Category Archives: ELT Issues

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 language learners

Blogs have long been used by educators as a means of promoting reading and writing and English language teachers have also been using them not only as a way of helping learners develop such skills but also as tools to improve their language awareness.

There are different ways in which blogs can be used and different online platforms available which give bloggers a variety of options and a wide online readership. However, there are also blog applications on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) which restrict the audience to students and instructors enrolled in particular courses on the VLE. In this post, I discuss the way in which I have been using blogs with my EAP students and I hope this will give you some ideas about how to explore such tool in your own teaching practice.

Blogs in VLEs, such as Blackboard, can in principle have two disadvantages in relation to web2 blog platforms: they do look definitely plain and unattractive compared with the visual resources and tools open access online blogs offer, and they do restrict the readership to the ones enrolled in the system. However, when explored for specific purposes and in particular contexts, VLE blogs may, in fact, offer a couple of advantages. First of all, the limited editing functions may make them less daunting to users who are not particularly well-acquainted with web page construction and design and for whom having to learn how to build a site would actually require another whole set of tech skills. Because they do not have to look pretty, blogs in VLEs may free students to focus more on the content of their posts instead of worrying too much about adding aesthetic elements to them. Secondly, although posters’ ideas will be shared with fewer readers, some bloggers, particularly if they are language learners, may actually feel more confident to write knowing that if they make a mistake or do not express themselves as they would like to, this will only be seen by their tutor and other language learners like themselves. It can be less intimidating posting to a restricted, familiar readership than knowing that your writing will be open to scrutiny and criticism on the whole internet.

I have been using blogs on Blackboard with my language and literature students for about two years now and the results have been quite positive. Although their blog entries are usually short, I have observed that some of them really enjoying posting and value this as an opportunity for a bit of extra writing practice without the burden of been assessed for it. In this particular case, the blog entries are not part of their module assessment but are assigned to them as pieces of homework. Making blogging part of their homework is a very important aspect of it and typically I assign blog posting to:

  • flip a lesson, i.e. students have to search information on a particular aspect related to a literary work that we will be studying in the following sessions;
  • build collaborative learning, i.e. no student is asked to blog about exactly the same thing so each one of them has to contribute with something to the group learning and also acquire some knowledge from what their classmates post;
  • practise paraphrasing. Since this is a notorious difficult skill for learners of academic English, reading articles in literary criticism and posting their summaries and paraphrasing of some paragraphs can help students practise their writing at the same time they get to grips with the concepts and ideas in the articles and with the genre conventions in literary criticism.

An important aspect of using blogs with such learners is to give them some space to make decisions about what to post and how to post it. Although I do assign them a very specific task – for example, ‘find a description of a character in the novel, copy and paste the passage, and comment on it’- they still have the autonomy to decide which character they will choose, which passage to copy and analyse, and also decide whether they want to add pictures or video links to illustrate their analysis. A certain degree of autonomy is important to give students a sense of ownership over the task and make it less as a piece of homework and more like an intellectual exploration of the aspect discussed.

Another significant aspect is feedback. More often than I would wish so, I do not have time to comment on each individual post, but I do write my own blog entry with general comments on what they produced as a way to wrap up the activity. I also make sure I show their blogs on the screen in class and verbally comment on them.

Using blogs with my students has considerably increased their amount of writing and reading practice, with groups of 20 students producing per term around 120 posts of about 150-200 words each. It has also increased their engagement with and understanding of the literary texts and provided invaluable practice towards the essay writing assignment.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on using blogs in education.

  • Amir, Z., Ismail, K. and Hussin, S., 2011. Blogs in Language Learning: Maximizing Students’ Collaborative Writing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 18, pp.537–543.
  • Blau, I., Mor, N. and Neuthal, T., 2009. Open the windows of communication: promoting interpersonal and group interactions using blogs in higher education. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 5(1), pp.233–246.
  • Churchill, D., 2009. Educational applications of Web 2.0: using blogs to support teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), pp.179–183.
  • Hourigan, T. and Murray, L., 2010. Using blogs to help language students to develop reflective learning strategies: Towards a pedagogical framework. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 26(2).
  • Kajder, S., Bull, G. and Van Noy, E., 2004. A Space for ‘Writing without Writing’ Blogs In The Language Arts Classroom. Mining the Internet. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(6), pp.32–35.
  • Kim, H.N., 2008. The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education, 51(3), pp.1342–1352.
  • Trajtemberg, C. and Yiakoumetti, A., 2011. Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation. ELT Journal, 65(4), pp.437–445.
  • Williams, J.B. and Jacobs, J., 2004. Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 20(2).

Online discussion on extensive reading

Starting today and going up to 31 August 2014, the IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies special interest group is  hosting a fielded discussion on extensive reading with Thomas Robb, Professor at the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan. He has been a long-time advocate of extensive reading and computer assisted language learning. His current project M-Reader is an online site designed to help schools implement extensive reading programmes. 

To join the discussion, visit Yahoo groups webpage.

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