are resources and resource providers who can define the ELT pedagogy suitable for their specific contexts.
It is nice to know that Harry was instrumental in shaping an unusual bottom-up, context driven approach supported by the teacher association. He asserted that “teachers are more likely to accept pedagogic innovation when it is seen to emanate from, or be endorsed by their peers [and/or students].”
The plenary was highly informative, insightful and interesting from a pedagogic point of view.I was happy to note that Harry made a strong case for looking at ELT from the perspectives of the teachers and the learners who long for English in circumstances which are ‘difficult’ for people like Michael West. Thank you Harry for advocating and popularizing a ‘contextually appropriate ELT pedagogy’. I do hope that this plenary will inspire English teacher teaching English in non-native contexts to be more innovative in using a contextually appropriate ELT pedagogy.

IATEFL Manchester 2015: Two plenaries

Originally posted on Sandy Millin:

Before IATEFL 2015 I said I’d try to publish at the end of each day of the conference. I should have learnt by now that there’s no way that will ever happen because I don’t have time to think, much less blog during the conference! Instead I decided to group my posts by themes I found in the talks I chose to see. The first two plenaries didn’t really fit any of these, hence this post. The other posts will hopefully appear over the next few days…

Frozen in thought? How we think and what we do in ELT – Donald Freeman

In the opening plenary of the conference, Freeman examined three myths of teaching and ELT:

  • ‘direct’ causality: teaching causes learning
  • ‘sole’ responsibility: as teachers, we’re the ones responsible for what happens in our classroom
  • ‘proficiency’ as the goal of our teaching

I liked the metaphor of a suitcase…

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David Crystal on English Pronunciation: An interview at IATEFL, Manchester 2015

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“English language is like a garden of flowers with each accent being a distinct flower.” What a profound statement made by David Crystal in an interview during the IATEFL Manchester conference! While English teachers around the world are obsessed with the ‘correct’ and ‘accepted’ pronunciation of English, David’s dispassionate observation comes as a welcome relief and prompts us to look at the pronunciation of English from a global perspective. With the help of a number of examples, David pointed out how the English language and its pronunciation have been changing over the years. David’s interview should be an eye opener for the teachers of English who make a fuss about the purity of the ‘native’ pronunciation of English.
Accents are varied throughout the English speaking world and people should be proud of their accents, David remarked during the interview. So long as you are clear and intelligible, retain your identity. Mixed accent is the norm and we should aim at an ‘Educated Understandable accent’, not the so called Received Pronunciation. The hallowed RP of the past has changed. Citing the way the word ‘cool’ is pronounced, David pointed out that the manner of articulation of this word has changed over the years. We don’t pronounce it with a rounded lip any more, we pronounce it with lips spread. It’s not a question of right or wrong, it is the question of how it is pronounced today. Again, referring to the wide variation of accents of English words, David pointed out how a simple three syllable word ‘POTATO’ is pronounced in various ways across the globe. Some stress it on the first, some on the second and some on the third. Though David put forward his arguments in a very informal manner, the logic of his argument is beyond any dispute. He is a keen observer of the language and is a realist, not an Utopian. His arguments are based on facts and figures.
How should English teacher respond to the changing pronunciation of English? The young interviewer asked him. Quick came the reply. Follow the young people and try to be net savvy. The young people are the transmitters of the language and we should honour the language used by them. Not only the young people, even the kids have a role in language transmission. If you distance yourself from the kids, you distance yourself from the living language and your language becomes obsolete.
David eulogized the role played by the internet in sustaining the language. Don’t dismiss the new technology, respect it, David remarked. He stated that for the people of his generation, books were central and the screen was marginal, for the young people today, the screen is central and books are marginal. Therefore, English teachers should be aware of what is going on in social media, they should make use of the resources of the net and the creativity of the young people.
Are you ready, my dear English teachers? Hope, David’s talk will change your mind set and you will look at English pronunciation from a realistic global perspective.
PS. During the interview David also talked about ‘Shakespeare including practical tips for teachers on how to engage learners with Shakespeare and how they can improve their understanding of the great works’. But in this blog post, I have confined myself to the second part of the interview when he talked ‘about how language and pronunciation is changing and how teachers can keep up to date and evaluate what they focus on in class when teaching pronunciation’
Watch the recording on IATEFL Manchester Online http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/…/…/interview-david-crystal ‪#‎IATEFL

Gender inequality and bias in ELT Conferences: An IATEFL interview

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Does it really matter if an ‘ELT celebrity’ delivering a keynote address in an international conference on English Language Teaching is a man or a woman? Have you ever scrutinized the ‘big names’ in ELT and tried to find out how many of them are men and how many are women. For me, a plenary speaker speaking at an international or national conference is just an ELT professional, it hardly matters if the said speaker is a woman or a man. But, for Russel Mayne of the University of Leicester and Nicola Prentis, a Freelance ELT expert, the issue of gender equality and bias is a serious matter in ELT. They have come to IATEFL Manchester conference to share their research findings with the fellow delegates.
In an interview on IATEFL online at Manchester on 13 April,2015, Russel and Nicola talked about research they had done into gender equality and bias particularly among the range of conference speakers on the regular ELT circuit. They think that the ‘big names’ in ELT are the names of men, not women. They opined that there was sexism and gender bias in ELT seminars and conferences. Women disappear from plenary speakers, they asserted.

The research topic seems to be paradoxical. Russel and Nicola admitted during the interview that women are everywhere in ELT and they outnumber men in classrooms and conferences. But when it comes to ‘big names’ in ELT and when you count the names of plenary speakers of ELT conferences around the world, you are surprised to note the underrepresentation of women. Why do women disappear entirely from plenary speakers in a hugely female dominated profession of ELT, Russel and Nicola wondered.
During the interview, Russel and Nicola referred to some of the remarks made by the ‘big names’ in ELT who lacked gender sensitivity. One ELT specialist once wrote in his blog, “ I feel uncomfortable with the fact that I am a man standing in front of a sea of women”. A plenary speaker in an international conference once asked his audience, “Everybody sit down if they are women.”
What is the basis of their research? Facebook groups and twitters, Russel and Nicola told the interviewer. They further stated that 520 respondents from at least 30 countries took part in the research.
Why do women ELT professionals face discrimination in the selection of plenary speakers around the world? Is it due to the mind set of the men controlling the ELT organizations or is it due to some barriers faced by women alone? Why is it that the ‘big names’ in ELT include the names of more men and fewer women? What can we do to help women overcome the sense of sex discrimination? Russel and Nicola talked about a website which addresses the issue of gender discrimination in ELT.
The IATEFL online interview of Russel and Nicola was quite interesting. I wish I could attend their session to learn more about the ‘perceived’ gender discrimination which prompted them to undertake an innovative research project. All the best.

Reflections on Donald Freeman’s Plenary at IATEFL, Manchester

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Donald Freeman’s plenary ‘Frozen in thought? How we think and what we do in ELT’ on the opening day of the IATEFL Manchester conference on 11 April 2015 was a wakening call to the ELT teachers who are often immobilized by their preconceived notions of teaching in general and English language teaching in particular. It is really unfortunate that we as English teachers often tend to accept uncritically the traditional notions for what ‘good ‘ teachers ought to know and what they are supposed to do in their classrooms.
In a very lucid and lively manner, Donald examined three myths that we live by in ELT and analyzed our preconceived ideas about how teaching and learning work, about the teacher’s role, and about the classroom goals of English instruction.
It was nice listening to Donald when he demystified the three ‘myths’: (1) Direct Causality which is based on the belief that teaching makes learning happen, (2) Sole Responsibility which is based on the assumption that the teacher makes critical decisions, makes teaching plans and prepares materials for the desired learning outcome, (3) Proficiency is the goal of ELT, a myth that is grounded on our assumption of ‘nativeness.’
Donald argued that these three myths should not go unscrutinized and unchallenged, because, if they go unscrutinized and unchallenged, they can undermine teachers’ professional confidence and impede training and research.
There was, of course, a note of caution. Donald pointed out that (a) Myths are not ‘right or wrong’, (b) Each myth has useful and misleading aspects and (c) Unpacking the distinction helps to ‘thaw’ our thinking.
While I started listening to Donald, I was wondering why on earth myths exist in the field of education. Donald was , of course quick in reading the mind of the audience. He pointed out that myths exist because (a) they organize our work, (b) they help establish what we do as teachers and (c) they bring a shared understanding.
Referring to the myth of ‘Direct Causality,’ Donald pointed out that the teacher creates opportunities and his ‘moves’ are connected to learners’ moves. The myth of ‘Sole Responsibility’ makes teaching a game of chess, but Donald asserted that teaching is actually a ‘distributed opportunity’ and not the sole responsibility of the teacher. He quoted the remark of one of his Brazilian students who had told him, “When you teach, you have to manage what you can’t control.”
Regarding the third myth, Donald was quite straight forward. He asserted that ‘nativeness’ is a geopolitical and not a linguistic construct. We should not think of ‘proficiency’ in the singular, Donald reminded his audience. Instead of ‘proficiency’, we should aim at ‘proficiencies’ which are always situated in particular contexts and are conditioned by a particular social practice.
Donald’s presentation was highly pictorial. The imageries drawn by him, the lively pictures shown by him and the convincing arguments put forward by him made his plenary a memorable one. A highly thought provoking plenary that set the ball rolling at IATEFL Manchester Conference.
Donald’s plenary at IATEFL was a highly balanced academic discourse on the theories and practice of ELT and I do hope that it will prompt the teachers attending the Conference to ignite their frozen thoughts. Why should we be frozen in thought after your plenary, Donald Freeman?

The 47th IATEFL Conference 2013 at Liverpool: A reminiscence

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It was a bright sunny morning at Liverpool in UK. I was ready for the IATEFL 2013 Conference. As the venue of the Conference was not very far from my hotel, there was no point in hiring a taxi. Breathing the fragrance of the early morning of a country which had always welcomed me with her scenic beauty and serenity, I walked leisurely to the venue. Based on my previous experiences of attending international conferences in other countries, I was a bit anxious of the registration process and was apprehensive of a huge crowd at the registration desk. To my utter surprise, I got my registration kit in five minutes. What a friendly and relaxed atmosphere! Was it an academic meet or a family reunion, I wondered. “Great, you’re a Ray Tongue Scholarship winner!”, exclaimed one of the volunteers at the registration desk. Greetings and warm handshakes mark the beginning of your homecoming. You feel proud to be a member of the IATEFL family.
As a new IATEFL conference participant, I made it a point to attend the talks of the ‘How to series’ on all the days. Susan told us how to jigsaw our conference experience, Alison outlined how to write for IATEFL Voices and Tania provided the much needed guidance on how to prepare our reports. The precision of the talks made a permanent impression on our minds and their talks showed us the day. Really great!
My interaction with the delegates gave me the impression that young delegates outnumbered the old. Presenters who were in their twenties or thirties spoke so passionately and professionally! Their passion for teaching English as a global language and their commitment to professional development reverberated in the corridors of the conference venue. David Crystal’s plenary session on the language of the Beatles, Deniz Kurtoglu Eken’s plenary session on ELT weather and Jun Liu’s plenary session on ELT tomorrow also brought out the youthful spirit of the conference.
IATEF has been turning younger day by day.Like the 47th IATEFL conference at Liverpool, the 48th IATEFL conference at Harrogate also sparkled in youthful vigour. Hope the 49th IATEFL conference at Manchester commencing today will also follow the tradition. A lot of hope, aspiration and expectation is already in the air of Manchester and ELT professionals from around the world are making a pilgrimage to this historical city to discuss, reflect and develop their ideas. A vibrant group inspired by a common cause!