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Family resemblances

“I take after my dad in appearance and my mother in personality,” offered a student who had obviously gotten to grips with this phrasal verb.

“I take after my grandmother because we are both good at cooking,” came a second, accurate example from another member of the class..

“Rugby takes after football….” The other students turned to look at the speaker, and I asked him if he could explain what he meant by this.

“Rugby takes after football because they both need a ball,” was the answer. A concept check revealed the student was aware that the object in such a sentence ought to be ‘senior’ to the subject (hence his choice of sports), and he went on to confidently expound a brief history of our national sport for his classmates, beginning with a schoolboy named Ellis catching a football and running with it in a games lesson. The student who had given the first example of ‘take after’ attempted to explain to the other that the connection between the subject and object should be familial, to which the other replied that rugby and football ARE part of a ‘family’- they are both ‘games’.

balls

The language level of the class was such that a discussion of the ‘family resemblance’ theory of Wittgenstein was deemed a challenge too far, but the specific example that the student gave was the same that the philosopher utilized in order to demonstrate his own idea.

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an ambitious attempt to establish once-and-for-all the relationship between language and reality, Wittgenstein supposed that words are representations of concepts  which can usually be whittled down to irreducible concepts- revealed by the most fundamental of words.  Later, however, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein was highly critical of his own earlier suppositions.

In this later work, Wittgenstein trounced the idea of concept delineation between word groups and contended that apparent demarcations were illusory, though necessary for word usage. To demonstrate this, he looked firstly not at how the ‘family members’ organised by category nouns are distinct from those of other ‘families’, but how those members are assumed to be related at all.

The famous example Wittgenstein gives is of the concept of ‘games’. If we were to make a list of all the games we could think of, we would also presumably be able to list the ‘resemblances’ or features of relatedness that enabled us to produce the first list. What we would find though, if we had approached the endeavour with sufficient seriousness and compiled a suitably extensive catalogue of ‘games’, is that no one common feature would be applicable to every item. Rugby and football do indeed require a ball, as does tennis and many other games, but what of badminton and its shuttlecocks? Shall we say then that Rugby, football, tennis AND badminton are games because they necessarily involve two opposing sides? But then we recognise any number of solitary practices as games too, such as Sudoku. What we begin to see is a collection of words categorized according to a network of ‘resemblances’ and making up the ‘family’ for the language-users’ identification.

Luwig

The example is deliberately patent, but next time you are tackling an abstract grammar concept with your students and an unhelpful exception arises, you may wish to recall it and, depending on the class level, even incorporate it into your explanation.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Principles

How many times did you hear reference to ‘teaching principles’ during the recent IATEFL conference? Appeals to one’s principles can preciptate effects akin to those prompted by urges to maintain ‘values’, assuming one has any. ‘Family values’, being more consistently shared than the ‘social’ variety, have been a prominent theme of more election campaigns to mention (though messrs Cameron and Miliband have given it a wide berth his time around) through efforts towards mass appeal, while values of more colourful variety are touted in order to sure up existing support and sentiment.

What interests me is where this amounting concern for teaching principles stems from. In one sense I think we can quite safely say we already know the answer, while in another it remains elusive.

The proliferation of CLIL, drives towards the technological classroom and the possibilities of online learning have converged to cause serious educationalists to feel compelled to remind teachers not to get ‘carried away’ and to remember principles that ought to remain at the heart of what we do. Various aphorisms are presented to this end which, though may not be known in the precise constituency and order of words in which they appear on the PowerPoint slide, every sane individual present must be willing to patronise.

Collect the various maxims together, however, and you may find that the principles underpinning much of the existent approaches in ELT, a relatively youthful field unknown to Behaviourism, those we would likely recognise and share, are extraordinarily conducive to these new modes of learning. Learner autonomy, student-centred learning, the insistence on regarding the teacher as a facilitator primarily and as an instructor only secondarily, if at all- are these not the principles we most value?

I wonder whether we ought to have more faith in ourselves. It is not inconceivable, I think, that the prevalent (and accelerating) trend towards modalities which satisfy our most inalienable principles may in future be viewed as symptoms of a peculiar, underlying orthodoxy, rather than representing an incremental, principle-endangering orthopraxy.

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus!

Alright, I regret to say I’m not a Welsh speaker. Despite the flags strewn along the shopping streets of Cardiff (or properly, ‘Caerdydd’- ‘fort of the Taff’) this part of the country is home to far fewer Welsh first-language speakers than its western and northern regions. I have to go quite far back into the annals of my south-east Wales family history to find Welsh speakers, while I have living relations in the north who are only the most recent of a long line of people for whom Welsh is the language of the home (and the pub).

Questions and discussions relating to the Welsh language frequently crop up in my English lessons, especially from those students who were unaware of the existence of the language until their arrival here. Wishing it to be viewed as more than a source for confusion, I often recount a very simplified (such as my knowledge allows) version of the history of Welsh, from it’s Brythonic beginnings through the middle-ages to the modern era. It provides, amongst other things, an opportunity for an exercise in which the students compete to jott down the narrative tenses I use as I ramble on. After the story has ended, I invite suggestions as well as recollections of the actual sentences the tenses formed part of so that we can put them up on the board for analysis. The students can then prepare a similar talk of their own as a mini-presentation, perhaps on an unrelated topic, employing the same narrative tenses.

Occasionally, a student might ask what this or that is in Welsh and even more occasionally I might actually be able to answer them. The topic can lead to interesting discussions about the language(s) of the students’ own countries, particularly when there are those in the group who speak ‘first’ a language which is either ‘second’ or ‘not spoken’ among the general populace. With a map, one can draw the students’ attention to ‘pre-English’ words that are seen in Welsh but in place names outside of Wales with questions such as “what’s the connection between Aberdeen and Abertawe, or Statford-Upon-Avon and Aberavon?” and draw out speculative language through their suggestions.

Well, there are only a few hours left of St. David’s Day (St. David was incidentally the only indigenous British patron-saint… another post!), so I wish you Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus, Happy St. David’s Day, and hope the weeks and months ahead are filled for you and your students with happiness and learning.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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IATEFL/ LAMSIG & LONDOSA Conference 2014

I was sure that my phone was sufficiently charged, to get me to my hotel at least where I could charge it up fully. I was counting on it, or rather, on Google Maps, to direct me to St. Giles International, venue for the Developing Managers in the Digital Age (28/29 Nov) conference, but I had got the ‘very early’ coach from Cardiff, and had left home at a silly hour so the phone had been on all night. That long walk around The Serpentine was probably ill-advised too. Anyhow, I was relatively near to my destination when it ran out of charge and I had the Dickens of a time trying to find St. Giles. When I did eventually arrive, the receptionist kindly printed, on good old paper, a map of the area and marked out, in good old Biro, the route to my hotel.

The question of perceived reliance upon technology and gadgetry, and the possible ramifications, constituted a significant undercurrent to the proceedings over the next evening and following day, if not of the actual presentations then of  wonderfully stimulating discussion groups that took place over the Saturday afternoon. For the most part, the talks were aimed at helping the assembled academic managers to think about how to best incorporate tech in our schools, what tools might be most beneficial and how an effective ICT framework can be developed and incorporated.

A host of speakers, including Nik Peachey, Rachael Fionda and Shaun Wilden among others delivered their talks to much interest and engagement, and a refreshingly collaborative atmosphere manifested from session to session. In conversation with other attendees during breaks, I was somewhat relieved to encounter both the same enthusiasm and caution with which I generally regard the apparent rush towards the technological classroom. While some of the attendees I spoke to were pretty far down the line, using class sets of tablets for students and employing a range of little-known apps on an everyday basis, others, to the question of “What is the most useful app for learning English?”‘ echoed with the answer “the teacher!”

Where most seemed in agreement was on the usefulness of online tools such as ‘mailVU’, introduced by Mr Peachey, in bringing notions of the ‘flipped classroom’ into actuality with the use of recordings, and how those teachers reluctant to take the plunge, or even dip a toe into the possibilities of the technological classroom will only be persuaded by demonstration of how such changes and additions can benefit their students’ learning.

I think most will have come away from the conference, as I have, with lots of ideas and be looking forward to putting them to the test in 2015!

If you or anyone you know attended the conference, please do leave a comment and let us know how it was for you.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Mistakes, I’ve had a few…

A few days ago I received a piece of written work, an essay I had set as homework in the previous week, from a student who attends upper-intermediate general English classes here at Peartree. The student was already known to me to be meticulous in their production of such compositions, but on this particular occasion I found that a peculiar strain of error, that of article usage, which had emerged through her recent submissions and which had informed the focus of a recent lesson on this very topic, was curiously missing from the particular piece.

Agent 2

My first impression was that the student’s difficulty had been overcome, but when I spoke to her about it to commend her for her near flawless work, she revealed that her 150 word essay had taken her half a Sunday to compose. My assumption that, because of it’s quality, her essay was testament to some epiphanic improvement and surmounting of a noted grammatical problem was made in error. The student had written the essay, as I have no doubt others do, with a very well-known and well-referenced grammar book splayed open at the relevant unit on ‘articles’.

My second mistaken notion was revealed when I then took a copy of the grammar book in question down from our own shelves and gave the student an impromptu quiz on the same unit she had used to reference her work. The result demonstrated that the student had not actually understood (or at least not retained the knowledge of) the grammatical rules which she had so faithfully followed, like a recipe that produces a delicious cake without a single air bubble only to be forgotten when those it’s served up to ask you how you made it.

On the topic of mistakes, I’ve also recently been conducting surveys in class about language difficulties that students perceive a) prior to studying with us (and in the UK) and b) after they have been studying here for a period. On Friday (5th) Peartree languages welcomed a group of non-student (but non-native English speaker) guests from variety of countries (including Italy, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Brazil and Taiwan) to our school and the members of the group were good enough to share their opinions on the first question. The responses were strikingly similar both to each other and to those I have received from my own students- that simply communicating what they know and understand is a difficulty in itself as in their own countries and in the systems of education, both state and private, through which English is learnt, communication with native speakers is limited.

Agents 1

After having studied with us for a period of time students respond with much more varied answers, from particular tenses or other aspects of grammar to colloquial expressions (and just occasionally, Welsh accents!).

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Learn English in Wales Conference 2014

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Yikes- I knew I should have had a shave…

On March 1st, teachers, directors, managers and all manner of other EFL-related professionals from across the country descended upon Cardiff and Vale College (formerly Coleg Glan Hafren) in Cardiff to participate in the second Learn English in Wales conference. A day to remember indeed, from the broad spectrum of innovative elective sessions to the intriguing plenary talks of the two key-note speakers- Sam McCarter and Jeremy Harmer.

The first session that I attended was delivered by David Greenslade of Cardiff Metropolitan University, on the use of the topic of ‘money’ to facilitate learning in class. The session was well attended and saw David explain the vast array of uses that money could have to this end. It was a topic that all were to some degree familiar with, but this was in fact the point as David was able to present examples from his own experience (and literature) of how this familiarity can be turned to the teacher’s, or rather the students’, advantage.

The next session I saw from a very different perspective to the first, as I was presenting it. The title, in hindsight a little obscure though I think those who came got the general idea, was ‘The Power of Reflection’, and drew upon a personal project that I have been undertaking for just over a year looking at how teachers can use self-evaluation as a means to professional development. The talk was well-attended, something I was glad of once the initial nerves had settled, particularly by academic directors in a similar position to my own. I met a good number of them later during the delicious lunchtime refreshments and was delighted to be able to discuss some of the points from the talk at length and explain other s in finer detail.

After coffee and a viewing of the posters on display it was on to the third and final elective session. I chose a presentation by Georgeta Bradatan of WE-Bridge International as the subject matter, utilizing images in lessons, is something that I already do a lot with my own students, not least those taking the FCE exam, and I hoped to pick up some ideas from Georgeta and other attendees. The session built upon the idea of the photograph as a source of idea and language stimulation and explored how a seemingly innocuous image can be worked into lessons for students at various levels of ability.

The lunch break was a fantastic opportunity to meet and talk with others, including the publishers’ representatives who had set up stalls in the main corridor. The food, as mentioned, was first-rate and testament to the hard-work of the team of caterers, who also diligently kept everyone’s teas and coffees topped up throughout the day.

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Sam McCarter, with his characteristic soft-toned eloquence, addressed the whole conference next with his talk on developing IELTS reading skills. I had attended a similar presentation by Sam a few years ago, and again I was struck by his obvious wealth of knowledge and the logic of the teaching strategies that he divulged. I, like many around me, was scribbling every other word down and his generous pace allowed this to happen without much being missed.

The final session was delivered by Jeremy Harmer, whom I had also witnessed before ‘in action’ but not to such a large audience. Beginning with the striking and evocative question of ‘Why do we need teachers at all?’, Jeremy proceeded to take the hall on a roller-coaster ride of inquiry that meandered seamlessly from Sugata Mitra and an experiment with a computer set into a street wall in India to see if uninitiated children would be able to learn how to use it independently to the unlikely philosophical profundity of US songstress Sheryl Crow.

Later, following a question and answer session with the two eminent speakers of the afternoon, Jeremy returned to the stage with virtuoso violinist Steve Bingham to entertain the attendees with some stirring poetry and music. It was a wonderful way to round off a wonderful day, characterized, as many others have commented, by a general cheeriness and good will that seemed to permeate, perhaps inspired by the knowledge among participants that it was St. Davids Day and the beautiful welsh daffodils that elegantly adorned the main hall to mark the occasion.

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Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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Been and gone

We’ve only reached the mid-way point of Summer School and already amounted enough material to reflect upon to keep us warm through the onset of Autumn (sorry, is it too early to mention this word?). Something which has emerged prominently in the lessons I’ve been teaching over the past weeks is the distinction between the past participles of the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘go’, so much so that I recently devoted a significant proportion of a lesson I had planned quite differently to addressing the issue.

The problem arises specifically from the fact of ‘go’ having two past participles, namely ‘gone’ and ‘been’, the latter being ‘shared’ with ‘be’. Has this ever come up in one of your classes? There consistently seem to be sections of the students in my lessons which are unaware that ‘go’ can have these two different forms, despite them having studied present perfect tense. I have yet to identify whether it is a difficulty relating to translation, but a significant step forward appeared to have been made by many for whom the distinction had previously been unknown.

To consolidate the difference between the two forms of the same verb, I presented a scenario I thought all could relate to, of answering a telephone call on behalf of someone who was not present at that time (“Sorry, he’s not here, he’s gone to the supermarket”), to illustrate the idea of someone having ‘gone and returned’ (been) somewhere as opposed to having simply ‘gone’ (erm… gone). There was some discussion which followed along the lines of ‘why have we never learnt this before? (in students’ home countries), before everyone undertook a First Certificate Use of English part 4-type task in which one is required to formulate a sentence with identical meaning to a given sentence, but re-worded.

One particular question saw the re-emergence of the ‘been/gone’ dichotomy, as students had to re-express a sentence using present perfect tense and, crucially, to choose which past participle to apply. It was either to be ‘I have been in Italy recently’ or ‘I have gone in Italy recently’, both of which were debated over among supporters of each version, until one student settled the matter by suggesting the importance of the preposition collocation (be + in). I was then able to follow by eliciting the common collocation of ‘in/to’ when describing travel experiences, which can be used to denote whether or not ‘been’ is in fact ‘be’ (be + in) or ‘go’ (go + to). As it turned out, the oft-overlooked significance of such collocations was highlighted through study of an altogether different topic.

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies

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There’s more than meets the eye (to idioms)

Everybody loves idioms. There’s that moment of recognition, often following some considerable guesswork and translation, when, having discovered one that’s used in another language and not our own, the meaning becomes clear and we are able to identify with the people/ culture from which it originates. There’s a wonderful, relatively modern expression used in China/ Chinese that describes a person recently fired from their job as a ‘stir-fried squid’- the imagery is just too perfect…

Students often enjoy learning idioms in lessons for pure fun, a little light relief perhaps from being embroiled in the study of some difficult grammar topic. They are insightful of culture and amusing, but ask your students how useful they think are the idioms they are playing around with and you may be surprised by the responses. “People don’t really say this though, do they?” is one that might just crop up and cause the teacher some consternation, especially when the answer should honestly be “no, they don’t.”

Some items of idiomatic language are obviously more practically applicable than others, but what do we do with those old favourites, the real corkers, the ones that even the elderly lady in the bus stop refrains from using for fear of sounding old-fashioned? Are we to relegate the likes of ‘raining cats and dogs’ to the status of a trivial source of distraction? I don’t think this is necessary, not if we invert the approach of ‘hanging’ idioms onto a topic and instead try relating to a topic through an idiom.

I was recently teaching some pre-intermediate students vocabulary centred on the subject of ‘house and home’. We had looked at flashcards depicting various kinds of abode (including igloos and yurts), when an image of a traditional Welsh cottage appeared.

We discussed some of the characteristic features of such a building and used dictionaries to identify the things that were unfamiliar. One such was the thatched roof, which the students complained was ‘stupid’ as the rain, especially the torrents we enjoy in this part off the world, would make its way into the house. I explained, in novice
terms (being as I am unfamiliar with the art of roof-thatching) that in fact the water rarely penetrated through. I then remembered the idiom of idioms, and the curious account I had once heard of its origin.

If it was raining heavily and persistently enough, it was not only the rain that might come through the roof, but anything else that happened to be up there, including small animals (though the likelihood of the dog being involved is questionable to say the least.) This entertaining prospect incited some great discussion among the students and lead me to re-evaluated my attitude towards the value of teaching such idioms. They can be utilised to illustrate and give colour to examples, to elicit language from students and create talking points, and, why not, to give some relief from that difficult grammar topic.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

“Stop correcting me!”

The student tutted dismissively before continuing with his answer. He’d been going for barely a few seconds more before he hit upon the same snag- third person singular ‘S’.

“Is it ‘he always eat’ or ‘he always ‘eats’?” the teacher enquired gently after the student had finished his sentence.

The student huffed, visibly irritated by the question, causing a palpable shift in the jovial mood of the class…

Although the situation is imagined I’m sure there are those who have encountered it, or something similar. It is the kind of circumstance which raises questions about spontaneous correction- in particular, how verbal correction of students ought to be differentiated.

Many schools profess to employ a method of correction, but I’m interested to know how this works on the ground when the ‘method’ receives different responses from different students. Students often implore to be corrected whenever they’ve committed a spoken error, as, frustratingly, their native-speaker friends or colleagues refuse to do so no matter how many times they’re asked to!

Agreement is fairly unanimous over the idea that cutting in on every mistake is counter-productive, but what does the teacher employing a correction ‘method’ do when faced with a student who does not wish to be corrected in frontof their classmates, for whatever reason?

Perhaps it is in these sorts of scenarios that the atmosphere engendered in the class by the teacher is brought to bear above and beyond application of teaching methods. It’s not impossible to imagine, if the degree of camaraderie is sufficient, the other, more-willing-to-be-corrected students being sympathetic about the fact that one of their classmates prefers not to be corrected in the way that they do. That is, without the unfortunate sentiments of “why is he being corrected like that when we’re corrected like this?” manifesting themselves amongst the group.

The teacher in the story above might have elected to meet with the student in question after the lesson to discuss the problem and to encourage them to regard being corrected differently. I think he would if I were him, so what if it was you? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has had to put a correction method aside for the sake of differentiation.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

Self-observation, oxymoron or innovation?

A very big welcome to the very first post of the Peartree Languages Teaching and Learning blog! I sincerely hope that the topics presented in these monthly posts will find an interested audience among EFL academic managers, teachers and students and generate the sort of discussions which lead to innovation in the classroom. And the topic for this post… SELF-OBSERVATION! No, not some esoteric religious practice, but using equipment for teachers to record lesson segments to look back over and evaluate.

It’s funny how the very suggestion of listening, or heaven forbid, watching oneself deliver part or all of a lesson is sometimes enough to bring even the most hardy and seasoned teacher out in cold sweats of anxiety. Jeremy Harmer swears by it though, and it was for this reason, coupled with a long-standing belief in the benefits of teacher self-reflection, that I decided to give it a go at our school just before Christmas.

We’re still in the early stages of ‘experimentation’, but thus –far the following presumed advantages over the traditional third-party observation have rung true in my feedback sessions with teachers. Firstly, the more overt good or bad points of a lesson have a greater impact. It can sometimes be a little difficult to properly reconcile with information about yourself from a third-party, including that which is positive, whereas seeing it before your own eyes tends to make whatever aspect of your teaching you’re focussing upon immediately obvious and relevant.

Of course, the academic manager can choose whether to watch the footage too and give their own feedback, but the idea is that by giving the teacher complete control over the operation of the recording and the subsequent analysis an approach to professional development can be engendered in which the teacher is encouraged to take an active rather than a passive role.

So who else has experience of recording their lessons for self-observation, or even does it regularly as part of their school’s teaching observation practices? I’d love your ideas and opinions on the matter!

Next time (February), I will be posing questions about that old bug-bear correction- questions that have arisen from hours of self-imposed self-observation!

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies