The Contortionist Act

It’s no secret that a large number of people dislike coursebooks, myself among them (though not always). Through blogposts, argument and even research, we have expressed our dissatisfaction with them and suggested alternatives and remedies. Yet, the fact remains that many of us – those who find ourselves dissatisfied with coursebooks, railing against them online and off – still use them. I am lucky enough to have a director that allows me to innovate and teach sans coursebook (“going commando” as I call it). Yet, the truth is, I still use a coursebook for most of my course. Even if we are free to adapt and supplement, many of us still use one. Some have argued that pressure from big publishers forces coursebooks into teachers’ hands, but I don’t buy that argument. I think the reason coursebooks persist is because they are part of teaching culture. And this teaching culture expects teachers to be contortionists. Let me explain. Continue reading

Study Abroad….what is it good for? #researchbites

Once, while talking about students’ travel experiences, I learned that one of my students had spent a semester studying English at a university in North Dakota. My thought was, “North Dakota – Why?” Apparently, this university in the college town of Aberdeen was attracting a lot of Korean students; I later learned a number had studied there. However, it was not this strange choice of study locale that I recall as clearly as what the student said about studying abroad and, in particular, living in America: “It doesn’t really help your English.” My knee jerk reaction, based mostly on what I had learned about immersion, kicked in and I thought that there could be a number of reasons she didn’t feel her English had grown, but studying abroad and immersion must have a profound affect on language learning. But, then I stopped. I thought about my own situation. At that time, 4 years in Korea left me with meager abilities to do all but the most mundane things in Korean. Hadn’t immersion failed me? Maybe she was on to something. Does simply living in a foreign language ensure learning? Continue reading

On Debate and Consensus-Building (a research-inspired activity)

How do differing discourse goals affect students’ abilities to process evidence? Does the act of argument and persuasion mean they read evidence from a biased perspective? If they argue from the opposite side’s perspective, will that change their own opinion? What if they had to come to a mutual decision? Would that affect their opinion? Continue reading

Contemplating Content (Based Instruction)

This term will make the third time I have taught US history as a course theme for advanced students. I have always known the power of learning English though content (variously called content-based instruction [CBI] or content and language integrated learning [CLIL]) but it wasn’t until last week that I was fully convinced of its superiority as an approach.

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Do coursebook writing tasks engender confirmation bias?

Bias is part of human nature. We all have biases, many of which are implicit. One particular form of this is confirmation bias, the “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs” (Wikipedia). In other words, it is having an opinion and accepting anything that supports it while rejecting anything that does not. Critical thinking is considered a kind of antithesis or antidote to this type of bias, which is why it and related concepts (i.e. evidence-based thinking) have become so popular lately, being a major part of the United States’ Common Core standards and a skill that is constantly being discussed in all circles of education, ELT included. Continue reading

Yearning to Breathe Free – an anti-Coursebook reflection

I have had a love/hate relationship with coursebooks, moving every term close and closer to the “hate” side. I have written in their defense, and most recently against them, for the most part. I also enjoy indulging in the just cruelty of Geoff Jordan’s ceaseless attacks against coursebooks, with him constantly offering a summary of coursebooks’ more damning qualities: 1) they assume declarative becomes procedural knowledge1, 2) they assume language is learned in a linear fashion2, and 3) learners learn what they are taught. At the 2017 TESOL conference in Seattle, I gravitated towards sessions that dealt with subverting or suspending coursebooks or their content, in particular a session on the myths of the five paragraph essay (common coursebook fodder)

Admittedly, hate is a very strong term. Depending on the book, I find some to be useful supplements, some to be annoying, others to be a nuisance, and still others to be a downright hindrance. This term, I have been lucky enough to teach coursebook free for one of my courses – an advanced listening and speaking course that has a thematic focus on US history. I can’t explain just how liberated I feel in this course! Not having a book means I don’t have to become a contortionist, trying to fit in curricular goals, interesting content, and other important skills, all the while using the damn book because they students have it with them every day.

Instead, I’m using content in the classroom, and what I have fully realized is that textbooks are not content, and the “content” in textbooks is also not content. Because they are presented as exercises, practice, tools, they seem to be mostly disconnected from the entire purpose of language: learning and communication. They are what Leki and Carson (1997) referred to as something that serves “to infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter”. Yes, students can learn from the texts in a book, but there is always that sense that they are in a language classroom, moving on from one page to the other, one topic to the other, without building up an substantial knowledge of a topic. Leki, in another article, argued that this topical knowledge building is an important tool for true engagement with a text. In other words, when there is a greater purpose – learning rather than practice, students are truly reading for meaning and reading to go beyond only language development skills.

So, does that mean we don’t have language practice? Nope, not at all. There is still vocabulary, there is still grammar to work with, there is still bottom-up listening practice, structured and open speaking practice, and so on. However, this language work is all done to facilitate our main goal of learning a subject rather than learning English.

So, does this mean I spend hours preparing materials? Nope, not at all. In fact, I’m actually finding that I can spend less time preparing (or contorting, as I mentioned earlier) and can go slower and offer more discussion and activities because I don’t have to rush to move from my material to the book in order to feel like student’s got their money’s worth. In fact, I think that by learning a subject through English, they are getting more bang for their buck than by finishing a few units in a coursebook.

So, does this mean I am scouring the internet for resources every week? Nope, not at all. Instead, I am using a staple of articles from Newsela, VOA History, and a lecture series from The Great Courses as my main sources of material. For example, this week, we are learning about immigration in America throughout its history. We started with several background articles on immigration, are working our way through the lecture (which includes various listening and speaking activities), and next week, we will be reading about Emma Lazarus, who penned the famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” in the poem “The New Colossus”, which was written to help fundraise the Statue of Liberty and can be found in the museum at its base. This article references Donald Trump and makes a great transition to understanding the immigration issues of the present. We’ll also be watching a clip from The Search for General Tso to look at Chinese immigration and how to explain why Chinese people make up 1.5% of our population, yet there are three times more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds. Needless to say, the content is useful and numerous.

I was yearning to breathe free, and now, like Lady Liberty, the chain lies broken at my feet. I am wondering if I can simply stop here. When I think of all the ways I could teach a course without a coursebook, Lady Liberty’s torch burns bright in my mind!

Pryjatys hen Belma

Notes

  1. This is one of Jordan’s arguments that I tend to disagree with, as Skill Acquisition theory is a well researched area that does show a connection between practice (with feedback) and the internalization of a skill.
  2. Sometimes I wonder if Jordan is only referring to grammar books, or books that rely heavily on a grammar-based syllabus. Does this particular argument hold true for a book based on a functional syllabus or a topical syllabus? What about books with little to no grammar? His point, I think, is that there needs to be a greater focus on emergent grammar, and that can never be found in a book.