Interview with Philip Benson – Autonomy

 

This interview took place between Richard Pinner and Philip Benson via Skype. Philip Benson is a leading researcher and expert on Language Learner Autonomy. He is the author of several books on Autonomy and currently teaches at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. 
 

07/12/2012

RP: First, the new edition of your book. Is there anything new in there that wasn’t in the first edition?

PB: Yes, there’s a lot more. It says on the description of the new edition that there are over 300 references added. The first edition came out in 2001, and at the time I tried to do all I could to gather the most important aspects in the field from the last 30 years. But in the last ten years or so, a lot of new work has been done and the amount of research has almost doubled, all in just the last ten or so years. There have been a lot of important developments since the first edition, so the second edition brings everything up to date. There’s also a section on teacher autonomy there too, which wasn’t in the first edition. Also, in the first edition there was already a section on technology, but that’s been significantly expanded now. Obviously the technology then and now has developed a lot, particularly in things like communication and the widespread use of the internet.

RP: So well worth purchasing, even if you have the first edition. I’ll have to go on amazon, because I’m still on the old edition. When I saw you speaking at Temple University, Japan, which was part of the Distinguished Lecturer series that they offer, you dedicated a fairly significant amount of time to your definition of autonomy. Is that also something that is new in the second edition?

PB: No, actually that is work which mostly carries across from the first edition. What I’ve been doing recently is investigating the idea of capacities for control, but that definition hasn’t changed since 2001. I don’t think it’s useful to add more definitions and to keep trying to come up with new ones. Obviously, what we need to do is to drill down into it, rather than widening the definition beyond something that’s useful. I think if we are going to get anywhere then we all need to be talking about the same thing and using terms in the same way. In my definition, I refer to autonomy as “a capacity to control learning” and I’ve just been trying to further define each of those terms.

RP: So, how did you first get involved in working with autonomy?

PB: Well initially it was through technology and my involvement with CALL. Basically, in one of the places I was working they decided to set up a self-access centre, and because I was into computers they asked me if I wanted to be involved in that. When I first started working in autonomy, I suppose I was initially approaching it from a self-access viewpoint, but of course the more I got into autonomy, you know it developed and there is a lot more going on.  I have a background in CALL. Back in the 80s and 90s CALL was about creating programs or applications for language learning. But now, CALL also features an aspect of globalisation –of how people are using technology socially now. Technology has really advanced, so, it used to be that you would look at a program and think “how can I make this better for language learning?” and you would develop the software. But now, you can’t possibly create anything as good as what there already is. You couldn’t create anything better, than, for example YouTube.

RP: So you initially got into autonomy as a natural progression of your interest in technology’s use in language learning? That’s really interesting because that’s quite similar to me in fact, I initially started this blog to be all about CALL and technology, but now I’m more interested in technology and motivation, particularly authenticity and motivation, which I suppose YouTube is a good example of authenticity. In your lecture, you mentioned that there are of course strong conceptual links between autonomy and motivation…

PB: Yes…

RP: … and you said that when students ask you, or you know, say that they would like to write their thesis on the link between autonomy and motivation, you usually advise them not to do it!

PB: Yes, well. I think the thing with autonomy and motivation is that, as you say, there are some strong conceptual links there and in fact there is often an overlap in the terminology. I mean motivation, it was really Deci and Ryan, when they proposed Self Determination Theory, autonomy is a component of that. What they argue is that motivation is dependent on three things; autonomy, competence and relatedness. They talk about autonomy as a kind of freedom. In my breakdown of the term “capacity” in the definition of autonomy, I talk about freedom as being part of the capacity for control, and that’s obviously an aspect of autonomy but I think they are slicing the cake differently.

RP: So when they talk about autonomy in Self-Determination Theory they are talking about the freedom to be able to choose what they learn rather than being forced, say, by having to do a compulsory course?

PB: Yes, I think so. So I think that we are in agreement there, but for me autonomy is about more than just freedom as well, there are other things that we look at when we study autonomy.

RP: Right, I see. I’ll have to bear that in mind when I work on my PhD because my tutor is Ema Ushioda, and she was primarily concerned with autonomy and then she got into motivation research through that.

PB: Yeah. Well, as I say there are strong links between the two, but as I said in the lecture at Temple, there is a widespread problem in Applied Linguists in terms of defining abstract concepts, such as autonomy and motivation.

RP: And I’m foolishly trying to tie up three of them in my research. Sounds like I need to do a lot more reading. Do you have any new books coming out in the near future?

PB: Yes, actually, a few things coming out soon. At the moment I am working with sociocultural theory. There is a new book coming out, which is one I’ve co-edited with Lucy Cooker. It’s called The Applied Linguistic Individual: Sociocultural Approaches to Identity, Agency and Autonomy and it’s part of the Studies in Applied Linguistics series published by Equinox. It’s going to feature chapters from experts in the field of sociocultural theory, such as people like James Lantolf and Martin Lamb. One of the criticisms some people have levelled against autonomy research was that it was too individualistic. This book aims to bring the importance of the social context of autonomous learning out. It’s an examination of how individuality is conceptualised. So that’s been really interesting to work on and the book is coming out at the start of next year. The other book that I’m doing is called Narrative Inquiry in Language Teaching and Learning Research which is published by Routledge in the Second Language Acquisition Research Series. I’ve co-authored this book with Gary Barkhuizen, and Alice Chik.

RP: So you’ve been very busy recently I take it?

PB: Always busy. But in terms of current research, right now I’ve been looking at a lot of what happens outside of the classroom. Again, going back to YouTube, there are thousands of people out there it seems who are using YouTube for language learning. If you look at the comments below the videos, it seems very clear that a lot of these people are practising their second language skills, and there is evidence of them using YouTube for development. Now, there are lots of people doing what we call “translanguaging” which is things such as  a Chinese star speaking English in an interview, or an American singing a song in Chinese in Taiwan. And if you look at the comments on there, there is a lot of evidence of language learning taking place. There are people commenting about accent or pronunciation, sometimes aspects of grammar. This is a project that I am currently working on at the moment.

RP: That sounds very interesting. Well, thank you so much for your time and for the very interesting conversation.

PB: Ok, thanks very much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Mind the Gap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you need an MA to be a better teacher? How does learning about theory help you improve your practice?

There is a big gap in language between theory and practice. This is not just true of language teaching, but of many professions and especially more generally in the field of education. There are obvious exceptions, and we try to be one of them here at engnet-education, but for the most part practitioners are too busy with planning and marking to keep up to date on the theoretical side, especially when they perceive it has no relevance for their actual teaching. A good example would be the classic debates about things such as Universal Grammar, X-Bar theory and of course the critical period hypothesis. If you are teaching adults, the critical theory hypothesis – which states that there is a particular age after which learning a second language becomes much more difficult – will be of no use to you because you can’t simply tell your adult learners to all go back in time and study hard when they were children. In the same way, X-Bar theory is of no use to someone, even if you are teaching grammar specifically, because X-Bar theory is only useful to fill holes and add credibility to the idea of Universal Grammar. Even if you agree with Universal Grammar, it doesn’t help you teach a language. Why should teachers and practitioners trawl through peer reviewed research journals about these issues unless they can be fed back into class?

In the same way, theorists will have little or no contact with practitioners when they are researching abstract concepts such as whether language is innate or whether chimpanzees can be taught sing language. However, the examples I have just presented above are in fact extreme and they are really not illustrative of the field of applied linguistics and language teaching. There are countless theories from applied linguistics and even linguistics which have direct relevance on the things we do in the classroom to help our learners acquire language. The Involvement Load Hypothesis is a good example, it can directly influence materials design and the way we structure tasks in the classroom because it shows what type of activities are better for learners in retaining the vocabulary they have learned. For a summary see my essay here. Also, Speech Act theory, although in itself a rather abstract and yet at the same time obvious set of characteristics about how discourse works and what effect it has, can be adapted for the use of developing authentic materials with realistic dialogue and context.

There is a lot more cohesion these days between theory and practice, but people still talk about the gap as if it were a chasm. It is much closer to a simple step like the one on the London Underground – as long as you know it’s there it is not hard to step over it.

If you would be interested in doing a course all about language learning theories that can directly influence your teaching please get in touch with us. I also heartily recommend doing a Masters’ Degree if you are particularly keen and want to seriously enhance your career. King’s College London, the University of Warwick, Manchester all offer good programs which are well respected. Feel free to use the comments box below to add any other programs and thoughts on this topic.

Computer-Based Testing Vs. Paper-Based Testing

What are the advantages, disadvantages and what is the future of language testing?

The situation now

On the 25th of February 2011 the BBC Today Programme invited Isabel Nisbet, the outgoing chief the UK based qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, to come on and discuss the issue of computer-based testing (CBT). Ms Nisbet stated that the general attitude to CBT had been that it was too difficult a topic to raise, because of the number of various pitfalls, complications and opposition. However, as outgoing chief she had decided to ‘move it off the too difficult pile’ and try and get the subject addressed because she felt it was indeed an important issue. Her explanation was that because children do much of their learning and exploring digitally, they should be assessed in the same way. Her exact words were‘In the future, how things are tested should match how people learn and how they act.’ This echoes back to one of the most important issues with language testing, as raised by Bachman and Palmer (1996) that tests should resemble the real thing for which they are testing. This was one of the criteria for test usefulness; authenticity. Because the way people, especially younger generations, interact with the world is largely going to be through a computer, testing and assessment should reflect that. This is certainly something which is worth discussing as it will undoubtedly have international repercussions across all areas of education.

The advantages

CBT allows for more accurate, secure, rapid and more controlled test administration. From students sitting the test, to tests being marked and results being published, all the way through to researching those data and evaluating the test. This is perhaps something critics of CBT would argue against, but I think any scepticism on this part would be aimed at a mistrust of technology rather than a genuine belief that paper-based testing (PBT) is actually better in these respects. As long as the computers are reliable and secure there is no reason to doubt the claim that CBT is far superior in these respects. I will address the problems here in the next section.
Another great advantage would be that voiced by Nisbet of the authenticity of the tests and the fact that it reflects the real world situational use of the topics being tested. In language teaching, these were referred to as Target Language Use (TLU) domain. It also applies to fields other than language testing. If, upon graduation, you mainly compose emails in French to colleagues and rarely compose postcards on paper, then the test you sat to graduate should reflect this. For my GCSES I wrote a postcard in French as part of the test. I remember I wrote a nice little postcard and then turned to page only to discover to my horror that there was a whole other page of blank space in which to write the ‘postcard’. I was incredibly angry about this, because postcards are short. The test didn’t even match what a ‘postcard’ was in reality. If I was taking that test today, I would be equally annoyed if I was asked to compose and ‘email’ and in fact I was writing it with a pen. I have seen many such examples of this inauthenticity caused by writing on the incorrect media in test preparation courses that I have used as a teacher. This lack of authenticity not only damages the students by not testing them in the context for which they will use their skills, but also damages the face validity of the tests itself, which could lead to resentment and loss of motivation.

In addition, by administering a test on the computer, the use of paper printing is minimised, almost entirely. This could reduce administration costs as well as environmental impact. Of course, that is assuming the institution does not have to buy computers especially for the test. Also, because computers can successfully mark any objective sections (where answers have a clear, binary right or wrong answer) almost instantaneously, the need to pay humans to go through with marking grids is erased. This increases the speed of the results and feedback, as well as cutting costs and of course improving the accuracy of marking.
Other studies have investigated the difference between CB and PB tests (see further reading). Most of them conclude that CBT is advantageous for students and test administrators alike. So, why the opposition to CBT? What are the dangers and what is holding us back?

The disadvantages

expense. technical issues. takes away something from pbt? too dependent on computers. cuts cost of paper and administration
Earlier I mentioned a possible mistrust in technology which deters both students and institutions from implementing CBT. I have experience of this myself, so I don’t want to come across as a blind technology advocate claiming that we do away with all paper-based tests. I remember coaching Diego, a Spanish students for his TOEFL iBT. The system we used was an internal practice test whose server recorded audio from the students’ microphone. We were in the UK and the server was in the US. On top of that, we had a very slow connection and as we were in a very built up area internet contention was also very high. For this reason, at least two or three times every practice test we did, a few students would lose their speaking test answers. Many students experienced irritation at this poor and unreliable technology, especially because they were paying a lot for their courses. I always used to say ‘it won’t happen when you take the real test’. Sadly, it did happen to my Diego. The computer in which he was working during the real test shut-down in the middle of the exam. He was not allowed to re-take and had to pay again to do the test.

Of course, another problem here is that human error can never be completely accounted for when using computers. Diego was the kind of student who was often on the receiving end of inexplicable technical errors. He once kicked the power-switch at the socket by mistake and shut down a neighbour’s computer. However, part of setting up computers for use in class is ensuring that the computers are secure and the workstation is appropriate (ie, power sockets and cables cannot be removed accidentally). Therein lies the problem. CBT does not eliminate human error, but the line between computer error and human error is very fine. In addition, computers do often go wrong, especially older machines and public computer terminals which have hundreds of different users. Administering even thirty or so networked public machines is a full-time job. Computer viruses, bad configuration, faulty hardware and unreliable internet connections all contribute to this. On top of which, students and teachers need the training to use the machines and the specific software. So, computers are no panacea in education.

However, let me point out that humans are just as prone to error. Test results being lost in the post, teachers taking home essays to mark and never returning them. The look on a student’s face when you hand out everyone’s homework except theirs, but they swear they handed it in. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to look for a more secure and reliable alternative to paper-based tests.

As long as there is a skilled and reliable technician on hand before the test (in order to check the machines are correctly set-up and maintained) and during the test. Also, test instructions and support on the use of the computers must be clear and easy to use regardless of your level of computer or language ability. The connections through which information is being sent must be secure and reliable in order to send through answers and results. Where possible, the machines should be up-to-date and have been regularly serviced to avoid malfunctions. These are things which don’t just apply to CBT but any use of computers in general, however where the stakes are higher (as in with an institutionalised language test) the need to ensure all these things are in place increases.

The future

The last ten or fifteen years have seen computers fall in price and rise significantly in terms of reliability and power. Most schools, universities and private language institutions in developed countries around the world are well equipped to offer students computer and internet access. For this reason, it seems fitting that people such as Isabel Nisbet should raise the issue of introducing computer-based testing to replace traditional paper-based tests on a national scale. As with many technological advances, language teaching may well be in the vanguard of this conversion to CBT, however that means it is more likely the technology will be tried and tested by the time it takes over. It is not likely to happen overnight, or even within the next 5 years. What is certain is that large institutionalised tests will have to offer the option to students to take the test on the computer, and gradually the PBTs will be phased out. Already, TOEFL iBT is doing this, with TOEFL PBT fast becoming obsolete. However, ETS has had to redesign much of the test and the way it is administered in order to maximise the computer-based format. For this reason I have a lot of respect for the TOEFL iBT. However, TOEIC remains purely paper-based. The Cambridge ESOL suite offers both PBT and CBT versions of all its tests, except IELTS. IELTS can be taken on the computer only in the Delhi centre, although it is likely the IELTS CBT will be rolled-out worldwide very soon (please continue to check www.engnet-education.com for updates and news on this).

Conclusion

It is a gradual process, much like the way CDs replaced cassette tapes. Of course, language teaching is one of those rare professions where teachers still can be seen running to and from the staffrooms around the world clutching pre-wound cassettes where the rest of the world is using mp3s. There are exceptions of course, but my point is there will not be an overnight switch to CBT even if there is a national government level initiative. For this reason it is important to continue researching and promoting the use of CBT because it does reflect the way things are going. It is true that we use computers more and more for communication, and as such our tests should reflect that.

Further reading

Bachman, L.F., Palmer, A.S., 1996. Language Testing in Practice. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Extended Bibliography

Bachman, L. 1990: Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bachman, L.F., Palmer, A.S., 1996. Language Testing in Practice. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bachman, L. 2001 Designing and developing useful language tests in Elder, C. Brown, A. Grove, E. Hill, K. Iwashita, N. Lumley, T.

McNamara, T. O’Loughlin, K. (Eds.) Studies in Language Testing 11: Experimenting with uncertainty. Essays in honour of Alan Davies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Brown, H. Douglas. 2004 Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices Longman : New York

Chalhoub-Deville, Micheline & Deville, Craig 2005 A look back at and forward to what language testers measure In Hinkel, Eli (Ed.) Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning Routledge

Chapelle Chapelle MaryK . Enrigh Jonn M. Jamieson 2008 Building A Validity Argument For The Test Of English As A Foreign Language Routledge, New York

Douglas, Dan 2001 Three problems in testing language for specific purposes: Authenticity, specificity and inseparability in Elder, C.

Brown, A. Grove, E. Hill, K. Iwashita, N. Lumley, T. McNamara, T. O’Loughlin, K. (Eds.) Studies in Language Testing 11: Experimenting with uncertainty. Essays in honour of Alan Davies:

Downey, R. Farhady, H, Present-Thomas, R. Suzuki, M. Van Moere, A. Evaluation of the Usefulness of the Versant for English Test: A Response Language Assessment Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 2 April 2008 , pages 160 – 167 Cambridge :

Fulcher 2000 The ‘communicative’ legacy in language testing System, 28 (4), p.483-497, Dec 2000 doi:10.1016/S0346-251X(00)00033-6

Hughes, A. 1989 Testing for Language Teachers Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Lewkowicz, J.A., 1997. Authenticity for whom? Does authenticity really matter? In: Huhta, A., Kohonen, V., Lurki-Suonio, L.,

Luoma, S. (Eds.), Current Developments and Alternatives in Language Assessment. Jyvaskyla University, Finland, pp. 165-184.

Lewkowicz, J.A., 2000. Authenticity in language testing: some outstanding questions. Language Testing 17 (1), 43-64. Cambridge University Press DOI: 10.1080/15434300801934744

Lynch, Brian K. 2003 Language Assessment and Programme Evaluation Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh

McNamara 2006 Validity in Language Testing: The Challenge of Sam Messick’s Legacy Language Assessment Quarterly, Volume 3, Issue 1 January 2006 , pages 31 – 51 DOI: 10.1207/s15434311laq0301_3

Messick, S., 1989. Validity. In: Linn, R.L. (Ed.), Educational Measurement. Macmillan, New York, pp. 13 -103.

Morrow, K., 1979. Communicative language testing: revolution of evolution? In: Brumfit, C.K., Johnson, K. (Eds.), The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 143-159.

North, Brian. 2007 Expanded set of C1 & C2 Descriptors http://www.coe.int/T/DG4/Portfolio/?L=E&M=/documents_intro/Data_bank_descriptors.html

O’Malley, J. Michael & Valdez Pierce, Lorraine 1996 Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners: Practical Approaches for Teachers Longman

Phakiti, Aek. 2008 Construct validation of Bachman and Palmer’s (1996) strategic competence model over time in EFL reading tests Language Testing; 25; 237 DOI: 10.1177/0265532207086783

Popham, W. James 1990, Modern Educational Measurement Prentice Hall, Englewood

Stoynoff & Chapelle 2005 ESOL Tests and Testing Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. Maryland

Stoynoff, Stephen 2009 State-of-the-Art Article Recent developments in language assessment and the case of four large-scale tests of ESOL Language. Teaching. (2009), 42:1, 1–40 Cambridge University Press DOI:10.1017/S0261444808005399

Widdowson, Henry 1979: Explorations in applied linguistics. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Widdowson, Henry 2001 Communicative language testing: the art of the possible in Elder, C. Brown, A. Grove, E. Hill, K. Iwashita, N. Lumley, T. McNamara, T. O’Loughlin, K. (Eds.) Studies in Language Testing 11: Experimenting with uncertainty. Essays in honour of Alan Davies Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Widdowson, Henry 1983 Learning Purpose and Language Use. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Services Update

Engnet-education was previously based in London, England and served clients in both London, Oxford and Cambridge as well as online clients and providing online resources. Now, engnet-education’s main operations will be based in Japan. I have moved back to Tokyo in order to accept a teaching position at Sophia University, and as such I will not be able to personally attend schools in the UK on a regular basis, although I still intend to attend annual conferences such as IATEFL and EUROCALL, as well as the bi-annual Antwerp CALL conference. However, engnet-education will still be able to continue its UK operations thanks to several well trained and experienced colleagues who are also well suited to offer training days and consultations. Also, VOIP (Video Over Internet Protocol) consultations can easily be arranged if one of our UK agents is not available or you are not based in Japan or the UK. Basically, we are expanding!

This is very exciting for me, as the founder of engnet-education, for many reasons. First, I’ve been astounded by the success of the company and am very grateful to all my clients for the positive responses, feedback and of course for their valued custom in the first place! Most of the clients who have used our services came to see our IATEFL presentation in 2010: Setting up Self-Access for students through eLearning. For those who did not attend, the full presentation is available to watch on Vimeo and there is a write up in the IATEFL 2010 Conference Selections book, as well as a forthcoming expansion article in English Teaching Professional. Sadly, neither I nor any engnet-education representatives will be present at IATEFL this year, but we will certainly be back for 2012.

Another reason why the move to Japan is exciting is that it offers the chance for new challenges, new connections and new working relationships in what is certainly an amazing country for language teaching, most notably English Language which is what I specialise in. Although the Eikaiwa (Private Language School) industry is a little rocky, there are still lots of schools out there, not to mention the state and private Junior and High-School sections. It is also a great joy for me to be working at Sophia University, a leading Foreign Language Education institute and one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. It has long been an ambition of mine to teach Academic English in Japan and this year that dream will be realised.

Japan is a country with an interesting relationship with English. This is a theme which I shall be exploring in a more dedicated section of the site all about eLearning and Language Learning in general here in Japan. There are many Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) specialists here, such as Glenn Stockwell and Lawrence Anthony, creator of AntConc the free concordancing software. Not to mention Thomas Robb and of course the well-established Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) CALL Special Interest Group, with its own peer reviewed journal, conference and chapter events. Very much looking forward to participating there after having been a member for so long.

Despite the current economic climate, both globally and in Japan specifically, English Language Education is still of high importance in Japan, and so at engnet-education we are pleased to be able to offer our services to an industry which very much needs to stay on top of innovations in learning and teaching. We are also officially launching a new arm of the company, engnet-academy, which will provide both online and blended learning solutions to coroporate clients for their English Language Learning needs. We are also branching out further into materials development, producing a range of interactions for my former employee Kaplan International.

So, as you can see, 2011 certainly looks set to be a busy year for engnet-education. If you would like to learn more about what we are doing, or would like to get involved please send us an email, we would love to hear from you.

Adapting Authentic Materials from the Web

This post is all about resources which are invaluable to language teachers – authentic materials. There are so many authentic resources which can be adapted for use in the classroom that it may seem daunting to know where to start, or what the best way to go about altering the materials is to get them class-room ready. In this post I will introduce a few examples and tools which make this job easy, and some general ideas about how to reduce the work on the teacher without decreasing the personalisation factor of adapting materials for the classroom.

Structure

If you look at any good coursebook or set of learning materials, you will notice that they have a strong structure with clearly labelled sections which the students and teachers can both identify straight away. Although the content in these sections changes from unit to unit, the section are laid out in the same way and offer a similar range of tasks and activities. This has obvious benefits, especially when you are designing teaching materials which you will use in the future for other classes or even for other teachers to use. This principle of having a strong and clear structure should also help you to speed up the adapting process. A good example of adapted authentic materials are the ones provided by onestopenglish.com based on articles from the British newspaper The Guardian. Below is an example:

Link to the original page

Straight away you can see that there are clear sections and each one contains a specific task. Also note that from week to week these activities vary only in content, for the most part the type of tasks change very little. This makes the writing process a lot easier, it means you know already what will go in your worksheet and the same is true for your students. Of course, variation of task types is a good thing, but this can be achieved with different worksheets and lessons, if you are writing a series of such materials it is best to have a strong structure, but also don’t be too rigid about it as this will make the worksheets become stale.

Elaboration Theory

Research such as that into the Involvement Load Hypothesis or Cognitive Load Theory have suggested that by increasing the difficulty and required ‘brain power’ used by a task helps with remembering the content and can lead to longer-term retention of the target language. Elaboration Theory utilises this by making tasks in a learning interaction or worksheet become gradually more complicated, thus increasing the chances that the learner will acquire the target language. These theories are easy to incorporate into your worksheets.

Source Material

No matter how good your tasks and activities, they are only ever as good as the source material. When choosing the source material which you are going to adapt, there are a few things you might want to consider before making the final selection. These are authenticity, relevance, curriculum fit and potential for further learning. Peacock (1997) found that authentic materials were more motivating for students, even lower level students, than unauthentic materials. However, there have been a lot of debates over what constitutes as authentic and what doesn’t. Henry Widdowson (1990) makes the distinction between ‘authentic’ materials and ‘genuine’ materials. Here, authentic materials are originally written for non-learners of the language (proficient speakers or L1) and used in the same way in the class with the learners. Genuine materials have been adapted from authentic materials in order to emphasise linguistic components for learning. Both of these are good things, but obviously when choosing the source material we must also consider the difficulty it may pose to our learners. There are a number of ways of doing this, but one quick and easy way is to use the Flesch–Kincaid readability test, which is built into Microsoft Word and can be used on any text you have in there. A score will be produced which you can use to roughly guess how hard the text will be, based on a number of criteria derived from corpus linguistics, such as word frequency, length, etc.

I will expand on this idea further in a later article, but please feel free to contact or use the comments below to discuss.

For me, the main thing I look for when choosing materials to adapt for class is whether they interest me or not. If they do, I am more likely to be able to get my class interested. At the end of the day, you may have to use a number of objective criteria to fine tune your choices, but the main decision will be subjective based on your own teaching preferences and this is a good thing. Teaching and adapting materials for you class are highly personal, and if they are not the lessons you do will fail because of this.

Further Reading

Widdowson, H. (1990),  Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Peacock, M. (1997)  The Effect of Authentic Materials on the Motivation of EFL Learners in English Language Teaching Journal 51

Social Networking for language acquisition

Blogs, Wikis, micro-blogs, virtual worlds and social networks seem to dominate much of our time these days, especially with new technologies on mobile applications allowing us access from anywhere at almost any time. People are checking facebook from their smartphones and updating followers on Twitter while attending conferences and meetings, or during the commute. Many of the posts that appear on this site are composed on my Blackberry and published via 3G. Social networks take up a lot of people’s time these days, and love them or hate them they are a rich source of language input. When I was conducting research for my dissertation one of the questionnaire participants commented that they felt social networks would be very useful for the students in terms of meeting and communicating with people in the target language, especially because they taught in a Foreign Language context (meaning that the students all live in a country where the first language is not the language being studied) but because this teacher felt inexperienced about using social networks in their own personal life they were not comfortable recommending it to their students.

This seems perfectly reasonable. If you are not comfortable with something it is almost imposible to stand up and teach someone it, even if you can appreciate the value. For this reason I thought this post would be useful in providing a few ideas about how to incorporate social networks into your language teaching while avoiding the pitfalls.

To make this more digestible, I have composed a list of bullet points to illustrate what I think are the dos and don’ts, followed by a list of ideas and links to try out.

Let’s start with the warnings first.

All social networks work by having users enter personal information about themselves, which is then searchable by other users. All this personal information is stored in a database and much of the information provided is available for anyone to see and search. I’ve had experiences where I’ve clicked on a friend’s facebook profile, been able to learn who they are in a relationship, view pictures of their partner, gain phone numbers and addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. Creepy though this sounds, this is all by simply looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. This is very dangerous, and I recommend you take this quick privacy report test before reading any further. The test is available at www.reclaimprivacy.org. You can also view recommendations there about how to improve your privacy settings. Once you are happy with this, you can also recommend it to your students. If you are planning to use social networks with your students it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible as your students and your friends will get mixed together and that can lead to issues. A way around this is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on facebook then I suggest you simply don’t allow them. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Don’ts

  • recommend your students to make contact with people they don’t know or have never had previous contact with.
  • allow your students to post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in them being banned from the site
  • add students as friends if your own personal profile has deeply private content on it (such as photos of you drunk, which your friends have posted up).
  • if you do have private or embarrassing content of yourself on the site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general pracice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as facebook, only to find on the day of class that it has been blocked from the student machines. Always check out sites you intend to visit from the students’ machines and preferably using a student login

Dos

  • create a group or page which is specially for your class, so you can keep members organised and together. If you create a group, you can also connect with students without having to add them as friends, thus ensuring privacy for you and for them.
  • go over the rules of Netiquette, that is polite conventions and rules which students should abide by when posting on public online forums and sites. This should include being wary of anyone they don’t know adding them as a friend or requesting details.
  • encourage students to reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest to them, even if they don’t know the person this is ok. For example, if you are fans of a celebrity who has a public fan page, or members of a particular group online, it is fine to chat and respond to people’s posts on these public areas because the nature of the discussion is open. This is not the same as sending a friend request to someone you don’t know.
  • encourage students to check back on the site in their free time and see if someone has responded to their post

There are many more of these and I will be compiling a more comprehensive list and adding it to a permanent page soon. Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

You have been learning about giving advice in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with real speakers. Although you may need to screen the sites you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with probelms or asking for advice. First your students could create their own posts asking for advice (make sure they only write about something they are comfortable sharing with the class, such as the feeling that they are not learning fast enough or have no one to practice with. If they can’t think of anything they could write it on behalf of an imaginary friend). After that they should follow the thread and also try to reply to some other people who are having a problem which they think they can help with. Although it may sound risky, I have done this lesson a few times with mature classes and students always get a lot out of it. If you explain that the class will be sharing the posts then people generally don’t post up anything too personal or that they are uncomfortable sharing, and my students are always respectful of other people. The real advantage of this lesson is that it goes beyond authenticity and is actual real world use of the target language. This really gives such a class the edge over any contrived language practice lessons from grammar books. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later.

Facebook Group

There are lots of groups on facebook and other social networks which are specifically for language learning. For example, the BBC has a learning English facebook page which allows wall comments and photos. This is a great place to get your students commenting on things and replying to posts. They could ask questions about something specific on the wall or post a link to something they found useful. Although this might not take a whole lesson, it could be treated as a homework or used as a study suggestion. Alternatively, you could have students go and post something on the wall and search other posts for something interesting to share with the class.

Twitter Contest

If your class enjoys a bit of competition, why not ask students to create a new twitter account and to see who has the most followers after a week, who can manage the highest number of tweets in a week, and who can manage to get a famous person to follow them. There could be a running narration going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting.

These are just a few ideas but as you can see, there is no need for privacy to be invaded or personal space encroached on just because you are using social networks with students. The key is to try a few of these things out yourself (preferably in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go. If students don’t wish to create profiles with their real names they can always create a generic or anonymous profile, as long as it is not used to offend or insult people.

If you have any further ideas or comments, please add them below.

Feedback

Sending out student feedback is essential. Good materials design needs to incorporate student feedback. Also, after assessments and tests, it is vital that students receive personalised feedback in a supportive way.

Below is a training video which I made to help teachers automate student assessment feedback through MS Word’s built in Mail Merge features.

Moodle 2.0

The moodle.org site is now using Moodle 2.0. Interestingly, it looks and functions in much the same way. This is a good sign as it shows that the new platform will be able to slide neatly over any current production sites using Moodle 1.9. There was a very interesting review in the Wired section of The Language Teacher (JALT newsletter), Ted O’Neill wrote an article entitled “What’s new for instructors in Moodle 2.0?” all about the benefits of Moolde 2.0. The release notes provide a useful summary, but I will summarise some of the core new features and their benefits for institutions.

Moodle 2.0 will install directly over an existing Moodle 1.9 installation and maintain course and category structure. It should also be able to allow course restore from backed up courses that come out of Moodle 1.9. This is not currently available with the current release candidate, but it is planned for the stable version of Moodle 2.1.

Moodle 1.9 had a severe limitation for administrators as it did not support site-level groups. This made it extremely difficult for institutions, such as my employer, who had multiple schools but with students enrolled on the same course. Moodle 2.0 supports ‘cohorts’ which will provide a solution to this issue.

Activity locking was a popular plugin for Moodle 1.8 but it wasn’t supported in later builds. This feature has been incorporated into the Moodle 2.0 main code and allows you to add conditions or pre-requistites to your courses, thus preventing students from doing activities in an arbitrary order. This will have a huge effect on the way eLearning courses are designed and delivered in Moodle, as the new conditional activities allow you to set tests and revisions or final assessments which build on previous activities and ensure students have done all the preparation work first.

Along with these developments Moodle 2.0 will also offer better SCORM compliancy, although it does not completely support SCORM 2004, this functionality is available as a commercial plugin called SCORM Cloud, which allows fully integrated SCORM compatibility. The new build will also feature an improved theme management system, which will allow users to put RSS themes and blocks on their profile page and support server-side caching making it more efficient for CSS 3, HTML 5 and Java Script. The way Moodle 2.0 is navigated is different as well, with a navigation bar which can either be expanded or collapsed much like in Blackboard Vista.

There will still be a range of 3rd party open source and commercial plugins, one of particular interest being the Adobe Connect integration.

You can read the full Moodle 2.0 release notes here, and download the release candidate here.

All in all, these developments should only help strengthen Moodle’s position in the global VLE market and bring it into the new decade of what promises to be an exciting time for the education sector as a whole and language learning and teaching in particular, as instructional technologies become more adept at providing socio-collaborative learning environments.

Teachers’ Attitudes to and Motivations for Using CALL

This presentation was given at both Antwerp CALL 2010 and EUROCALL 2010, Bordeaux. There is also a podcast of the EUROCALL conference and a recording of the EUROCALL presentation.

This presentation is based on research conducted as part of my master’s dissertation in Applied Linguistics and ELT at King’s College, London (supervised by Dr. Nick Andon). The slides from the presentation are available to view here or download in PDF.

You can also watch the video here

Teachers’ attitudes and motivations for using CALL in and around the language classroom from Richard Pinner on Vimeo.