Archive for Tag: David Barker

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Question of Terminology

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I am writing this entry in response to a question that was posted by Scott on one of my older entries, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach.” Here is what Scott wrote:

Hi David,

I’m doing an MA Tesol and one of my assignments is on CLT. I’ve scoured several textbooks and about a thousand websites, but no one seems to really define what CLT actually is! Although, there are plenty of texts that say what it ISN’T. Any thoughts on how to define it?!

Here is my answer:

Hi Scott,

I’m afraid you have come up against one of the biggest problems in ELT, which is the lack of a body of universally accepted definitions and terms. Here is my own interpretation of how and why we have ended up with this state of affairs.

As any successful learner knows, languages are learned rather than taught. Learning a foreign language as an adult requires an enormous investment of time and effort, and teaching methods and materials are only a tiny part of the puzzle. However, as these are the only things that we can directly control, their importance gets blown out of all proportion.

As teaching is so relatively unimportant in the big picture of language learning, new ideas and theories about materials and methods tend to have very little impact on actual outcomes. When one new method or approach turns out to be less effective than its proponents initially claimed, this leaves the field open for the next contender. And so the cycle continues.

If you look back over the history of ELT, you will see a series of what were actually nothing more than limited insights into the learning process or good ideas for activities being put forward as all-encompassing teaching methods.

What tended to happen is the following cycle:

  1. Teachers are told that a revolutionary new method or approach has been discovered, and that what they have been doing so far is wrong and should be abandoned immediately. At this point, the new idea is usually clearly defined, easy to understand, and intuitively appealing. It is also likely to be quite idealistic and quite impractical. (Suggestopedia, anyone?)
  2. Teachers realize that the method/approach has some useful new ideas, but also that implementing it in its “pure” form would be impossible. As a result, they integrate the parts of it that they like into what they were doing before while claiming to be following the new orthodoxy. Confusion begins to arise about the new idea as teachers notice that others who are claiming to be doing the same thing as them are actually doing something quite different.
  3. Supporters of the method/approach try to justify the original idea by “toning down” some of its claims. As you very astutely noted, this defence tends to take the form of saying what the new idea / method is not rather than what it is.
  4. As the number of these “weak forms” of the initial idea increases, everyone ends up totally confused about what it actually is.

This is pretty much exactly what happened with CLT, which is why you cannot find a standard definition.

As I understand it, (and I must stress that this really is just my own interpretation), the original insight of CLT was that communication is not just the goal of language learning, but actually the method by which languages are learned. In other words, we don’t just learn in order to communicate; we communicate in order to learn.

This was definitely a useful insight, and it is difficult to argue with unless it is taken to mean, “languages can only be learned through authentic communication,” i.e., that all language teaching must be Communicative. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened with CLT.

Eventually, teachers and academics realized that students still wanted and needed plenty of “non-communicative” teaching as well, which meant that defenders of CLT had to come up with different ways of defining so that it did not sound quite so extreme.

I think I mentioned this in my original post, but I remember having a debate with a Japanese university professor about the efficacy of CLT. He was very much in favor of it, and I was very skeptical. After arguing for about an hour, we realized that we were actually talking about two very different things. He assured me that under the “latest” and “most authoritative” definition, CLT refers to any kind of teaching that over the long term aims to improve the students’ ability to communicate. So basically, just “teaching” then!

A similar problem can be seen today with Task-Based Teaching. TBT began with the idea that tasks were the best way to organize language teaching. (Once again, I should note that this is my own interpretation.) The key proposition was that the language to be taught should arise naturally from meaning-focused tasks rather than being pre-selected by the teacher. Of course, this didn’t generally work in practice, so new definitions began to emerge. These generally refer to differing degrees of incorporating tasks into a broader syllabus, something that teachers and materials writers have doing for years anyway. The problem now is that many of these teachers claim that what they are doing is Task-Based Teaching when it is nothing of the sort. If you ever have to write a paper about TBT, therefore, I’m afraid you will run into exactly the same problems of definition.

In a paper I read recently, the respected academic Rod Ellis says that criticisms of TBT “reflect a failure to acknowledge that multiple versions of task-based teaching exist.” The same can probably be said of CLT. If this is true, however, then surely it is not possible to have any kind of meaningful debate about either of them.

To answer your original question, the reason that you were unable to find a single, universally accepted definition of CLT is simply that there isn’t one. For the purposes of writing a master’s paper on the topic, I would suggest that you discuss the difficulty you had finding a definition and conclude that, “there does not appear to be a consensus within the profession as to what CLT actually means.” Unfortunately, I guarantee that you will find teachers who tell you that an authoritative definition does indeed exist, and I also guarantee that whatever they tell you, you will have no trouble finding others who disagree with it. Such is the nature of terminology in ELT.

Hope that helps!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunters & Gatherers

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the idea of a “hunter-gatherer” society. According to Wikipedia, this is a society in which “most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals.” One feature of this kind of society is the division of labour between the sexes, with men tending to be hunters, and women more likely to be gatherers. However, the Wikipedia article stresses that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian, with women having just as much power as men. This is because equal importance is given to the role of hunting and the role of gathering.

In many ways, I think the hunter-gatherer metaphor is one that can also be applied to language learners. Some learners are hunters, some are gatherers, and some (the most successful ones) give equal importance to both. In the field of language learning, “gathering” might be taken to mean collecting new words, phrases, and structures as you discover them. However, just as an effective gatherer of food is not someone who simply waits around to be given things, effective gatherers of language need to be constantly on the lookout for new “nourishment” for their language ability. Gatherers of food actively search for it, looking under rocks, inside holes, and even in the trees above their heads. In the same way, efficient gatherers of language have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and open to the possibilities that present themselves. A Japanese woman I know who works for a publishing company once told me that she thought the secret of successful language learners is that they constantly have their “antennae” raised. In other words, they are always sensitive to new language, and they unfailingly notice it when it appears.

Another thing that food gatherers have to do is store their findings so that they can be accessed later. There is no point, for example, in picking a delicious-looking mushroom only to find out when you get home that you have dropped it somewhere along the way. In the same way, language gatherers need a systematic approach to filing away new language as they collect it. Here in Japan, I have found that students tend to have an obsession with writing things down. I suppose that, because of the frailty of human memory, we get a sense of security from making a permanent record of something that we want to remember. The problem for most of my students is that instead of being a means to an end, writing stuff down becomes an end in itself. Many students scribble things on scraps of paper that disappear into their bag at the end of the lesson. When I ask  them what they intend to do with those scraps, the most common response is a blank look. For those students, “learning” new language simply means writing it down.

Although being a good gatherer of information is an important skill for learners, I have found that most of the very successful ones tend also to have a “hunter” mentality. These people do not just wander around close to home picking up whatever happens to be lying around, they set out on journeys with the specific intent of finding new language and bringing it home. The difference between these people and unsuccessful learners can be seen in the contrast between the questions “What do I have to do for homework?” and “What can I do for homework?”

If you talk to a successful language learner, you will inevitably find that they were highly proactive in their learning. These are the people who read extensively, who watch the same DVD over and over again until they have learnt all of the lines, and who search tirelessly for new ways to “hunt” the language they want to learn. You will also often find that these people have developed their own methods of hunting. These have normally been developed through a process of trial and error, and they benefit from (and contribute to) a heightened awareness on the part of the learner of their own learning styles as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

On the subject of strengths and weaknesses, I remember some advice that Arnold Schwarzenegger once gave to aspiring bodybuilders. He told them to “spend 90% of your time in the gym working on the weakest 10% of your body.” I would say that is probably good advice for language learners too – spend 90% of your effort on the weakest 10% of your skills. In the world of bodybuilding, people often do the exact opposite, working ceaselessly on the parts of their body that respond best, and largely ignoring the bits that are slow to respond. That is why you often see men with huge arms and chests and skinny legs! In the same way, we also often see language learners who have great pronunciation but a poor vocabulary, or great reading skills but no communicative ability.

Going back to the hunter-gatherer metaphor, I think it is possible to identify three types of learner. The first is what might be called a “passive gatherer.” These people will collect language when it is presented to them, but they do not go out of their way to look for it. The second type are “active gatherers.” These are people who search for new language and make a conscious effort to store it. Active gatherers are usually more successful than passive gatherers. The most successful language learners of all, however, are the hunter-gatherers. These are the people who not only gather what they find lying around them, but who also plan regular expeditions to new and unknown places in order to hunt their prey. Which type are you?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:

“There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.”

I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of themwa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system. Of course, this is not something that is unique to Japanese. I have observed the same phenomenon with speakers of Asian languages trying to learn English articles.

Whilst it is true to say that wa and ga are mystifying for non-Japanese, it is also true to say that they are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too! Of course, Japanese people can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage.

Even for teachers, it is often the “small” words of a language that cause the most problems. I remember talking to an experienced teacher when I started my first teaching job in Singapore. Faced with a syllabus of complicated grammar such as the past perfect tense, the passive voice, and conditionals, I asked my colleague which he thought was the most difficult to teach. He did not hesitate. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, “the most difficult thing to teach in English is the word ‘the’.” (We were teaching mainly Asian students.) With twenty years of experience under my belt, I would have to say that I completely agree with him.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sowing the Seeds of Grammar

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

People often ask me how long it took me to learn Japanese, and I normally tell them that it took me about six months. When they look surprised, I add, “But it took me about two years to learn how to learn it.” This is not a joke; this is exactly how I feel about the stages I went through when I began learning the language. Of course, I didn’t really learn it in six months, but I did go from not being able to say anything to being able to survive daily life in Japan within that time frame.

The two years prior to that six-month period were not completely unproductive, but they did involve a great deal of frustration and time-wasting because I failed to grasp a number of key concepts about the learning process. The particular misunderstanding I want to focus on today is the idea I had that learning a language should be “linear.” In other words, I believed that I would study a particular item, understand it, master it, and then move onto the next thing. As anyone who has learned a foreign language will know, that is simply not how it works.

One experience that still sticks in my mind is the time when I was taught the expression shika nai, which means “only.” The problem was that I had already learned another word (dake) that also apparently meant “only,” and I couldn’t understand the difference. To be more exact, I couldn’t really understand why there had to be a difference. “English seems to manage okay with just one way of saying ‘only,’” I thought, “so why does Japanese need two?” In the end, I decided to give up trying to work it out and just use the simpler dake.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

How Not to Give a Presentation

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Have you ever sat through a really terrible presentation? I’m guessing that you have, and probably more than once! If you Google the phrase “Death by Powerpoint,” you will find that there is a whole mass of articles and videos about this on the Internet. Last week, I did a presentation at the JALT national conference in Hamamatsu, Japan that was aimed at raising awareness of the need to prepare properly for conference presentations. The title of the presentation was “How Not to Give a Presentation,” and I tried to cram as many common presentation mistakes as I could think of into 12 minutes. I have uploaded the video onto my own blog, and I wrote a very long article to go with it listing the things that bug me most.

The presentation was very well received, with the audience taking it in the spirit in which it was intended and joining in the fun. Many of them came up to me later that evening and said, “I watched your presentation at 12, and then I watched it again at 1, at 2, and then at 3!” It seems that we still have a long way to go in raising the standards of presentations at teaching conferences. Anyway, if you are interested, please take a look a the video. (Please note that it makes much more sense if you read the article first.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Praise of Explaining

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

When I did my initial teaching course way back in 1992, our trainers made it clear that standing at the front of the class and explaining things to students was simply not the done thing. Good teachers, we were told, don’t explain things; good teachers have special techniques for “eliciting” or “facilitating discovery” of the points they want to get across.

I suspect that this was a reaction to the excessively teacher-centered methods that had gone before, and to be fair, my trainers did have a point. After all, who wants to sit in a classroom and be “talked at” day after day? As with so many things in our profession, however, this new awareness did not result in a logical “Perhaps we should do less one-way explaining” or “Perhaps we should combine explaining with other methods of instruction,” but rather the more reactionary “Right! Nobody is to explain anything anymore!”

This way of thinking was particularly noticeable in the area of vocabulary instruction. In the 1990s, no self-respecting teacher would offer students a simple translation of a new word. Well, not in an observed lesson, anyway! I remember being told that there was no need to translate words because a skilled teacher should be able to convey the meaning of any vocabulary item through other methods, such as the use of gestures or mime. I still hear this claim a lot even now: I can explain any word without using the students’ language!

Again, an argument can be made in favor of this approach, but I think it misses an extremely important point that is often overlooked in language teaching: the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is it possible for me to do XYZ?” but rather “Is XYZ the most productive way of using the very limited time available?” It is all very well contorting yourself to demonstrate the meaning of a word like “accelerate” through exaggerated mime, but is that really the best use of the teacher’s and the students’ time?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 3)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Speaking from my own experience, I think a strong argument could be made that, wherever possible, it is better to study the pronunciation of a language before you study the actual language itself. This is because listening to a language when you have no idea of its vocabulary or grammar forces you to rely 100% on your ears, which results in you hearing the language the way it really sounds. If you learn a non-phonetic language like English or Chinese by reading and writing graphic representations of the words, your brain will automatically assign sounds to those characters according to how it thinks they would be pronounced in your first language. I had that experience when trying to read Chinese words written in “pinyin.” I was fortunate in my learning of Japanese that I was able to learn the sound system before doing any formal study of the language by listening to Japanese pop songs and learning the words by heart. One great way of helping your students to understand what it means to use only their ears is to play them videos or recordings of songs in a language that none of them is familiar with. Check out this video for a famous example of someone just using their ears to copy the sounds of a foreign language. Isn’t it amazing how much it sounds like English while being completely incomprehensible!

In my last post, I discussed the importance of developing pronunciation skills in order to improve your listening ability, but I did not say exactly what skills I was talking about. That will be the topic of today’s post. There will be nothing new here for experienced teachers, but I hope it will remind people of things that they might have forgotten over the years. For newer teachers, I hope some of the points will give you ideas about how the teaching of pronunciation can be broken down into manageable (i.e., teachable) components.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.



Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 1)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

I can’t remember who said it (I have a feeling it may have been Penny Ur), but I remember hearing a quote about teaching listening once that really made me stop and think:

We don’t really teach listening; we just keep testing it.

Whoever it was, I think he or she had a very valid point. Our standard methodology for teaching listening is a cycle of giving listening tasks and then asking questions in order to test the learners’ comprehension of what they have heard. In our defence, of course, it is difficult to see how we could do otherwise. Like reading, listening is a receptive skill that can only be developed through repeated practice, so there are good reasons for teaching it the way we do. Anyway, I was recently asked to do a presentation on this topic, and I started thinking about aspects of listening that do actually need to be taught rather than simply practiced. The first thing that came to mind was a list of general principles of which learners often seem to be unaware, and I want to write about the first of those today.

The first point is that we listen with our brains, not our ears.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Teaching Students What Not to Say

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

When I worked in Singapore, I lived in an apartment block where most of the other inhabitants were Chinese Singaporeans. I regularly met other people from the block in the elevators and in the food courts, and they were always very friendly and chatty. Unsurprisingly, the first question people normally asked me was, “Where are you from?” I found this quite normal and inoffensive, but I have to admit that I was more than a bit thrown by the inevitable second question the first few times I was asked: “How much rent do you pay?” Just to be clear, I am not saying that one or two people asked me this—almost everyone did! The reason that people asked this was apparently that most ex-pats lived in much more expensive places, and the Singaporeans were fascinated to know whether we were paying the same rent as them or whether we were paying more. Unfortunately, of course, “How much rent do you pay?” is not a question that people would normally ask someone they had just met in my country, so being asked it made me reluctant to develop the conversation with that person any further.

Of course, this was Singapore, so the problem was not one of language; it was more a question of cultural differences. When a language barrier is added, the problem becomes even more acute, and learners of English can often unwittingly create a bad first impression by asking or saying something inappropriate, or something that causes them to be perceived as being dull. In other words, the problem for a language learner might not how they are saying something, but rather the fact that they are saying it at all.

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