Language Selection: An Evolution
It’s 1995 and I’m working for IH Timisoara in Romania. I’ve been teaching for a couple of years, and I’m now able to implement a lot of the techniques I picked up on my initial training course. The courses I work on follow a set coursebook, unit by unit. I frequently supplement with those photocopiable spiral bound resource books (you know the kind), but the language items I teach and the order I teach them in are essentially selected by the coursebook writers. This suits me fine – I’m too focused on classroom management techniques and the formation of effective CCQs to question the syllabus.
My lesson planning activity tends to involve looking at the coursebook and working out how to make it more engaging. I spend a lot of time cutting up bits of paper and creating mingle or jigsaw activities.
While in Romania I learn about something called “The Lexical Approach,” which criticises the teaching of individual grammar items in order of linguistic complexity. I think there is something in this, but it isn’t my place to judge.
It’s 1999 and I’m working at IH Budapest. I’ve recently completed my diploma and I think I know it all. As part of the DOS team, I’m involved in a project to develop a new syllabus for our intensive courses. This involves using multiple coursebooks and chopping them up to create modules. So one module might include units 1, 7 and 11 of Headway, units 9, 2 and 6 of Cutting Edge, and units 3 and 14 of True to Life. Other resources are also available to supplement this. Each module is designed to include a range of language that is normally taught at that level. Students do as many modules as they need to at one level before they “bubble up” to the next level.
Some teachers don’t like the idea of teaching unit 9 before unit 2, and students are also bemused by this. But I like the fact that it allows us to have more ownership of the syllabus. Rather than relying on something provided by strangers who have never met our students, we are influencing language input by selecting coursebook content. OK, language items are still largely presented through coursebooks and other published materials, but the order of input is different, which is significant to me.
It’s 2003 and I’m working at an FE college in Glasgow. I’ve recently completed a masters in applied linguistics and realise that I don’t know it all. The courses I teach follow a set syllabus which is essentially topic-based. It draws on a range of sources – the Cutting Edge series, the Skills for Life materials that were produced for the English ESOL curriculum, and the usual various photocopiable supplementary books. I can still use Headway if I want, as well as a number of other coursebooks.
The syllabus allows me to dip in and out of books according to the topic being taught. So for example, if the topic is “things in the home”, I’ll go to the module in Cutting Edge that covers this topic and select materials from there that I think the students will benefit from. If the topic isn’t covered by one book I’ll find it somewhere else – occasionally I use authentic materials. In terms of language content, I have considerable freedom to select which items I want to focus on (lexical, grammatical and phonological) based on what I think the students need. Rather than language being selected by a coursebook writer, it is selected by me, the teacher. I’m very comfortable with this, as I feel that I am better placed than materials writers to make decisions about what language to focus on, and how.
Despite this, I can’t help feeling that I’m missing out on something. I have heard about “Dogme ELT”, and I assume that the rest of the world is busy developing new approaches to learner-driven language teaching that are passing me by.
It’s 2011 and I’ve decided to give myself a bit of a kick up the backside by getting a job at the British Council in Malaysia. I arrive there and find that the courses follow a set coursebook, unit by unit. The language items I teach and the order I teach them in are essentially selected by the coursebook writers. I spend a lot of time cutting up bits of paper and creating mingle or jigsaw activities.
Strangely, it is in this context that I first hear the term “emergent language teaching”. I find out what it is, and how it relates to Thornbury and Meddings’ ideas about Dogme and Teaching Unplugged. I throw my copy of Cutting Edge on the fire (metaphorically of course – they don’t have fires inside Malaysian apartment buildings).
It’s 2013 and I’m back in Glasgow, teaching in an FE college again. My teaching is all project-based; the course covers topics related to living in the UK, and I set projects for students to work on that focus on these topics. I hardly ever use published ELT materials. Instead, I make up my own, use (mostly web-based) authentic materials, or have long stages where the learners generate materials rather than work with existing ones. Occasionally I select a language item in advance that I think the students should know about, but most of the time I allow the language focus to be dictated by the students. The materials I’m using and the discussions they generate are rich sources of language – I try to exploit this by clarifying new language as it comes up. However, it’s the students who decide which items are actually of use to them. I’ve started including lesson stages where students reflect on the language that has been covered, decide which items are both new and useful, then preflect on how they will use them in the future.
I’ve gone from relying entirely on a coursebook writer to select the language for me, to having my students select the language that they need and are ready to learn. It’s been a gradual process, as the stages above illustrate. Reflecting on how my approach to language selection has evolved is now raising a lot of questions:
How come I’ve ended up doing this? Am I doing the right thing?
Would I be better just relying on a coursebook to select the language for me? Does what I do actually work any better?
Do I need 20 years’ experience to be able to teach in the way I teach, or did it just take me 20 years to work it out because nobody trained me to teach this way?
Could I have been trained to react to emergent language and facilitate student-driven language content from the start?
Assuming that this isn’t the end, what will I start doing in the future? How will I continue to evolve?