Principled Washback: Integrating Test Prep to Foster Academic Skills

(This post is a companion to the presentation I gave at the 2016 Toronto TESOL Conference. To download my presentation click here. To download my handout, click here.)


washback (n.) the impact of a test on teaching

“Washback is considered harmful…when there is a serious disjunct between a test’s construct…and the broader demands of real world or target language tasks” (Moore, Morton, & Price, p. 6)

principled (adj.) 1. based on the principles of pedagogy 2. based on research

“Principled pragmatism is based on the pragmatics of pedagogy…Principled pragmatism thus focuses on how classroom learning can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching and critical appraisal” (Kumaravadivelu, 1994)

principled washback (n.) focuses on how test preparation can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching (through research and pedagogy) and critical appraisal (of both tests and academic skills)


Many educators in EAP have the dual role of preparing students for success in the university classroom as well as preparing them for high-stakes gatekeeping tests like IELTS and TOEFL. Whether we like these tests or not, that students’ entrance into the academic world depends on these tests makes our job makes our job both more important and more difficult. If we focus too much on the test, we are sacrificing important long-term skills students will need to survive in academia. If we focus solely on academic skills, students might be OK, but they may not feel prepared for the test or satisfied with their classes, which are perceived as not meeting their (short-term) needs. Principled washback is meant to find a happy middle ground that addresses test prep skills en route to addressing academic skills.

Principled washback considers the academic demands of the classroom, the academic demands of the test, and then looks for overlaps in order to focus and frame instruction. These overlaps serve as starting points of instruction that reference test skills and perhaps emulate test questions but actually move students along to important work academic areas not addressed by these tests.

The IELTS and TOEFL are broken up into four parts: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. The IELTS treats these as separate (which speaks to its validity a bit) while the TOEFL iBT separates them AND integrates them. For my presentation and this blog post, I will separate them and then offer some ideas for integration. Continue reading

On “The Life of the Mind” and Its Critics

Across the country this summer, first year college students all across America will be participating in the “Life of the Mind,” an annual event in which a university selects a book and asks students to read it before classes begin. The idea is that the hundreds or thousands of incoming students will have some shared reading experience in common that pertains to “the life of the mind” – the academic and scholarly world that they are about the enter into. While the books are different for each university, most will integrate the books in a similar manner: workshops, seminars, and discussions that focus around the selected books.

Universities typically select recent, relevant, and engaging books that are meant to draw in today’s reluctant reader – those who would rather read their Facebook feeds for hours on end than crack open a printed book.

The authors of the NAS report

The National Association of Scholars think this is terrible – not so much the program but the books they are choosing. They level 14 charges against the “Life of the Mind” series based on what amounts to traditionalist opinion rather than actual scholarship. They looked at a number of universities’ book choices during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years and compared them to their own assumptions of what should be taught. To me, most of these charges are unfair and extremely subjective, not to mention that their findings seem to be too harshly applied to a single book choice which, for some reason, the authors feel will affect students’ entire academic lives. My post is meant to point out these flaws, with my main argument against many of them being, “So, what?” as well as, “Yeah, so?”.

You can read the original report here and here, entitled “BEACH BOOKS: 2014-2016 What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?”.

Below is an overview of their arguments, with my comments in blue.

The Findings

College common reading programs are:

  1. Dominated by Mediocre, New Books. Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books. Who decides what mediocre means in books? Why is “I am Malala” mediocre and “Garbology” unchallenging? To the last point, incoming first year students are about to be challenged in every class where a professor can help them make sense of dense material. Does reading meant to energize and engage them for the first time in academic life have to be so challenging? And how is challenging defined? Shakespeare is challenging because it is written in an archaic style of English. Plato is challenging because it is written in a more difficult register of English and it deals with philosophical elements. Isn’t “Becoming Nicole” challenging because it confronts our preconceived notions of gender?
  2. Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives. Yeah, so? Illegal immigrants. The environment. Racism and civil rights (the most common subjects – what they seriously call “timely propaganda”). These are things we have to confront every day. We all have different feelings and opinions about them. What is wrong with reading about modern realities? The classics (what the authors are mostly arguing for being read) are important but only insofar as they can be help us understand and analyze modern life. That means we must also read about modern life. In addition, many first year students are also first generation college students who come from the very backgrounds that these topics touch on. Validating these students’ experiences by sharing stories like theirs can only help these students succeed whereas immediately confronting them with what many perceive as “dead white men” readings could serve more to alienate them. Again, the classics are important, but they need to be read voluntarily, not forced.
  3. Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life. Oh no! Not community. Students were supposed to be prepared for academic life in high school. That probably didn’t happen though. One book is not going to fix this.
  4. A Homogeneous Market. A profitable common reading genre has emerged, in which publishers and authors market a homogenized product to a highly predictable market of college selection committees. Students are the captive readership of this market. I’ll give you this one. When market forces drive pedagogical decisions, you are right to be suspect. However, these books were not written to satisfy this market, so you can’t blame the books or the content – only the publishing companies and university decision makers. This argument is sorely misplaced.
  5. Enduringly Popular. A significant minority of colleges abandon their common reading programs each year, but so far they have been replaced by other colleges starting new common reading programs. So, what? How is this a bad thing that these books are popular? And how is it bad that these reading programs continue, likely due to the fact that students are actually enjoying these books. Students. Enjoying books. Isn’t that one of the major problems of modern life – people now hate to read. Why stop something that seems to actually hook students into reading just because they are not reading what you think they should: books that remain enduringly popular for you.

The Facts

  1. Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945. So?
  2. Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction. Again, so?
  3. Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances. This sounds amazing! What better thing to do than read a good book and then hear the author speak?! Would you be railing against this if they reanimated Shakespeare and got him to speak? Or if your living favorites came? Just because you don’t like these authors and their books doesn’t mean their coming is a negative. Plus, this could get students in the habit of attending other speakers’ lectures. I fail to see the problem here.
  4. Not Mandatory: In 2014, 29% of colleges required students to read their common reading. In 2015 the figure was 28% of colleges. It’s not mandatory likely because they don’t want to force students to do reading when they know students have four years of hard mandatory labor reading in front of them. I’m guessing – I have not found the data – that these programs continue to exist despite being voluntary because the books are engaging. I’d venture to say that if you switch to mandatory classics for pre-college reading, these programs will swiftly disappear. Save that for the English lit classes. Students will take them. Students will love them. But, not now. Not here.

The Characteristics

  1. Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. I’ve already stated that I think classics are important, but they are better served in English lit classes where students can have a better, more intensive focus with feedback from an expert rather than contend with the books on their own before they have even started college. That’s not the point of “Life of the Mind”. It’s supposed to engage them and make them more active readers. As we say in ELT, reading is caught, not taught. And you can catch more fish with live bait than dead bait. One final thought: who is to say the books chosen for the “Life of the Mind” have no lasting merit? Can you predict the future?
  2. Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable. How could civic engagement be a bad thing? And why is reading about the outside world – the real world that college is supposed to be preparing students for – why is this not valuable?
  3. Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language. This is perhaps the only point you make that I fully agree with.
  4. No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe. We’ve discussed this already. The modern books these students are reading are perhaps classics in the making. Wait. Modern classics? Please define this oxymoron and how you can become part of this genre. Why isn’t Chuck Palahniuk or Tom Robbins on this list? These are my modern classics.

I could go on and give my comments on their suggests – all as equally subjective and ridiculous as the “findings” above, but you can see where all of this will go. These authors – scholars and experts in their field no doubt and with way more experience and accomplishments than myself – still have no right to criticize book choices with such narrow-minded claims. Show me the data that says these books drop students’ GPA. Show me the data that these have negative effects on reading comprehension or first-year success. Show me the data that says that not reading classics makes someone an inhuman monster. Then, maybe, I can get behind your conclusions.

The authors seem like the ilk that would correct your grammar in public and have mini-strokes if you used singular “they”. Their subjective and non-scholarly drivel should not be a report by the National Association of Scholars who “upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship“. Much of this report reads as the antithesis of their mission statement.

This report could have been written by Statler and Waldorf, perched high above in the balcony chastising the masses below, heckling those who are at least trying (to engage less than avid readers with something interesting) while pining for the good old days (where students were seen, not heard, and “Understanding Poetry” [by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.] is the unspoken gospel). I don’t usually write outside my own field (English language teaching). But, to quote a classic, “I felt destroying something beautiful”. And I felt like going on a rant.


I told my students to choose the final assessment and then left the room. You won’t believe what happened next.

This clickbait title was inspired by Michael Griffin’s own clickbaity post, “One weird trick that will get your students talking“. My post is based on my experience with the “weird trick” that Mike suggested. According to Mike:

The idea is simple; you can just turn over some of the classroom choices to students and ask them make a group decision on a particular issue. In today’s class I asked my students to decide what time we will start class next week and when we will have our midterm exam. These issues generated a lot of discussion and gave students chances to express their feelings and try persuade each other as they tried to reach a consensus.

Although he focused more on the “getting students talking” part, what I saw was the value of the students being involved in the decision-making process. When I read it, I was struggling to think of a proper project-based assessment that would meet the various needs of EAP and GE students in the same class. After reading his post, I immediately thought, “Yeah, I can do that” and then the very next day I did.

I set aside the last 20 minutes of class to this. I told the students I needed a good way of assessment that would be based on the skills they needed to learn. I gave my students several choices, and various permutations of those choices:

  • Presentations
    • Individual
    • Group
    • Secondary research
    • Primary data (student-conducted research)
  • Speaking Tests
    • Pair speaking quiz
    • Group speaking quiz
  • Other

I let them talk in groups for a few minutes in order to figure out what everything meant. I also gave them this time to ask clarifying questions. Then, I told them I was leaving for five minutes and by the time I get back, they should have figured out what they want to do.

I left. I came back five-minutes later. They had decided on something unexpected: a debate. I was a bit surprised because I hadn’t thought of this before, mostly because a debate is a very artificial task that few actually have to participate it unless you join a debate club. However, I also realized that this would teach students valuable research, persuasive/argumentative, teamwork, and discussion skills. After mulling it over for a minute, I was excited about the idea. This post will briefly describe some of the things we did to prepare for the debate.

Analyzing a Model

  • The first thing we needed was a model so that students could actually see what an debate in English looks like. The presidential debates DID NOT serve as a model, so after some YouTubing, I settled on this debate, which provided lots of source material for analyzing structure and language use. Students got to see how a formal debate was set-up, how arguments were structured, and how language was used to present, support, and refute arguments. We did several analysis activities with this debate before moving on to our own topics.


I had students brainstorm three topics that they were individually interested in. Then, I grouped students and had them share their topics, working to choose the top 3 from the group. These suggestions were written on the board and then we all voted. “If we could go back in time, should we kill baby Hitler” was the topic chosen. At first I was hesitant, as this is seen as a very weak, unrealistic debate. I also wasn’t too sure what kind of research they could do for this debate. However, I was wrong. I realized there were a lot of areas that could be researched. After dividing the class into two teams of 5 students each (proposition and opposition), I explained the different areas they should begin researching: history, philosophy and ethics, psychology, and biology. I let them choose how they wanted to divide this work amongst themselves and had them put everything into a shared doc. I also had them draft arguments for and against the proposition.

Preparing for the End Product

While they were working on the research and arguments, I was thinking about the actual debate. I am not a debater and have never participated in a formal debate. Searching through the internet, I noticed there were numerous different styles of competitive debating. I decided on a modified Oxford-style debate that would give each student an equal and fair role. For this debate, there would have to be an audience. That would increase the reality of the task and make it more interesting for my students. They weren’t just arguing in a class. They were arguing in front of an audience of peers, and they had to sway the peers using persuasive techniques. I invited several other classes of students and booked a nice auditorium hall to make it seem more of an event than an assignment.

The debate was organized like this:

  1. Audience members would prevote for which side they agree with. They did this the day before in their own classes as their teachers prepped them on the topic of the debate.
  2. Proposition opening statements/initial arguments. (1 student, 4 mins)
  3. Opposition opening statements/initial arguments. (1 student, 4 mins)
  4. 3-minute work period to draft refutations
  5. Proposition rebuttal. (1 student, 3 mins)
  6. Opposition rebuttal. (1 student, 3 mins)
  7. Open Debate. This was a freestyle back and forth debate between two students from each team. (6 minutes)
  8. Audience Q&A (6 minutes)
  9. 3-minute work period to draft closing statements.
  10. Proposition closing statements. (1 student, 2 minutes)
  11. Opposition closing statements. (1 student, 2 minutes)
  12. Revote by audience members
  13. Vote tally and winner announcement.

Logic and Argumentation

I thought about the best way to logically teach logic and argumentation. I went about it several ways. One was to find a good model of logic that students could use to draft their arguments. I went with the Toulmin Model, which structures logical arguments based on a claim, evidence, a warrant, and optional backing. Of course I modified it to make it work for my students, but it seemed to be a great tool to help students draft strong, persuasive arguments. I taught refutation in a similar way, mixing in ideas from 4-step refutation. I also explaining that these are not debate-only techniques but can be used in academic writing as well.

Discourse Skills

I took this opportunity to integrate the textbook into the debate, as there were sections on language skills relevant to debate. However, the textbook was mostly a disappointment and instead our debate work was based on the analysis of the model debate and my own intuitions. I taught and we practiced the following discourse skills/strategies:

  • Presenting an opinion
  • Presenting evidence, citation, and discussing data
  • Agreement, concession, and disagreement
  • Politely interrupting and politely preventing interruption

Practice Debates, Debate Activities, and Debate Work

This is perhaps where I can mention several great idea that you should do if you decide on doing any debate, logic, or argumentation work with students. Easy and fun debate topics! We practiced logic, argumentation and discourse strategies with superheroes, cats vs dogs, fried vs baked chicken, bottled vs tap water, study English vs don’t study English, homework vs. no homework, and coffee. Some of the best practice debate activities we did were tennis debates and 2-minute one-on-one mini debates (followed by feedback).

Our debates on coffee were special. I did not want the team to share or clue each other in on any of the work they were doing for the main Hitler debate, so whenever we needed to do more serious debate practice, we focused on coffee. I had already given them a slew of research on the benefits and drawbacks of drinking coffee. We had done all types of practice making Toulmin arguments, concession, interrupting, etc. We even did a full practice debate in the auditorium using this topic. It gave students great practice with material they already worked on in class and were very familiar with.

While all of this was happening, I dedicated one or two class sessions (1 hour of a two-hour class) to giving students time to work on their debates. One of these session even included an in-group debate to identify strengths and weaknesses in their arguments as well as choosing the best students for the differing roles of the formal debate.

What amazed me was that I learned my students were meeting twice a week outside of class to work on their debate. I was so impressed with their interest and motivation!

The Big Day/Reflection

The big day came. Students dressed formally. 30 students and 5 faculty attended, including the director. Mics were checked. Last minute changes to the stage were made and we were off. Students debated a difficult topic that they had not had any real prior knowledge on only a few weeks before. They debated this difficult topic in a second language. They debated in a second language in front of their peers. They debated in a second language in front of their peers for almost an hour.

Even though one team “won” the debate (kill baby Hitler) all students won because they gained a lot of valuable skills and experiences. They gained language skills, they gained research critical thinking skills, they practiced team work, they made friends, and they built confidence.

Mike’s idea of letting students choose their own assessment works. Because the students had planted the seed for the debate, they had much more invested in it than they otherwise would have. They did not complain about the hard work – in fact, they gave themselves extra work by meeting often outside of the class. They did not care about the grade because they had already decided on the value of the project when they agreed to do a debate – they choose it because they all felt they would gain something valuable that they would need in the future. They were motivated and energized throughout the process because, while I took “control” nitty gritty of the debate (language, format, the “event”), they were in charge of the content and direction that their teams would go. I was without a doubt the “guide on the side”.

I won’t do a debate each time I teach this course. I can’t. It must come up organically based on the students needs and desires. All I can do is this one weird trick and roll with whatever decision students make. The results are bound to be better than any other alternative.


My students, myself, and their other instruction smiling after an intensive but successful debate!

Bad Subtitles – a quick and easy microlistening task

This post is a quick reflection on a task I learned about on twitter called “Bad Subtitles“. Before describing the task and student reactions, I need to first mention how awestruck I am on the power of twitter. I saw a tweet from Matthew Noble referencing the previously linked to blog post on April 25. I liked the idea and immediately saw how to use it in the classroom, and I did…the very next day! I find it amazing how quickly one person’s idea can go from tweet to taught in so little time. OK. On with the subtitles.

Task and Procedure

The task is quite simple, though mine is much modified from the original idea. Basically, students watch a video with incorrect subtitles and must find the mistakes. Paying attention to these mistakes gets students practicing their decoding skills/bottom-up processing skills, which have been shown to be quite important for comprehension.

The original post has teachers making bad subtitles, but there is no need for that! Most YouTube videos have “Automatic Captions”, which are captions automatically generated from the audio. Naturally, these have numerous errors as they are computer-generated, not human-generated. Therefore, you can easily do this activity with minimal prep.

Here’s a simple procedure to follow

  1. Find the YouTube video you want.
  2. Under the video, you will see “… More”. Click this and click “Transcript”
  3. Make sure the transcript says “English (Automatic Captions)”.
  4. Highlight and drag until the bottom of the captions. Copy the text.
  5. Open up your word processing program and paste.
  6. Remove the times.
  7. Done! What did that take, 2 minutes?

You have just made a simple worksheet to get students listening carefully. From here, its up to you what to do next. You can add tasks and activities or just give the worksheet as is. That’s what I did. I played the video once, had students confer with each other, played it again, and they went through line by line with the students.

Student Reaction

After finishing the activity, I asked whether or not they thought this was useful. In a class of 10, about 4 or 5 found it useful, while several others preferred to do something related to the meaning of the listening, not just the words. While I agree that working on meaning is important, without good decoding skills, meaning could easily become lost. It’s important to note that doing such a lesson as a one-off task likely won’t lead to any student improvement. It must be done numerous times, combined with other bottom-up microlistening tasks, and meaning-focused tasks as well.

I also showed students how they could do this themselves, especially if they find a video with human-generated proper captions (the captions would just say English). They can still choose the auto-generated ones and then compare their changes to the proper English ones. Boom – an intensive, bottom-up listening activity students could do at home over and over again, especially with listening journals.

Thanks to Matthew Noble for the share and paulw for the original post!

Here is a link to numerous YouTube channels with subtitles.


Can TESOL Save the World? (Part V)

At the recommendation of Geoff Jordan, I recently acquired a copy of “Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching” by Mike Long (2015). I have only just cracked the book, but already I’m liking what I’m reading. This is because Long from the start puts a great onus on teachers to teach in the most effective way possible as second language learning is, in a way, a life saver. He writes that language learning is a “critical factor in determining the educational and economic life chances of” both voluntary language learners (e.g. college students, workers, etc.) and even more so the large number of involuntary language learners: “those that are forced to cross linguistic borders to escape wars, despotic regimes, disease, drought, famine, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, abject poverty, and climate change” (p. 4).

Long writes that these marginalized groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to language instruction, in particular because they do not have the money or time to afford it. He says that language teaching – through whatever means – is important for them, serving not only as a way to access better education and employment but as an act of resistance: “Know thine enemy’s language” (p. 4).

Long argues that all of these reasons are justification to make language teaching as effective and progressive as possible, allowing learners the world over to learn a language in a way that works according to the natural development of second language acquisition,  especially as evidenced by a plethora of SLA and applied linguistics research. For Long, this means following a Task-Based Language Teaching approach. I have yet to read far enough to begin discussing this approach, but his message is loud and clear: language teaching is important and, while it may not be able to solve all of the world’s problems, “it should [at least] strive not to make matters worse” (p. 4).

Whether you agree with TBLT or another methodology, Long’s is probably a sentiment we can all agree on. Language teaching is important and can not only improve lives but save them. More evidence that language teaching can help save the world.


The Shifting Contexts of Instruction

I’ve given my thoughts before on this blog about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), mostly disparaging it as a pedagogically unclear teaching approach, one which unnecessarily simplifies English. My thoughts on this subject seem to be shifting as I read more and more about it. I am beginning to consider, more clearly and carefully, the implications ELF research has for what gets taught and assessed in the language classroom, particularly in EAP.

A shift in my own teaching contexts likely was the catalyst for this change. About two years ago, I moved from South Korea to the USA. I switched from teaching in a homogeneous teaching context where students wanted to approximate the native speaker despite few being around, and where 95% of students were also Korean (hence little exposure to ELF), to a heterogeneous environment where students come to study from around the world and I come face to face with ELF everyday.

What has propmpted this blog post and my musing on this change are two articles. One is an article by Marek Kiczkowiak about the native-speaker/non-native speaker issue that dispels many of the assumptions I had been holding, and the other is a great article on ELF in EAP by Beyza Björkman, which I summarized on Research Bites.

In Björkman’s article, she states that there are three groups of EAP learners:

  1. students who study at a university in an English-speaking country,
  2. students who study in their own countries but the language of instruction is English,
  3. international students who study at university in a non-English speaking country who must use English to communicate (this is the ELF) context.

This third type of learner has been somewhat of a recent development, arising in the last 10 or 15 years. My initial question here is if the first and third group of learners is are really so distinct? I’m wondering if a university in an English-speaking country is not an ESL environment (as it would typically be considered) but rather an ELF environment.

A look at the makeup of any modern university in a typical native-speaking country clearly shows a shifting linguistic dynamic towards what Vivian Cook (2015) calls “multicompetence,” or, the bilingual norm (as opposed to the monolingual norm to which “native speaker” is attached). In the US, a large number of faculty, grad students, scientists, and even college presidents are non-native English speakers. Wikipedia cites a slew of statistics about this. For example, among the non-native speakers working in higher education or the sciences, 45% of all physicists are non-native, 55% of PhD engineering students are non-native, and 50% of engineering faculty is non-native. Likewise, grad students, especially in STEM, account for a 50-70% of the student population. I’m sure the situation is similar in Canada, the UK, and other native English speaking countries.

International students are also entering university at the undergraduate level as well, evident from the number of IEPs (intensive English programs) attached to universities around the nation. IEPs handle all sorts of international students, many of whom are conditionally admitted undergraduates who need to improve their English before matriculating. This is the context in which I currently teach. And clearly, it is an ELF context.

But what happens when you leave the classroom? Can the context shift from ELF, interacting with faculty and classmates from around the world, to ESL, interacting with native English-speakers in the community? One the one hand, yes, it is more of an ESL environment, especially in terms of most popular media. However, English-speaking countries tend to be quite pluralistic, and depending on the region, you might be just as likely to interact with someone from another country. Even listening to NPR (National Public Radio) in the morning, its hard not to see the US as an ELF context as many interviewees are competent non-native English speakers (who are very clear in communication but often have typical ELF issues). While some people may not like it, America is a country already at or moving towards multicompetence and is to a large degree often (but not always) an ELF context.

So, the big question is, as an instructor in an IEP situated in a context that fluctuates between ELF and ESL, embedded in EAP instruction (and, apparently being attacked by acronyms), how is my teaching affected? Well, as Björkman pointed out, while accuracy (a stated goal of ESL) is important, communicative effectiveness (the stated goal of ELF) is more so. They are not mutually exclusive and both can be focused on. The difference is focusing on what is going to make my students effective communicators in any context. The answer, according to Björkman and other ELF researchers, is going to be accuracy where it counts (e.g. question word order), pragmatic strategies that help in negotiating meaning, and exposure to different accents – including various native English accents.

I think this is a great starting point for moving more towards ELF and now I have to re-read Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core!

Research Bites: ELF and EAP

Björkman, B. (2011). English as a lingua franca in higher education: Implications for EAP. Ibérica: Revista de la Asociación Europea de Lenguas para Fines Específicos (AELFE), (22), 79-100. [link]

Björkman describes three contexts for EAP and each context’s English requirements:

  1. international students studying at universities in English-speaking countries
    • requires both productive (speaking and writing) and receptive (listening and reading) skills
  2. students studying in local universities through English-mediated instruction
    • requires mostly receptive (reading and listening) skills
  3. speakers from different backgrounds using English as spoken medium
    • requires both productive and receptive skills, primarily speaking

Björkman identifies several problems in EAP and ELF (ELFA). One problem is the instructional and assessment emphasis on academic writing despite speaking ability to be in higher demand in ELF settings. Another problem is a focus on target native-speaker usage of English. ELF research has shown that native-like proficiency is not required to be communicatively competent. Except for question word order and question intonation, nonstandard uses of subject-verb agreement, third person -s, plural -s, articles, and other morphosyntactic features do not cause breakdowns in communication. Björkman importantly states that “communicative effectiveness takes precedence over accuracy, fluency and language complexity…[and] effectiveness of a speaker of English…is determined primarily by the speaker’s pragmatic ability and
less by his/her proficiency.” (p. 85). Higher linguistic accuracy does not equate to higher pragmatic competence. Therefore, to strive for native-speaker target usage does not represent the realities of ELF.

Several implications stem from the juxtaposition of ELF in EAP. First, Björkman argues that new standards for English need to be set not on written English but on spoken communication, which requires . These should be based on analyses of spoken corpora of not just native English speakers (such as the MICASE corpus) but a mix of language speakers in ELF settings. Shifting standards also implies a shift in what is considered and taught as “good English” rather than “correct English”. She cites Greenbaum (1996) who says that “Correct English is conformity to the norms of the standard language. good English is good use of the resources available in the language.” While accuracy is no doubt important, the effective use of resources to communicate effectively should be emphasized in instruction.

Besides shifting standards of English, what Björkman considers a theoretical implication, she also lists a number of important practical implications. The first practical implication is to as clearly as possible identify the needs and expectations of the learners in order to better address what type of English they will need. A second implication is that teachers should prioritize comprehensibility. This includes:

  • exposure to a range of different Englishes and English accents
  • reduction of idiom usage
  • teaching of accommodation strategies
  • teaching of pragmatic strategies
  • teaching of structures that increase explicitness of meaning
  • teaching of question word order and proper question construction

(See Ollinger (2012) for a meta-analysis of strategies with explanations and examples.)

A final implication is a shift of focus on testing spoken production. This includes focusing on effective use of the language, not only correct use of the language. This means not penalizing students for mistakes that do not hinder comprehension (such as not using -s for plural or third person) as well as not penalizing explicitness or repetition. Spoken tests should not be monologic in nature. Assessing dialogic tasks (e.g. between two students) allows assessment of more authentic production as opposed to prepared speeches or presentations which are far less common. Finally, native-like accents, while they can be a student’s personal goal, should not be a criteria for assessment.

Research Bites: Gesture and Pronunciation

Smotrova, T. (2015), Making pronunciation visible: Gesture in teaching pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly.

Research shows that body movement and speech are intimately linked, with some theorizing that they are from the same cognitive source. Whether this is true or not, what is known is that body movements and speech are unconsciously coordinated and that these gestures are not random but coordinate to meaning. What is also known is that gesture often occurs alongside not only conversation but instruction in the classroom. Smotrova first looks at how gesture has been used in pronunciation teaching, pointing out it is one of the least researched aspects of language instruction. Clapping, rubber bands, mirroring and imitation, and even some gesture-systems such as the “essential, haptic-integrated English pronunciation (EHIEP) framework“, have been employed in pronunciation teaching, many of which have been shown to be effective. However, overall there is a paucity of research in this area. In this article, Smotrova analyzed gestures as they occurred in a classroom during pronunciation instruction. Her analysis is in-depth and concludes with two important implications: 1) teachers should be made aware of the importance of gestures and utilize them, perhaps systematically, in their instruction; and 2) students should use the teacher’s gestures because they are beneficial and effective to their learning.

Related Links:

Research Bites: Rethinking Implicit-Explicit Feedback

Sarandi, H. (2016), Oral Corrective Feedback: A Question of Classification and Application. TESOL Quarterly, 50: 235–246.

Sarandhi argues that oral corrective feedback (CF) research in both classroom and laboratory settings presents CF in binary terms along an explicit-implicit (and input-output) continuum even though their classifications can actually change based on numerous factors. For example, recasts, which are typically considered implicit CF, can actually be explicit when the correction is salient to the learners. This would be in situations where the recast is short and involves a single change, where recasts use word stress to highlight the error, if learners have prior knowledge of the structure, and if they are generally capable to notice and correct the error. Sarandi’s point is that researchers need to understand that the nature of CF changes based on classroom application. Furthermore, while most CF research points to explicit CF being more effective, this does not account for implicit CF transformed into explicit CF through classroom application and the interaction of multiple variables.

Related Post: Research Bites: The Mother of All Corrective Feedback Studies

On Giving Feedback, or, You Have a Life, Too

At the end of February, I attended and presented at the 4th annual GATESOL IEP Mini-Conference in Atlanta. It was a wonderful conference and it was great to have an event so focused on a specific teaching content, and meet other people who teach in that same context!

Among the many great presentations I attended, one of the best was by Dr. Lauren Lukkarila called “Giving Writing Feedback: Freeing Yourself and Learners” (download the presentation and handout). Giving feedback on writing is hard. First, it’s pedagogically difficult. What you comment on, how you comment on it, how much you comment, and the question par excellence, whether you use a red pen – these are all difficult questions. Furthermore, we have to wonder how effective feedback is, especially when students tend to make the same exact mistake (grammar or content) the very next time. Second, it’s emotionally draining. How many times have you been frustrated because the student just did not do what was expected of them? How many times have you face-palmed while grading a paper? Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it’s time-consuming. Do you grade on the weekends? Do you mark papers late into the night? Why are there coffee stains on that essay? And, didn’t you fix that error last time? Didn’t you address this in class? Didn’t they log this in their error diaries? Why are they still making this mistake‽

This, of course, is just from the teacher’s perspective. Just as we struggle, our learners struggle too. First, they need to figure out what you actually want – which, despite our best efforts and rubrics, is not always clear. Then, they need to actually say it, which could be the hardest part. Our students (usually) would have little problem saying these things in their own language, but through the filter of an L2, their thoughts are muffled; they’ve been hobbled. It’s quite stressful and, as a student, it can be demoralizing.

Dr. Lukkarila has a plan to get us (teachers and learners) out of this funk. We are all dissatisfied with the feedback transaction and we need to change it. Lauren offers two important solutions:

  1. Manage expectations
  2. Let go

What this means is that we should require less whole products to give comments on. Instead, we should require more revisions as the writing develops. This allows us to give simple and quick feedback. It’s not time-consuming and when the entire product is done, it is made of the best revisions possible, so it requires no further feedback! Of course, another lesson is that we shouldn’t correct everything. Accept mistakes because students will make them again (and they can always go to the writing center for little things like that anyway). Just because we don’t correct certain mistakes doesn’t mean the student will become a failure at life. Accept mistakes and accept that not correcting doesn’t signal the four horsemen to come riding.

Dr. Lukkarila stresses that we should follow the 80/20 rule. That is, of the 10 most important things to look for in a text, two are more important than the others. And students are likely to only be able to handle / take-in / internalize / acquire two instances of feedback. So, for each revision or feedback round, focus on only two things. Focus on 20% and let go of the other 80%. Each revision round, you can shift your focus, but stay within the 20%.

Here is more of what Lukkarila said:

Managing Expectations

  1. Beliefs – Managing expectations means that we need to rethink our writing beliefs. Perhaps we are giving feedback too harshly because that’s how we were graded and we think it’s the norm. Perhaps we our applying our own subjective understanding of “good writing” to the writing of our students. Maybe we are focusing too much on accuracy, or maybe not enough? What’s better: quality or quantity? There are a lot of assumptions we may have to rethink in terms of what we expect our students to produce, including the assumptions our students might be making about writing.
  2. Needs – Managing expectations means being honest about our needs. How many hours can you reasonably spend giving feedback, considering the hours you spending planning, teaching, and on Twitter or Facebook? Are you going to have time to give feedback on everything you said you will? Can you, will you, or do you have to comment on everything? What kind of feedback do your students need? How fast do they need it?

Letting Go

  1. Require fewer whole products and more revisions.
  2. Break down writing into smaller parts – even smaller than the paragraph level. Think sentence-level stuff here.
  3. Follow the 80/20 rule
  4. “Releasing your own student writing experiences and replacing those expectations with  expectations that are realistic and respectful for your students and you.”
  5. Consider the most important whole products still will make and let go of the other products you wanted them to write.
  6. Less is more – students should receive feedback more often, and revise more times. This is only possible with less feedback.
  7. “Accept that learners can improve even when you don’t comment on everything– allow the natural acquisition process to work.”

I really like Lauren’s ideas. I think that they can be adapted and applied to almost any teaching situation and still be effective, as long as the basic principles are observed: manage expectations and let go. Of course, it’s harder than it sounds. For me, it would be hard to give feedback on only two items and let go of the other eight. I could focus on two of the other eight during the next feedback round, but eventually, we have to move on if the writing is ever to be finished. Knowing when to let go is hard. And here, the “less whole products more revisions” comes into play.

I think I already follow this mantra to some extent, focusing on quality instead of quantity (for quantity, I have my students blog). Some colleagues have their students complete six or seven essays during one term. My classes usually produce three. We take our time, go slow, and get lot’s of feedback. I try to give feedback in class and do as little as possible aside from grading out of class, but it doesn’t always work that way. I also try to break the writing down into paragraphs, for example looking at the thesis before writing the intro, and looking at an intro before allowing students to move to the body. This works well to some extent, but a class of more than 6 means I don’t have the time to work with everyone. So, I inevitably take work home and use up my free time.

I’ve been trying to make the feedback process more efficient and effective for both myself and my students. It’s difficult but I’m making progress. Compared to a year or two ago, when giving feedback was like being in prison, you can consider me a free man. However, there is still room to grow and I think I will take Lukkarila’s advice into deeper consideration.

I am a teacher, yes. But, I’m also a father, husband, and friend. I need to do my work in a way that respects and helps myself as much as it helps my students. There is no shame in that.

Please check out her presentation and handout for more information.