Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Advanced Conversation Class - Piercings

As I tried to read my book on the bus on my way home yesterday evening, I was constantly distracted by the girl sitting in front of me. In 21st century Europe people with piercings through various parts of their anatomies are a common enough sight and, until last night, I have to say that I've been pretty ambivalent about them. Even the spectacle, many years ago, of a young male member of my staff showing off his newly pierced nipples to his colleagues, evoked in me a mere raised eyebrow and the unvoiced question as to what purpose the chain linking the two nipple rings could possibly have! (Answers on a postcard, please!) So, my opinion on this matter, as on many others, has always been, 'live and let live' - what people choose to do to their own bodies is their affair. Which is why I am surprised at my reaction to the girl on the bus!

I had seen her as I boarded the bus. I had registered the fact that she had several piercings on her face - through her nose, her lip, her ears, her eyebrow and her cheek - but had made no conscious judgement about her based on these body adornments. It wasn't until I sat down behind her and saw the piercing through the back of her neck that I found myself unable to concentrate on my reading and, more than that, found myself questioning what her motives could be for violating her body in such a way. What business is it of mine? Absolutely none, but I couldn't help myself!

Her piercing was like none I have ever seen before. It looked like a very thick  old-fashioned hatpin with a large cabochon depicting the Virgin Mary on one end, a protective stopper on the other, and a good 5 or 6 centimetres of metal hidden under her skin between the two. I wondered at first whether the 'ends' were simply stuck on her skin to give the illusion of a piercing, but no - the girl kept reaching behind her, fiddling with the pin and demonstrating quite clearly that it did indeed go under her skin.

I honestly don't know why I felt such a strong reaction against this girl's 'body art'. Was it the size of the thing? Was it a matter of where it was on her body? Was it the religious image (I'm not a particularly religious person)? I just don't know! I questioned myself as much as the girl's reasons for having it and, ever the teacher on the lookout for a lesson idea, took a surreptitious photo of it to use in my advanced conversation class! (I haven't reproduced it here because, though I doubt the girl in question would be identified through it, I didn't ask her permission and my action could quite rightly be construed as an invasion of privacy!!)
Thus, today, we had a discussion lesson on the pros & cons of piercings.  To encourage debate, I presented my picture, hidden in a selection of photos of piercings (one of which is reproduced here), to my class of young(ish) students and elicited their responses.  I asked them to arrange the photos on the table: firstly, in order of how socially acceptable they thought the piercings were; secondly, in order of how likely they would be to have each type of piercing themselves; and thirdly, in order of how upset they would be if their younger brother or sister came home with such a piercing.  As you can imagine, the discussion was lively, to say the least, especially as I had insisted that they reach a consensus within their groups. 
The results were very interesting.  There was a general feeling that the whole question was outside of their experience and that no piercing, other than through the earlobes, would ever be appropriate (I do live & teach in a very conservative northern Italian town!).  So what about the 'bolt' through the back of the neck?  Well, using reason & logic, the students generally thought that this was probably one of the most socially acceptable piercings because, as they pointed out, it wouldn't be immediately visable & it could be hidden quite easily under clothing.  However, in terms of initial shock reactions & in answer to the final question, all the groups agreed that the neck piercing was the worst.  And they were doubly shocked when I revealed that I had seen it on a local bus.........!!
I have to say, I felt somewhat vindicated!!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

To Intermediate and Beyond...... #eltchat Summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place on Twitter at 12 noon BST on Wednesday 4th May, 2011. The topic was:

What stops many adult learners from progressing beyond intermediate level?  Is there a barrier?

(Or, as the question was posed by @pjgallantry, 'Is there some kind of linguistic 'glass ceiling' which some students simply can't get through?') 

As usual, it was a fast & furious chat, but, on this occasion, it separated quite neatly in to two parts:

1. The answer to the original question
2. What can we do to motivate and help   students who want to progress, but who are finding it difficult?

Reasons why students stop at intermediate level

  • Intermediate level is simply good enough for most people's needs
  • Students run out of time
  • There's a realisation that it's just too difficult beyond intermediate level (e.g. the exam expectations for PET & FCE are markedly different) 
  • When learners hit intermediate level, they can get by in most situations & sometimes decide they don't need to improve
  • Learning English becomes more tricky & time-consuming after this level
  • Spiky profiles can be a barrier, e.g. poor writing skills can hold some students back
  • A lack of motivation & interest
  • Some students are put off by having to do more writing at advanced levels
  • Some people have a propensity for languages & some don't 
  • It's human nature - we start new things with a lot of interest & gradually the interest wanes
  • The jump from intermediate is seen as being too high, especially when using course books
  • It is much harder to sense (from the student's point of view) and to measure (from the teacher's viewpoint) progress from intermediate to advanced than it is in the lower levels
  • A sense of frustration - of 'getting nowhere fast'
  • Government funding for migrant English courses runs out at intermediate level leading to a big drop-out after that (this from @cioccas in Australia)
  • Students are learning English for a particular reason (e.g. driving lessons) & this need is met by reaching intermediate level
  • Learners have other responsibilities (e.g. work & children) which prevent them from continuing their English studies
  • It's difficult for students to progress beyond intermediate level if they don't live in an English-speaking country (this was disputed!)
  • Students are unable to afford private language tuition & funded upper-intermediate & advanced courses aren't easy to come by
  • Many advanced level courses are exam based & this isn't always relevant/appropriate for students
  • Intermediate level is often good enough to get a job, even jobs teaching English in some cases!
  • Learners become demotivated due to a focus on grammar rather than on communication
  • Real proficiency in a language requires a breadth of knowledge (language & culture) that many adults don't have time to invest in
  • The internet is influencing drop out rates - students feel they have learned enough to be able to progress online on their own
  • Students don't understand that their learning needs to 'expand' rather than progress in a 'linear' fashion during the upper levels
  • Perhaps teachers need to question themselves as to whether they are to blame for students not continuing?
  • @englishraven reminded us not to assume that learners just 'stop' - perhaps they stop taking classes and progress well enough without them

At the end of the first 'half' of the chat, the question was asked as to whether teachers were superfluous beyond intermediate level.  Having established that we still had a role to play (thanks, @theteacherjames!), we went on to discuss:

What can we do to help students to progress?

  • Motivation is the key! (@Thamesville told us about the samurai students in Japan who truly want to master the language!)
  • Perhaps our intermediate courses should inspire students to continue to the upper levels
  • Aim for fluency rather than communicative ability to excite students who have reached a plateau
  • One-to-one attention is important as all learners have different 'plateaus' (clearly, this is easier when teaching individuals rather than  groups
  • Make an effort to make students realise that they are progressing, despite how it feels to them
  • Offer non-exam based upper level courses using authentic materials rather than course books
  • Compare students' work at the beginning & the end of their course to show them their progress, through a written task, a presentation, or by recording them
  • Use language in as realistic scenarios & settings as possible
  • Move beyond the coursebook (back to dogme again!)
  • Encourage students to see English as the medium through which things are learned, rather than as a subject to be learned.  We can do this through offering courses in art, cookery, English literature, history, etc in English (CLIL in action?) As @sandymillin told us, 'What helps me is an interest in the cultural side of things... language is secondary - the way I find out more about the culture'
  • Encourage students to use their English outside the classroom
  • More portfolio work so that students see an improvement & can go back & mark their own work
  • Give learners more say in developing materials & lesson ideas 
  • Encourage self-directed & reflective learning with the classroom acting as much more of a meeting place
  • Develop extensive reading or a love of music or film to motivate students to go further (the extensive reading idea proved very popular & might well be the topic of a future #eltchat!)
  • Take more of a task-based, experiential approach with upper levels
  • Get students to teach each other a lot more by rotating leadership in class
  • Suggest that students set up their own 'English club' where they can meet & chat in English, preferably over a glass or two - we all agreed that most students' levels improve after a drop of the hard stuff!

Other points

  • From @hartle - some learners are happy with intermediate level and want to maintain it (@rliberni 'if you don't use it, you'll surely lose it!'), so then we need to look at maintenance courses focusing on discussion groups with skills & some language work, but with a greater social element
  • @englishraven pointed out that coursebook sales taper off sharply after intermediate level 
  • It's difficult to get good teachers for upper levels - many don't do well under the spotlight & are afraid of getting caught out by difficult questions. Also, with ELT Taylorism & wage structures, the good & experienced professionals have disincentives to hang about
  • @englishraven suggested that coursebooks for upper levels should be more like magazines with more content & fewer exercises. @rliberni proposed an adaptable print on demand book.
  • @legyened reminded us that we should also celebrate the fact that so many students manage to get to intermediate level unscathed & with their love for English intact!
  • The move from intermediate to upper levels was expressed in a metaphor by @LizziePinard - 'rather than being like a river, it becomes more like an expanding lake .... and with no current moving them along, they get sluggish to keep swimming!' I think quite a few of us enjoyed this analogy!!

In conclusion, the consensus was that many students stop at intermediate level simply because they don't need to go on and we, as teachers, need to accept this and to be there for them if and when they have a need for higher level English.  For those learners who want to continue to improve, but are finding it difficult for whatever reason, we have to be needs aware and be in a position to offer alternative learning strategies to enable them to reach their goals.


Via @cioccas 'Moving Beyond the Plateau' by Jack C. Richards - video and PDF