Category Archives: Academic English

The complex business of teaching literature and language

Teaching English language is a vast and complex field involving different perspectives, contexts and approaches. It may take some of us quite a long time before we can find a place in this vast world where we can feel at home; a niche that corresponds to our interests and matches the way we see teaching English. It may take us an even longer time to be able to devote ourselves to develop this particular interest and be able to put this into practice in our everyday work. I believe I can consider myself lucky that after so many years teaching English I can now start to gear my professional activities towards the area in ELT that makes me tick: combining the teaching language with the teaching of literature.

Both fields have been historically linked, albeit one can argue that not always in an entirely positive way (Eagleton, 2008; Howatt, 2004; Parrinder, 2008). However, a certain re-consideration of the potential benefits of using literature in English language teaching seems to have been on the way (Hall, 2005; Johnson, 2013; McGuinn, 2014) The fact that the British Council (2015) has been investing in producing materials in the field and that more presentations at IATEFL are devoted to different ways of bringing together literature and language (2015) seem to attest to such a trend that in fact started in the late 80s and early 90s (Brumfit, 1986; Collie & Slater, 1987; Cook, 1994; Gibson, 1998; Lazar, 1993; Widdowson, 1982).

Teaching literature and language in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is perhaps even more complex business that doing so in general English language education for it demands from the tutors a highly multifaceted set of knowledge and skills. It does not suffice to be keen on literature or have a BA in English; it is not enough to be an experienced teacher; it requires more than being knowledgeable on the practices and conventions in the field of literary studies. If fact, it requires all these things at the same time and at a very high level. The list below may help to illustrate the point I am trying to make.

Ideally, an English language and literature EAP tutor should have considerable knowledge of:

  • English literature in general
  • Specific literary works in the course syllabus
  • Film, theatre and popular culture
  • Philosophy and literary theory
  • Different lines of literary criticism
  • History
  • English Language Teaching
  • Teaching English for Academic Purposes
  • Academic reading in general and in the field of literary studies
  • Academic writing in general and in the field of literary studies
  • Linguistics
  • Syllabus development and materials design
  • Assessment in EAP
  • Use of learning technologies
  • Institutional values and regulations in Higher Education

Considering the lengthy list above, it is little wonder that there is considerable shortage of professionals in the field and if we want to keep improving the quality of the teaching we provide, more teachers need to be trained to do so. Learning technologies may help us by making distance learning teacher training programmes available to teachers working in different contexts all over the world. A first step was the creation of the ELT Online Reading Group (Lima, 2013), but I do feel now that we need a more focused programme and structure. I am still thinking about it, but this is certainly something I am considering putting into practice at some point in the near future.

References

  • Brumfit C.J. (1986) Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Carter, R. and Long, M. (1991) Teaching Literature. Harlow: Longman.
  • Collie, J. and S. Slater (1987) Literature in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gibson, R. (1998) Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Eagleton, T., (2008) Literary Theory. Minneapolis. MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Hall, G. (2005) Literature in Language Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Howatt, A.P.R. (2004) A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, K. (2013) Shakespeare’s English. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Lazar, G. (1993) Literature and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lima, C. (2013) Accounts from an Online Reading Group for English Language Teachers Worldwide. PhD. Open University, UK.
  • McGuinn, N. (2014) The English Teacher’s Drama Handbook. London: Routledge.
  • Parrinder, P. (2006) Nation & Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Widdowson, H. (1982) The use of literature. Paper given as a plenary address to the TESOL Convention 1981. New York, NY: Hines and Rutherford.

What student feedback may tell us

Every end of term or course good practice tells us that we should collect feedback from our learners on various aspects of the course, both those related to the administration as those directly related to the teaching and learning, such as the quality of teaching, assessment, and learning experience. Collecting feedback is seen as important to improve the quality of the educational services we provide and also give students the chance to voice their opinion and concerns.

There are different forms and approaches to the collection of feedback in education and although the practice is quite well engrained in most institutions, it does not lack its critics. Some teachers and academics have raised concerns on the validity of feedback and posed questions on how much we can trust on students’ partial views and limited experience when designing and/or reviewing a course organization, syllabus and/or materials. Doubts have also be raised on the wisdom of making changes on programmes based on the feedback provided by one cohort of students when the next one may well give you conflicting views on the same aspects you have just changed. Fair enough.

However, I believe most skepticism comes from the fact that we are looking at feedback from a wrong theoretical perspective. Although there is no point in asking feedback if you are determined to ignore it and have no intention to change anything, it does not necessarily mean that you have to implement the changes suggested or should take them at face value.

Seeing feedback from a dialogical (Bakhtin, 1981) perspective may help get us avoid such trap and see feedback for what it can be: an opportunity for learners to add their own voice to the conversation about the educational process in which they are the most important stakeholders, and an opportunity for teachers to see things from a point of view that is denied to them no matter how well-intentioned they are and willing to see things from the learners’ standpoint. As Bakhtin reminds us, we need the viewpoint of others to see things that are inaccessible to us. Feedback tells me what my students and trainee teachers can see on the courses that I cannot.

I may use the feedback I receive to make the changes suggested or make changes that go in a completely different direction. I may even decide not to make any changes at all. In this last case scenario, feedback can make me realise that if my students cannot see the rhyme and reason why things are how they are when my theoretical knowledge and my professional experience tell me that that is the way they should be, then the problem may not be with the course itself but on how I am conveying the message about it. Feedback in this case is invaluable to tell me that I have to find a clearer and more efficient way make people understand the rationale behind the course design and the teaching practices I have adopted.

Whatever our positions may be regarding student feedback, it is very likely that the institutions where we work will demand that we collect it in order to ‘improve the quality of our teaching’. However, we should not be naive to think that one day this will lead us to the development of the perfect course syllabus and the perfect course materials. Students change, contexts change, and we as teachers and course developers also change. What feedback can help us do it to get as close as possible to matching students’ needs and expectations to institutional demands and to our own ideas about what our courses should be knowing that that there will always have to be a compromise between them and that all solutions are temporary and likely to change in time anyway.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on various positions regarding student feedback:

  • Brandt, C., 2008. Integrating feedback and reflection in teacher preparation. ELT Journal, 62(1), pp.37–46.
  • Essex, C. and Cagiltay, K., 2001. Evaluating an Online Course: Feedback from ‘Distressed’ Students. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 2(3), pp.233–39.
  • Kember, D., Leung, D.Y.P. and Kwan, K.P., 2002. Does the Use of Student Feedback Questionnaires Improve the Overall Quality of Teaching? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(5), pp.411–425.
  • Leckey, J. and Neill, N., 2001. Quantifying Quality: The importance of student feedback. Quality in Higher Education, 7(1), pp.19–32.
  • McKone, K.E., 1999. Analysis of Student Feedback Improves Instructor Effectiveness. Journal of Management Education, 23(4), pp.396–415.
  • Richardson, J.T.E., 2005. Instruments for obtaining student feedback: a review of the literature. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(4), pp.387–415.
  • Spooren, P., Brockx, B. and Mortelmans, D., 2013. On the Validity of Student Evaluation of Teaching The State of the Art. Review of Educational Research, 83(4), pp.598–642.

Reference:

  • Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

 

Using blogs with trainee teachers

In the previous entry I discussed the use of blogs with my EAP learners, now I would like to focus on how we have been using blogs in a teacher training distance learning course.

Our trainee teachers are adults who have varied degrees of experience teaching English but not necessarily experience in teaching EAP and would like to move into the field or acquire a qualification to do so. They are from all over the world and access the course via the university Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). As my EAP students, they write blog entries as part of their unassessed module activities but, differently from the language learners, they are required to writing a longer blog entry as part of their course assessment.

For each module, our trainee teachers are asked to submit three different pieces coursework as their assignments and one of them is a blog entry. The blog entry should be 500-700 words in length and be critical and reflective in nature. Moreover, the writer’s arguments should be supported by proper academic references, which should appear in a reference list at the end of the post. Considering this description, one could argue that such a ‘blog’ is nothing more than a short essay in disguise and that, to be honest, is not too far from the truth. However, unlike an academic essay, we do not expect extensive referencing, and we do allow for more informal use of language, a more personal tone, and a greater focus on the writer’s teaching and learning practice. Instead of being a mini-literature review, these blog entries are expected to show us how much our trainee teachers can bring together the course reading input, their professional experience and reflection.

One may also question the status of such piece of writing. It is indeed disputable whether we can adopt labels such as ‘academic blog’ to the pieces we are asking our students to produce since there is little consensus of what to expect from such kind of writing. There are considerable variations in the way different academics write on their internet blogs and also significant diversity in terms of format and features in different disciplines. In the field of education, it is possibly fair to say that we would expect quite lengthy pieces that are a mix of theoretically informed opinion – with a couple of citations – and critical reflection on practice. In the field of literary studies, for instance, we could expect some discussion of theory and literary analysis with a much more substantial number of citations and possibly some direct quotes from primary and secondary sources.

One aspect that needs to be mentioned is that it is important to make a distinction between medium and genre. A blog is a not a writing genre; it is a medium, a vehicle for writing and expression in the same way books, films, games and other cultural artifacts are different media. A book is an artifact, a medium; epic poetry, the realistic novel, fantasy and autobiography are book genres and sub-genres. Films are a medium; sci-fi, action movies and period dramas are film genres. A video game is a medium; WRPGs, JRPGS, FPS games and action games are different game genres. Likewise, blogs are electronic artifacts people use to express themselves in writing; there are personal blogs, opinion blogs, travel blogs, entertainment blogs, reflective blogs and ‘academic’ blogs. These can be seen as blog ‘genres’, even though the medium is perhaps still too young for us to be able to reach a consensus about the features each kind of blog should display to be classified as such.

When I started this blog, nine years ago, blogs were new things and people tended to use them as travel logs, to post their personal reflections, write brief comments on their hobbies, or upload photos of their family and friends (cats & dogs included). Since them, the internet has change considerably and these functions are now performed by social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. Blogs were then almost on the verge of extinction till some people started to find other uses for them: quality online newspapers, like The Guardian, now use their blog function as an interactive comment space for their columnists and readers; publishers, like Bloomsbury, use them as spaces for authors to extend the experience (and the marketing) of their books; scholars, such as Northop Frye, use them to make their theories more accessible to a general readership; and teacher trainers, such as Jeremy Harmer, use them to share their ideas and professional practices.

When we ask our trainee teachers to write blogs as part of their coursework, we are not only using the tool as a form of assessing their performance, but also giving them the opportunity to get familiar with a new medium and form of writing. Whether we call such pieces of writing ‘academic blogs’ or ‘‘professional blogs’, or any other terminology you may wish to adopt, the fact is that they do not display the rigour expected from an academic essay, but they are still too formal to comply with the traditional idea of an internet opinion blog. These pieces of writing are hybrid forms; they are like mythological beasts which are half animal, half human. However, instead of dismissing them as natural impossibilities, they should perhaps be judged by their own standards and seen as products of our teaching/academic creative imaginations.

At the end of the course, we do provide our students examples of professional teaching-related blogs they have to read and discuss and do encourage them to leave the neat and protected blog area of the VLE and adventure as full-fledged bloggers in the wide wild world of the internet.

Further reading

  • Albion, P.R., 2008. Web 2.0 in Teacher Education: Two Imperatives for Action. Computers in the Schools, 25(3-4), pp.181–198.
  • Coutinho, C., 2007. Infusing technology in pre service teacher education programs in Portugal: an experience with weblogs. In R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2007 (pp. 2527-2534). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
  • Hatton, N., and Smith, D., 1995. Reflection in teacher education: Towards definition and implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(1), pp.33–49.
  • Shih-Hsien Y., 2009. Using Blogs to Enhance Critical Reflection and Community of Practice. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(2), 11–21.

Poetry in English language teaching

Two of the modules I currently teach at the University of Leicester are on English language and literary studies. Students attending these modules are typically in the Erasmus/Study Abroad programme and, therefore, do not have English as their first language. These are ‘taster’ modules. Students have two terms of 20 hours of tuition each to acquire some knowledge of English literature! It is a daunting task and all I can give them are glimpses of specific periods, literary genres and particular works.

Some lessons are dedicated to the Novel and, as far as it goes, students can take them pretty well. Most of them have some knowledge of the set texts (Bronte, Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, Rhys) and, in spite of some language difficulties, students tend to be quite open about reading the books. When we come to poetry, things already start quite differently.  I sense in class a certain anxiety and an atmosphere of subtle disbelief that they will in fact be able to engage with poems not matter how I present and work with them. Although students are usually not brave enough to say that, I feel that, from the outset, most of them are just thinking, ‘OK, let me put up with these two lessons on poetry and then we can move back to prose and be done with it’. For this reason, I start the first lesson on poetry by trying to unpack students’ perceptions, beliefs, and previous experiences with reading poetry, both in English and in their mother tongue. It is a rare finding indeed to have more than one of two learners in a group of 20 saying that they actually enjoy reading poems and often do so. It is even rarer to find anyone who actually knows much about English poetry apart from the names of the usual culprits.

My job is to try to dis-mystify poetry and connect it with other art forms they are used to (such a music, film and visual arts), make them realise how language works in poems, and how poetry can be relevant to their everyday life because it reaches us both intellectually and emotionally in a more intense and cognitively challenging way than most prose. It may sound a bit old-fashioned but I actually ask them to do some close reading and engage with the images and sounds in the poems. I have to admit that when I work with poetry with these learners, I do leave Greenblatt, Foucault and all the French bunch behind. Before being able to move in that direction I feel that they have to personally engage with the poems and look at how language is used there to construct images and associations.

In the first term, I work with the Romantics and War Poetry. In the second term, I explore the Arthurian myth in English poetry in different periods (Tennyson, Tolkien, Armitage) and contemporary poetry across the British Isles (Heaney, Thomas, Lochhead, Duffy). I cannot really say how much these lessons change my students’ attitudes and general enjoyment of poetry, but I can observe their almost palpable change towards a much more positive and engaged attitude in class when reading and discussing their criticism reading, possible meanings, and their ‘interpretations’ of the poems they read. Above all, I can see that they start engaging with the language at a different level: from ‘fear of not understanding what the words mean’ to ‘how I can understand these words?’. For me, this last point alone is already justification enough to bring poetry into language teaching and learning.

I am writing all this because for the next IATEFL in Manchester, we have decided to dedicate the LMCS PCE to approaches and activities to use poetry in ELT – thanks to David A. Hill for the idea and the inspiration! We have put together a star line-up for the day (see below) and we expect teachers to come, enjoy the day, and go back to their classrooms with a different perception of the role of poetry in language learning  as well as with lots of practical ideas on how to use poems in class.

We are also starting to warm up towards the PCE with an online discussion of our members favourite poems in the LMCS discussion list, starting this Sunday 7th December till next Sunday 14th. Join here

LMCS Manchester 2015 PCE Programme
Jeremy Harmer: Encouraging and enabling students to speak poetry.
Chris Lima: Exploring language with Dylan Thomas
Amos Paran: Co-Constructing Meaning: Using gapping techniques and jumbled sentences to work with poetry.
Carol Read: Inspirations for poetry in the primary classroom: ideas for getting children to write their own poems.
Carel Burghout: What do we bring to a poem about a myth?
Claudia Ferradas: More than meets the eye: poems to discuss beauty stereotypes in the classroom
Alan Pulverness: Poems talking about paintings and poems talking to poems.
Hania Bociek: Art and Poetry: across the ocean, across the centuries.
Alan Maley: Performing a poem.

Further reading:

  • Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Eagleton, T. (2007) How to Read a Poem. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Wolosky, S. (2001) The Art of Poetry. Oxford. Oxford University Press.