Teaching, learning, leading, bridging

I suppose the most striking feature of Brasilia is neither the wide roads or ample open spaces nor the postcard government buildings; it’s the lake. The weather in Brasilia is very dry and the immense mass of water right in the middle of the city makes the lake a soothing presence.I think it was just fitting that the image on the cover of the 10th Braz-Tesol programme was a picture of the Jucelino Kubitchek Bridge over the lake. I think it synthesises what the event was all about: bridging – connecting – linking people and ideas. 

For all the British Council team involved in covering the event this was just too palpable: they had to connect Brasilia to the rest of you who could not go there to attend the event. And they have done a superb job!  

Bridging was also the job of the academic committee and the local organisation committee. Congratulations Shaun and Inez and their teams for bringing in so many brilliant speakers.  Unfortunately, it was physically impossible to attend 18-19 presentations happening at the same time, from morning to evening, on the 3 days of the event and what I’m bringing to you here is just a very tiny fraction of what was going on in the outstanding premises of the Centro de Convenções Ulisses Guimarães.  

This is a summary of just two of the workshops I managed to attend. 

I was ‘game for an experimental workshop’ in which Peter Grundy – University of Leicester and Northumbria University – approached a lengthy text using the ARC model, and thus following the reverse path of the one usually taken in most reading comprehension lessons. Peter departed from authentic language produced by participants based on a given situation, moved to a restricted use of the language that would come up in the text and then went on to the clarification stage. By the moment we got to the text itself, most of the language and even the complex business situation described in it had already become familiar to us. He managed to change working with an uninspiring, quite tedious text into a fairly enjoyable experience. 

If Scott Thornbury’s plenary session was one of the most remarkable moments of the convention, his workshop on Problematising and Personalising grammar was no less enticing. His PP approach, opposed to the traditional PPP, is an alternative answer to an old problem: fossilised language. According to Scott, ‘for students sometimes it’s enough to pass the message across.’ Students do not take grammar seriously until an exam comes round the corner. Many students at intermediate level onwards do not see the importance of grammar accuracy to convey meaning and the desired message. For Scott, ‘the trick is to lead students up the garden path and then make them fall into a grammar hole.’ The idea is to give learners a problem question which makes them feel they are on safe ground and then make them realise that they have to deal with a grammar problem. It will force students to rethink the sentence and trigger a restructuring of their internal grammar.Perhaps the main message is that there is no point in telling our students that grammar matters; we have to show them it does. It may sound a bit mean, but I believe it can work. 

But again, I suppose the most striking feature of an event like this is neither the plenary sessions or workshops nor the exhibition; it’s the people. It was the fantastic people coming from all over the country that you get to know – meet again after months perhaps – that made going to the 10th Braz-Tesol in Brasilia such an enjoyable and memorable experience. 

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