June 2017

Students are Over-Tested, Teachers and Institutions are Under-Tested

We are forever developing more and more sophisticated tests to evaluate students’ English ability. Guess what? Learners are in English class because they don’t speak or write English. They will graduate unable to speak or write English and they are likely to be stuck in English class for many more years not becoming fluent in English. The likelihood of learners becoming fluent in English in English class is close to zero. It has been this way for hundreds of years. Learners don’t need any more testing but teachers and institutions do.

If you are an English teacher of long standing or a decision maker in an English teaching institution stop reading now unless you have a very thick skin. It’s not about you, it’s about our gross collective failure to teach English effectively. In spite of teachers and schools this is being changed by the internet – but that is another article.

Although teaching to the test is common worldwide, I suspect it is the worst in China. It’s where students memorize grammar and spelling in order to past tests and graduate with no authentic ability in the new language. One author doesn’t pull any punches in Teaching English in China is a Waste of Time. It’s not clear if it is students’ time or teachers’ that is wasted but I’m leaning towards both. Teach to the test is an earmark of mass miseducation that serves teachers and institutions but not students. Oh wait, that is worldwide too. Our poor results have nothing to do with students but are due to our having no idea of how to teach language and refusing to learn to do better. Before we check out the gloomy fate of traditional English programs let’s look at how wide and deep the English teaching/learning chasm has become.

Out of the mouths of babes, here is an article from the Japan Times you are going to hate. Junior high students rip elementary English as ‘useless’. In a left handed way it implies that Senior high students are happier with their English school but the opposite is true, they are less satisfied than the Juniors.

From India here is a short slide presentation you are also going to hate. How did Englishmen Cheat Indians on English Education. The author is correct in laying much of the blame for the state of English teaching at the feet of Oxford and Cambridge (not to discount the negative contribution of the entire ESL publishing industry). In collusion with badly educated teachers education systems have intellectually brutalized learners then turned around and blamed the victims (students) for the poor results for generations. Is it possible the problem isn’t the students at all?

Unfortunately, in the Englishmen Cheat Indians PowerPoint the presentation devolves into a lame pitch for the author’s English program by the seventh slide. The author shoots himself in the foot at the end of his exposé by using the recently maligned Oxford as a reference lol. If his program is as bad as his English it should be avoided but he does get in some very valid points about the carnage that is the English teaching culture in India.

India clearly is being cheated by the English as the presentation suggests but this swindle has gone on for over 250 years! How has the worldwide travesty of just plain bad teaching sustained itself for centuries? The answer is in the question. ‘Sustained itself’.

The education industry with salaried, pensioned, teacher-minions sustains itself successfully by avoiding unbiased, third party tests. Institutions, teacher training, conferences, forums… are all parts of a self aggrandizing and self perpetuating culture. There is absolutely no accountability to parents, taxpayers, students… with the sleezy exception of the industry’s own self validating propaganda. Our failure to teach English effectively has continued unchecked for hundreds of years because there is no testing of teachers or schools.

I’m on a bit of a rant here so you can skip over the next few paragraphs unless you have also noticed the same things.

I was looking at the keynote speakers on the agenda at a recent national TESL Conference (TESOL, IATEFL… are in the same sinking boat). I couldn’t find a speaker without LinguisticResearch. PhD or Theory in their bio. Many had all four. Why?

  • Linguistics and Grammar are the undisputed roots of student failure.
  • The purpose of Research is to control and predict. We failed to produce results and don’t need any more research to predict the end of language education as we were taught it – we are living it.
  • PhD – please. We all drank the ‘higher education’ Kool-Aid. Hiring speakers who drank gallons more than we did is a last ditch attempt to legitimize the whole education culture we were born into that isn’t working. More of the wrong kind of education is not where the solution lies.
  • Theory is wordy, techno and distancing and looks like this: intercultural communicative competence, explore indigenization, futurology, English in multilingualism, comprehensive examination, adjunct professor… Is it useful in the classroom to learners? No.

The saving grace here is attendance at these professional conferences has dropped from thousands to hundreds. No kidding. Teachers looking for real solutions for teaching English effectively have learned they are are not going to find them at expensive, cushy, country-club, conferences. They are going to find solutions where students are finding them – on the internet.

The current English teaching paradigms are falling apart faster than gasoline evaporates. The internet is providing more effective, economical alternatives. Learners must beware of the online programs that simply digitize IPA and other bad approaches, but good systems are out there and students are finding them quickly because they are motivated.

Teacher training and administrations are like barges in a port; they can’t maneuver quickly enough to catch up to their competition. Their fate is sealed. I can’t think of a quicker way to sink traditional teaching than with programs like the Canadian Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) that continues to over test learners and over tax teachers. Traditional English education is killing itself in front of our eyes. It’s too late for teacher or institution testing now, there is nothing anyone can do to save traditional ESL. Don’t despair. It’s not the end of the world it’s just change. In the field of teaching English, change is good. The real test of education is in learners’ ability to function confidently and successfully outside of the classroom.

Yours in ESL,

Teacher Judy

judy@thompsonlanguagecenter.com (905) 757-1257

LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT for Conversation

You know how you get a new car, married, break your arm… and suddenly you notice how many people around you are driving that car, getting married, sporting casts…? It’s like that for me now about the real job of English teachers. Confirming conversations, published articles, innovative education programs… are popping up all over the place now that I understand the real job of teachers is not to stuff students’ heads with boring senseless information that doesn’t make a difference, isn’t accurate and forgotten as soon as tests are completed. My job is to teach the patterns that are always true which empower students as quickly as possible to USE THE ENGLISH THEY HAVE comfortably in authentic situations. My job is to prepare them quickly and competently to support their success and continued learning in the real world.

I was trained to teach letters, numbers, vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing to English learners. It didn’t take long to notice no matter how much students studied, they never spoke English confidently. Most never spoke English outside the classroom at all.

From Rita Baker’s first book Brain Power http://amzn.to/19OFwgh I learned human brains are pattern seeking, meaning making machines. We don’t process or retain details. Burdening learners with exhaustive nuances of spelling, grammar, phrasal verbs, word order… is the car-analogy equivalent of teaching Newton’s Laws of Motion and expecting them to drive. It doesn’t work. All I had to do was discard everything I had been trained to teach and find the patterns that are always true.

It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had expected. And loads of great minds have cottoned on to the process of learning languages and the language teachers’ role in the process.

Jason West English Out There

Benjamin Constable: How People Really Learn Languages

Benny Lewis: The Secret to Learning Many Languages

A great way to start looking at this innovative approach to learning is to see the whole picture and decide how to proceed from there. You probably never looked at the critical parts of successful conversation in this way before so I’ll walk you through it.

Vocabulary, Context and Participation are Given

  • Vocabulary: Words are really helpful in conversation.
  • Context: Context is everything, more so than words because people convey messages using only context and body language all the time.
  • Participation: Fluency is only attainable by actually speaking to others.

Clockwise from the top:

Intelligibility is composed of Word Stress and Pausing. English is a stress-based language. Native speakers have unlimited tolerance for individual sound omission or substitution and grammar mistakes don’t even register but if the word stress is missing or in the wrong place English speakers can’t guess what a non-native speaker is saying. Frequent tiny pauses are necessary for the brain to process what is being said and to form responses.

Grammar is relatively insignificant, probably a smaller wedge than indicated in the pie chart. If grammar is wrong or totally missing, conversations are still successful. (Native speakers’ grammar is terrible.)

Confidence can’t be underestimated. Some cultures are naturally unselfconscious about making mistakes and these people learn to speak English the fastest.

Culture is the unwritten rules of behavior that underpin any social group of people. Including but not limited to: Good manners. When is it my turn to talk? How long do I talk? How much information is appropriate to share with strangers?

Strategies are what to do when things go wrong. Rita Baker counselled me to Look Right, Keep Left and control my instinct to turn right in a crisis. This was my survival strategy if things went wrong.

Expressions and Humor are true indicators of fluency not tests. English is idiomatic and abstract not linear or concrete as grammar suggests.

Non-Verbal aspects of conversation, for example, gestures, body language, tone of voice… are stronger indicators of meaning than words any day of the week. Some say up to 80% of the message.

Listening and Watching are the cornerstones of successful learning and successful conversation. It can’t be emphasized enough that learners MUST listen to and watch hundreds of hours of a new language in order to be successful using that language.

Look Right, Keep Left is the least amount of information I needed to successfully drive a left-hand drive car in a left-hand drive country. Word stress and pausing are the least amount of information an English learner needs to make themselves intelligible in an English speaking environment.

Listening, Watching, Word Stress and Pausing cover 50% of the elements required for Speaking Fluency. Someone should tell learners they have enough vocabulary and information to speak English successfully now. As soon as you do you’ll start to notice the way we teach English is evolving all over the place!

Yours in ESL,

Judy Thompson

p.s. Are you looking for Accents as a feature? For the most part it isn’t. Everyone has an accent. When Accent interferes with Intelligibility then you have a problem that needs to be addressed. The best accent coach (also a pattern thinker like Rita Baker) is Peggy Tharpe. www.americanpronunciationcoach.com

LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT – How to Learn a New Language

What is the least amount of information a learner needs in order to start authentically mastering a new skill? The answer is patterns. Teach learners the underlying patterns that are always true so they can real-world-practice their way to proficiency. It’s the patterns of any new behavior: driving a car, learning a language, playing an instrument… that make the biggest difference for learners not details. Unfortunately, teachers teach details because we don’t know the patterns.

I came to Lydbury English Centre in beautiful Shropshire England as a student for two weeks to learn Rita Baker’s patterns for teaching and learning English she calls the Global Approach. Teaching me her whole program took less than an hour! I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands in foreign country.

The Global Approach to Grammar Tenses

1) English Tense Forms:

Essentially we spent two minutes on her Blueprint for all tense forms. (see illustration)

Onto the Blueprint she added models to create the 1st Adaptation which took another two minutes. In the next two minutes she added the past tenseto generate the 2nd Adaptationand that was it for all 588 possible tense forms in English. No exceptions.

Pattern teaching is exciting stuff.

When to Use Each Tense:

Rita added when to use each tense in the master sheet she calls The Tenses Map(I called it All and Everything) which took a further six minutes to grasp. We were done. We grossly overestimated how much time it would take for her to teach me her incredibly simple system for all English verb tenses and when to use them.

Did it work this way for me because I’m an ESL teacher? Apparently not. She has been teaching English right for a long time and has thousands of testimonials like this:

Rita, your genius is that on a two day course you can illustrate the workings of the whole of the English Language. B.W. Senior Management Consultant, Black Forest, Germany

Rita Baker and I spent a few hours video-taping me engaging with the Global Approach process then the purpose for my being in England was complete. Oh what to do with ten days to fill in merry old England?

The student rooms at the Lydbury English Centre include a large comfortable bed, wardrobe, desk, sofa, TV, internet, 3-piece private bath, kitchenette and A CAR.

There were several castles I wanted to see, book stores in Hay-On-Wye to explore, I have a friend in Wales… The world was my oyster, all I had to do was learn how to drive on the left side of the road. For many North Americans this is so intimidating we won’t do it. The thought of pulling onto a street into what we understand as oncoming traffic is overwhelming. The consequences of making a mistake are not worth the risk. For me, what I lack in diplomacy I make up for in nerve. I tried driving in England.

Rita, the consummate pattern-thinker pared down all the information I needed to drive a car effectively in England to its simplest form and told me, “LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT.” And handed me the keys.

Really? That’s it? You aren’t going to hold my hand and retrain me in a remote parking lot somewhere? Nope. “You have a valid driver’s licence and know how to drive a standard (manual) transmission, look right, keep left is all you need to remember. Now get out there.” As an afterthought she added, “In the unlikely event you encounter trouble resist your instinct to steer to the right. It will only make things worse. If at all possible overcome that impulse and go left. Have a nice time.”

She had more faith in me than I had in myself. I entered Bassaleg, Wales as a destination in the GPS, took a deep breath, gripped the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turned white and pulled out of the driveway. I looked right and made a weird, wide right turn into the far lane to go right. Keep left, keep left I told myself over and over again. It suddenly occurred to me this must be what it’s like for my students learning English. There is a lot the same about driving a left-hand drive (North American) and a right-hand drive (British) car. There is a lot the same about English and any other language.

The basics of driving any car are the same: gas, brake, steer left and steer right.

The clutch, brake and gas pedals are in the same place.

I didn’t have to relearn that.

The H pattern on the gear-stick is the same…

The number system is the same. It doesn’t matter what the units are, the number on my speedometer can’t exceed the number posted on the side of the road.

There were a few tiny differences I had to identify and practice, the most critical of these were LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT. Thank you Rita. The simplicity of her approach helped me get past my crippling fear.

Did I make mistakes? Hell yes! I couldn’t find my seatbelt – it was over my right shoulder not my left. I couldn’t find the emergency brake – it was at my left hand not my right. Every time I tried to use my indicator I turned my windshield wipers on instead. When locals saw me looping around and around the traffic circles that clear, sunny day with my windshield wipers on they wisely gave me a wide berth. Stone cottages, emerald green hillsides dotted with white fluffy sheep… as my terror slowly subsided, the joy I felt driving myself around the spectacular English countryside was immeasurable.

None of my natural learning mistakes were fatal and I could figure out the solutions to my little problems on my own. Rita was very, very smart not to clutter my brain with trivialities. If I didn’t remember the pattern LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT the consequences could have been disastrous. Her goal was to empower me to get out there as effectively as possible. She does the same thing when she teaches English. Rita Baker is an incredible teacher.

When I first learned to drive my father took me out to a big field, showed me left, right, gas, brake then let me go to it. Left, right, gas, brake for Reading and Writing English are The Blueprint, 1st Adaptation, 2nd Adaptation and Tense Map. It’s all there. Get copies, get out of the classroom and start driving. You are going to make mistakes and you are not going to kill anyone.

Are we in the business of paralyzing our students with the trivia we believe aboutEnglish or empowering learners to GET OUT THERE as quickly as possible and learn by doing? Fluency is in doing not studying.

My forte is teaching English Speaking using information students already have. I teach the simple patterns of talking that are always true. You could call it the Global Approach model for Listening and Speaking. Car driving analogy alert! I’ll belabor the driving/speaking analogy a little more next time when I show you LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT for conversation.

Yours in ESL,

Judy Thompson