The CEFR 101 – Essentials for Teachers to Know, and What’s New!

This week’s guest post is from Tim Goodier, member of the core authoring group for the CEFR Companion Volume (among other things). Did you know that the descriptors had been updated? I didn’t! Here, he offers some useful insights into the changes and how to incorporate the ‘can do’ statements into your teaching.

Most people working in ELT will be familiar with the CEFR (in full: the Common European Framework of Reference for languages) though not necessarily in detail. You might be forgiven for thinking that it’s just a set of level labels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) that are roughly equivalent to ‘beginner/elementary’, ‘pre-intermediate’, ‘intermediate’, ‘upper-intermediate’, ‘advanced’ and ‘proficiency’. However, the CEFR levels are based on a scheme for profiling language skills, using ‘can do’ statements developed with the feedback of thousands of teaching professionals. It was first published in a book 2001 and then updated in an online Companion Volume in 2018 for greater relevance for the 21st century. This recent update has created a lot of discussion, especially concerning the expanded concept of ‘mediation’ (see the note on communication modes below).

Here are 3 key points about the CEFR, and its recent update, that have some interesting implications for English language teaching (and there are popular misunderstandings that we can de-mystify here too):

  1. The CEFR is for any language – this means it is designed to describe in detail what learners can do in any given language at each level. The same can do statements apply across different languages because they focus on the outcomes of communication, not the mechanics of specific languages. The idea is to support plurilingual education, where learners build a profile of 2 or 3 (or more) languages in a portfolio and ‘language passport’, to open opportunities in an increasingly globalised / ‘glocalised’ world.

    Implications for language teachers: The CEFR therefore breaks down language ability into things we do communicatively (for example, justify a viewpoint rather than use modal verbs),and this ‘action-oriented approach’ dovetails well with communicative, task-based and project-based learning. In essence, the CEFR gives us as a reliable core menu of communicative activities and strategies to work on at each level, which are applicable to different contexts and topics. Individual can do statements can be adapted as learning aims to help us focus more on coaching learners for real world communication, rather than just teaching language forms with staged controlled interactions. Check whether your course material already provides a simplified list of CEFR linked can do statements for learners, as they can be a good focal point for incorporating more personalised and action-oriented lesson tasks.  

    Popular misunderstanding: people often think that the CEFR does not support a focus on grammar and vocabulary practice, but this is not the case. There are in fact CEFR mapping projects for English grammar, functions and vocabulary such as the British Council Eaquals Core Inventory, or English Profile. Nevertheless, grammar and vocabulary topics need not dominate course aims at the expense of meaningful skills development.  The CEFR encourages us to organise learning around acts of communication relevant to the learners, and in tandem work on the language forms that they need to succeed in them. Published teaching materials are gradually changing their approach to reflect this (and I mean gradually!), but you can also use can do statements to negotiate with learners how to customise their course and lessons with extra activities.

  2. Four modes not four skills: The CEFR views listening and reading as ‘reception’, which is a mode of communication. But it also describes modes of production (formulating the message), interaction (engaging in dialogue)and mediation (collaborating and helping others to understand things better), which can apply to either speaking or writing, or a mixture of these, reflecting how communication really happens. The recent update to the CEFR adds scales of can do statements for mediation for the first time. This goes well beyond the dictionary definition and includes a wide range of activities for achieving better understanding between people; for example, skills for collaborative team work or explaining / summarising things you have read or listened to – hence the spotlight on integrated skills.

    Implications for language teachers: Mediation can do statements now provide a detailed level-specific roadmap for areas such as presentation skills, collaborative problem-solving tasks and summarising information from different sources. This is highly relevant to the growing focus on content and language integrated learning (CLIL) in ELT. It’s something you could explore yourself by taking one mediation can do statement and thinking how to bring it to life in an authentic communicative task.

    For example, consider the B1 descriptor:

    ‘Can summarise (in Language B) a short narrative or article, a talk, discussion, interview or documentary (in Language A) and answer further questions about details.’

    Firstly, note that ‘language A’ and ‘language B’ can be different uses of English, and are not necessarily two different languages. This could for example be developed in a task to present the main points of an article or documentary on a subject chosen by the learner, researched on an English-language website, or indeed in L1.  The main point here is a focus on relaying information and ideas in a personalised way for your intended audience, not just verbatim reporting or translation, and this can create rich opportunities for exploring language use, especially at B and C levels.

    Popular misunderstanding: ‘mediation is a new theory that we have no means to teach’. Mediation can do statements are in fact very practical, and they relate to tasks that have a focus on meaning, be it helping people understand something, helping people communicate better, taking other viewpoints into account, and/or talking through ideas to find solutions. Mediation can happen at low levels too e.g. in a simple form of relaying information from a schedule or brochure. Mediation is not new – it’s a feature of all good communicative classrooms, and the person who regularly mediates the most is you the teacher!
     
  3. ‘Online interaction’ – a genuinely new area:  The 2018 update to the CEFR also adds scales for online interaction, which can be open-ended or goal-oriented. Online interaction activities assume an integration of skills / modes, and can involve phases of live (synchronous) and delayed (asynchronous) interaction by text or speech, with varying numbers of participants, embedded threads and use of links to media to illustrate points etc. This together means something quite unique to the 21st century that is described separately in the updated CEFR levels.

Implications for language teachers: As with mediation we now have a more detailed roadmap for what to work on at each level for online interaction. This can be translated into concrete targets for 21st century communication skills, and personalised with creative activities learners can relate to. For example, ‘Can engage in online transactions that require an extended exchange of information’ could be developed in a house swap scenario, using, email, a free messenger app or simulating with exchanged written messages. The same principle can apply of experimenting with one descriptor to start with, and thinking how it suggests personalised tasks and simulations.

This is just a brief taster of what is described in the updated CEFR, but remember it’s free to download and explore. Follow this link: https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/home

On this page you can find the 2018 update titled the CEFR Companion Volume with New Descriptors (or CEFR CV) because it brings together all the scales of can do statements, original and new, in one easily navigable collection. If you’re interested to learn more, a good place to start is the introductory chapter of the CEFR CV called ‘Key aspects of the CEFR for teaching and learning’, which is rather more accessible than the original book, and is only 20 or so pages long!

No! No! No! – The Three You Need to know…

This guest post is from Philip Pound, founder of EFL Magazine. Some salient advice for freelancers (both teaching and writing) trying to ‘sell’ their work or skills.

A sales trainer once told me, “no matter what you do in life you’re always selling” I may have forgotten most of the rest of that seminar, but that has stuck with me.

If you feel you need a little primer on how to sell, have a read of this article and be sure to do some more research.

  1. Take no for an answer

Many newbies starting out in their sales careers are terrified of rejection. They’re afraid of hearing no. We think when we hear “no” it’s a rejection of us as a person. This is not the case.

Hearing “no” is often our best friend.

Let me explain…

In my 10+ years in sales, if I have learned anything for my efforts, it was your clients say yes when they oftentimes mean no. You get your hopes up, you follow up, and eventually it’s a no.

Why did this happen? “They seemed so positive”, you say. And yes, many times business decisions are made by committee. And yes, it takes only one person to blackball your fantastic proposal.

But

More often though, It’s your prospect who can’t bear to say “no” You see, if being rejected feels like a hammer blow, having to reject is far worse.

So what happens?

When they mean no they say yes.

In his book, Never Split the Difference, former FBI negotiator Chris Voss Outlines 3 types of yes: Counterfeit, Confirmation, and Commitment.

A “Counterfeit Yes” is when your prospect wants to say no but says yes in order to back of the deal and the feeling of being cornered

A “Confirmation Yes” is when your prospect interchanges yes with “I see” or “ok” for example

A “Commitment Yes” is what you want. It’s your prospect agreeing to take your product or service.

Voss recommends looking for the words “that’s right” as a more accurate gauge of your client’s intention to work with you.

On top of this, Voss advises to actively look for and invite “no” Check out more here

In the end, if getting a no means not having to waste your time following up with prospects. That in itself is a great result.

2. Start with no

Do you hate salespeople?

In surveys over the years, salespeople come out bottom of the least-liked jobs. Why is this? You may have your opinion, but for me one big factor comes out on top.

Trust.

It’s like this, you see a salesperson sidle up to you with that big smile and over-familiar patter. Sub-consciously you feel we’re going to “be sold”and there’s going to be some manipulation and guilt-tripping involved . Of course, not all salespeople are like this. But they do exist. And we hate how they make us feel.

Why do we feel like this and what can we do as salespeople to not scare away or prospects?

In his book, Start with No, Jim Camp talks about the power of no in negotiations and sales.

One of his tips is to be forthright about your intentions from the very outset. To be clear that you want to sell and what your price is. In this way, the prospect will not have the creepy feeling that there’s an agenda afoot. The air is clear and you can move on. He also talks about the power of no and how seeking and hearing it can help uncover your prospect’s pain points and help you to shape your solution to fit.

3. Always be prepared to say no

When you work in sales there’ll always be a few clients that you’ll stay in touch with even after moving on to another company. One such gentleman once handed me this nugget of advice. I’ve never forgotten it and it’s served me well.

Always be prepared to walk away

The story goes like this: He’d secured the exclusive distribution rights for a famous beverage in Ireland. Then with the contract in hand he went with a lot of optimism to one of that country’s largest retailers. This was a big contract, and undoubtedly one he wanted in the bag.

But he walked away.

Why?

Well, the buyer was unnecessarily rude, demeaning, and aggressive.

His response was “ Thank you, but I don’t need your business”

In your business, there’s never a contract that’s too big to lose your self respect and honour over. Think of the long run, the client treats you with contempt or arrogance how is the relationship going to develop? Not well, is it. Being too eager to close a deal also leaves you open to looking desperate. People can smell desperation from a mile away. It’s a sales repellant.

If you’re always ready to say no, you’ll have the upper hand.

Oh, and he landed the contract in the end

Working on language learner pain-points through a coaching approach

This week’s guest post by the lovely Gabriella Kovács briefly discusses the basics of language coaching and gives you some ideas about how it works… and a very practical takeaway activity to use in your next lesson.

Something to identify is whether you are a coach coaching learners, or a language professional (teacher, trainer) using coaching elements, techniques and tools to add dimension to your classes. 
When you coach, you coach, when you teach, you may make use of specific coaching elements, but that is not coaching: that is teaching with a coaching approach.  In my experience of the past few years, the latter is basically what most language professionals need, this is what learning about LC can provide.

Language coaching is a process focusing on learner needs, interests, motivation and goals.  By identifying – with the learner – what and why they wish to achieve concerning their language learning and language usage goals, the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place nicely.  By asking questions, guiding with empathy and positivity there will be space for the learner to come to terms with who they really are as language learners, language users and will increase their commitment to taking steps to reach their goals.

The definition goes: A conversation-based process with a purpose to map and create optimal language acquisition or language usage-related goals. The framework is based on strategies utilising intrinsic motivation and developing learning awareness, where both parties are equal partners.  It is important that clients (learners) claim ownership of their own development. (Source: Gabriella Kovács ACC)

Learners may feel stuck or demotivated, keep postponing exams, cannot significantly make progress, do not seem to find time to study the language, believe they are not good at learning languages etc.

For some, working on these issues might take one session, for others 3-6, it really is not about time. I have had clients collaborating with me for one session and leave happily, while others I support for months and work in true partnership with them, covering themes related to their workplace communication issues, exam preparation etc. 

Key questions to ask when beginning a coaching process might be:

In what way(s) is your goal supporting other aspects of your life?

Do you have an ideal type of teaching or lesson in mind you would feel comfortable with?

If you had 15 minutes a day to learn, what would you do in that time?

I work with adults in the corporate world and blend coaching with communication training. Many times I go in with 3-4 coaching tools and a handout and we discuss what is going on for the learner. I provide the attention all learners should be receiving – and they strive.

Let me present an activity I often use with learners when identifying motivation, learning preferences, strategy issues for them. 

  1. Print and cut about 6-10 quotes and place them on the table in front of the learner/s. (If you have a class, then get them into pairs or groups of maximum 3-4.)
  2. Go through the quotes and make sure learners understand the meanings of the words and phrases. Make this as short as possible. (Don’t interpret the meaning of the quotes themselves to them.)
  3. Ask learners to choose 2 quotes that resonate with how they are feeling in connection to their learning challenges right now, why that quote is important for them at present.  Let them explain to you or their partner/group. 
  4. Finally get them to highlight and share some interesting ideas.  Let them reflect on the activity: Why was this activity valuable for you?
  5. You can even collect their reflections and summaries on post-its and put them on the wall.

This is a precious activity as it needs very little preparation, will support learning awareness and deepen understanding of aspects of learning/teaching learners may not have thought of before. It may take 10 minutes, it may take 30 minutes… Be prepared for a fruitful conversation indeed!

These are my favourite quotes, but there are many, many more out there!

  • Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  – From the book Narcotics Anonymous
  • If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much. Lewis Carroll
  • Nothing is impossible… the word itself says I’m possible! Audrey Hepburn
  • The journey is the reward.  – Chinese proverb
  • People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.  – Zig Ziglar
  • When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps. – Confucius
  • Problems are only opportunities in work clothes. Henry Kaiser
  • Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius
  • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Einstein
  • Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.- Xun Kuang
  • A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. –  Thomas Carruthers
  • That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way. – Doris Lessing

Hope you enjoyed reading this and found it useful. 

Australian-born Gabriella Kovács ACC, an internationally certified language coach, business communication trainer (B.Ed., M.A.), mentor and teacher trainer. She is behind the idea of founding an organisation to support all professionals interested in language coaching, which has manifested in ILCA (International Language Coaching Association).

Her mission is to add dimension and depth to ongoing language learning practices and create a more holistic, person-centred approach for language professionals. She provides webinars, f2f and online trainings, publishes articles and works with her clients.

The Age-old Question: Why Are Games Important In The ESL Classroom?

This week’s guest post comes from the delightful Hal, from Hal and Steve English talking about the importance of games in the classroom.

There is a learning window, that is, a limit to how long students can maintain the focus required for language learning to occur. Games, aka activities, act as a way to expand that window of time in which language learning can occur. That being said, it may be true that teachers with little or no experience may use games in the classroom as a crutch for their inability to maintain that initial learning window as long as is necessary or desirable. However, what is entirely untrue, is that experienced and veteran teachers do not use games in the classroom. To the contrary, the only difference lies in maximizing the efficiency in how and to what degree they will employ those very same games and their understanding of why games are important. As they are especially useful in foreign language learning, let’s examine why games are important in the classroom within the context of ESL students and ESL teachers. As an ESL teacher you’ll know that there are aspects that are particularly important for you when you are at work in the classroom: effective or emotional aspects, creating an effective learning environment, cognitive aspects, and adaptability.

1. Affective Or Emotional Aspects

We’ve all dealt with this central issue. The student’s moods dictate their willingness to learn as well as how engaged they are in the learning process. ESL games in the classroom will help you trek through the emotional swamp of a classroom of youngsters by providing motivation, creating fun in the classroom, promoting spontaneous communication between the ESL students, and creating an environment in which the ESL students can speak and think in a free and creative manner.

Motivation

Your ESL students require structure in the classroom, but at the same time, they can feel desperate to break away from the routine of language learning. Simply put, their motivation may not be aligned with yours, but rather in escaping it. That’s where ESL games in the classrooms come in. As an ESL teacher, one of your main roles is to align your student’s motivations with your task of language acquisition. ESL games motivate students to participate in the language learning task which you are trying to accomplish. Which brings me to my next point, one of the main reasons ESL games are so motivating in the classroom, besides being a break from their dreaded language learning routine, are the elements of fun they create.

Fun

Simply put, when students are having fun, you typically find that they are the most amenable to language learning. Let’s be frank – language learning is an exceedingly difficult task which can frustrate you as well as the students. The constant effort required to understand, produce and manipulate the target language can be completely overwhelming and hard to maintain. When you employ ESL games in the classroom which contain elements of fun it allows your students to feel that they are ‘taking a break’ from the difficult task of language learning to have some fun. As they are having fun, they are practicing their language skills and furthering your goal of language acquisition.

Communication & Creating An Effective Learning Environment

ESL games in the classroom also create an environment which fosters opportunities for the free-willing style of communication which ESL students require to communicate their emotions and connect emotionally to their peers. This is also why student-focused learning is so important. ESL students may feel limited in how and when they can communicate with you – their teacher. However, when you employ ESL games in the classroom ESL students are better able to practice what they have learned with their peers around them who are operating within the same framework as them. The learning environment which is created when students are autonomously and spontaneously producing and communicating the target language beyond your direction is one of the most recognizable instances of effective language learning. If you’ve ever witnessed it occur, you know it’s a sight to behold! Sit back, watch the language learning proliferate, give guidance, and take notice of what specific issues might be popping up for each of your students

2. Cognitive

Most ESL teachers know that ESL games in the classroom are an effective tool for reviewing the target language being learned, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s dive a little deeper.

Reinforce

Esl games in the classroom not only review what you’ve been teaching your ESL students but also reinforce it (which can be all the difference when it comes to long-term retention). ESL games provide a task-oriented vehicle through which your students can use the language you have taught them to achieve their own communicative goals. In short, they end up reinforcing what you have taught them by internalizing it. You’ll be delighted to see your students not only regurgitating what you have taught them in a literal sense but also negotiating their way into communicating their own desired needs and results in the target language.

Review

So let’s get back to the aforementioned notion of using ESL games for review. Using ESL games in the classroom as a tool for review is a given for most ESL teachers. However, what is more important to examine, is that there is a limit to how much new information learners can retain within a given time. ESL games are a key element which allows you to not only simply review, but to freely navigate around those limits of language learning, and review what your ESL students have already learned for the varying and sometimes dynamic amounts of time required as well as extend that learning into something new.

Grammar

I have taught countless ESL students with a commanding understanding and repertoire of English grammar rules. However, I guess a fair amount of you who may be reading along here maybe be able to guess what I am going to say next. They can’t speak. At all. Grammar must be understood more intimately than as a set of rules or principles and must be familiar in a communicative sense. By using ESL games to learn the ESL teachers allows for one of the most important things to take place in language learning – for their students to bridge that which can be perceived as a daunting chasm between innumerable grammar rules and exceptions to those grammar rules and the simple task of communicating precisely and freely. In short, ESL games to learn are excellent tools for focusing on grammar communicatively.

3. Adaptability

Let’s not only be frank here but practical as well. Adaptability is a key aspect in the classroom, and your classes can fly or fall depending on how well you can adapt the ESL learning task or target language to your ESL students and how well you can adapt to the myriad of other factors you are facing in that particular day or class. ESL games to learn are adaptable in most every way including age, level, and interest. They also require little effort or prep time once have you developed them so that you can focus on adapting them in the ways that are needed for each class or student you encounter over time.

Easily Adjustable

Any ESL teacher out their knows that the ESL job market differences from teaching in your native country and framework in several ways. One of those differences is that you may be teaching ESL adults one year and ESL kindy students the next. As an ESL teacher, you have to be ready to adapt to the current market and status of language learning occurring wherever in the wide wide world you may be teaching. Nearly all ESL games can be adapted in some way or manner to fit the level, age, or interests you may be teaching at the time. For instance, flashcards, which are the cornerstone of a large percentage of ESL games to learn are completely adaptable regardless of age. The same ESL flashcards which you may be using for teaching ESL kindy can be quite useful for ESL adult beginner students you might also be teaching.

Little Or No Prep

Once you have invested the time of creating an ESL game to learn resource you’ll find that you’ve freed up some time for yourself in future classes as well which will require the same target language as you cycle through the school years or alternate classes. As ESL teachers start to gain full command of our their time they are better able to employ ESL games to learn to maximize language acquisition. Furthermore, this frees up the ESL teacher to adapt their ESL game to learn resource to whichever of the four aspects of language they wish to focus or expand on whether it be speaking, reading, writing, or listening.

Hal of Halandsteve english here 🙂  I moved from the southern U.S to Korea 8 years ago to teach english.  Making changes within the classroom didn’t seem to be significant enough, so I branched out of the classroom into materials and methodology along the way. These days I feel much more in my element! Feel free to contact me at

https://www.facebook.com/halandsteveenglish.

A free sample of our work 🙂

https://halandsteveenglish.com/blogs/english-conversation-lesson-esl-efl/esl-uno-master-pack

The Mind, Brain, and Education Science and ELT

Another guest post – thank you to the wonderful André Hedlund for sharing his thoughts on the relationships between neuroscience and language learning and for debunking some all-too-prevalent neuromyths.

I grew up thinking that if I wanted to learn another language and become proficient, I’d have to start at a very young age. And to be fair I did. Not because of what I wanted, of course. My parents pushed me and I believe I must’ve been 6 or 7 when I had my first English class. My dad was fluent, like most Swedes, but my mom wasn’t. She only knew it was important for me to start early. Paradoxically, Swedish was not important at all, at least in my parents’ minds. Even worse, if I tried to learn it while learning English and if my dad insisted on only talking in Swedish to me at home, that meant that I wouldn’t learn any language well, including Portuguese, my mother tongue, and that was a horrible thing to consider.

The story above illustrates what the average population thinks about language learning. When I say average here I’m actually including educated people too. It’s just something we hear from teachers, “specialists”, pedagogues, other parents. Now I’m sitting in a café in possibly one of the most multilingual countries in Europe,  Switzerland, and the sad part of this story is that I could be at least as good as my cousin who’s in her early twenties, has been raised in a multilingual home and is fluent in Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and English. My aunt, her mom, is Brazilian and didn’t know any better. She only wanted to make sure her daughter grew up with a Brazilian sense of identity and could talk to her family when she traveled to Brazil. Her dad just spoke the language that was the most natural to him: Swiss German. The others she learned at school.

My Swedish would be thriving if it were not for this false claim about how our brains work when it comes to language learning, a neuromyth as commonly referred to. Neuromyths about language acquisition and learning, and basically everything else, are widespread. “Kids are going to get confused if the foreign language is predominant at home”, “You’re too old to learn a second language”, “That new school has created a revolutionary method that makes you fluent in six months”, “I don’t have the talent to learn languages”, “Native-speaker teachers are way better”. Many of these ideas could be debunked if we just stopped and looked at what research says about language learning. 

Speaking of research, the great news is that we now have an exciting new science that looks at the contributions of neuroscience, psychology, and education, summarizes them into practical concepts and allows educators, teachers, parents, school owners, and policymakers to inform their decisions on sound scientific evidence. It is called the science of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014) stresses the fact that MBE is a transdisciplinary approach that does not prioritize any one parent field (neuroscience, psychology, or education) over the others. That is important because many of the neuromyths stated above came to existence because of claims based only on neuroscience or only on psychology as I describe ahead.

One of the common neuromyths is that it is impossible, or at least nearly impossible, to learn a second language after the so-called critical period. Many authors have contributed to this notion, particularly Penfield (1959), Lenneberg (1967), and Krashen (1973), influenced by studies in animal models in the 50s and 60s about other functions and critical periods (see Hubel & Wiesel, 1959) which seemed to be confirmed with the case of feral children and L1, such as Genie (Curtiss, 1977). Nevertheless, when language is considered in its entirety, not only phonologically, with an obsessive focus on near-native accent, we could easily say that research shows that anyone can learn a second language to proficiency after the so-called critical period or periods. That’s the thing, different authors propose different critical periods for different aspects of language (see Kuhl et al. 2014; Hartshorne et al. 2018). But we now have plenty of evidence to support the idea that the brain is highly plastic and that we can learn at any age (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Science supports the notion that what really matters is how far you go and not how early you started (Abutalebi, 2008; Andrews et al 2013).

We also know that children and adults benefit from bilingualism (and multilingualism) (Marian & Shook, 2012). Some of the cognitive gains are improved learning, better reasoning and mathematical skills, improved school performance, and protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia (delaying the early symptoms by 5 years!).

Research on how long it takes to learn English as a second or foreign language varies greatly but it does not differ significantly from the recommended amount of hours by the Common Europen Framework of Reference (CEFR). Hakuta et al. (2000) studied foreign kids in two districts in California and it took them 3 to 5 years to be orally proficient and 4 to 7 to be academically proficient in English. A technical report by Pearson (click here) suggests that fast learners will enter the B2 level after 760 hours of study, which is more than what CEFR suggests ( around 500-600 hours). 

Whichever the reference when we’re discussing second language learning, we can safely assume that learning a language from scratch in 6 months would require something like 100 hours a month (around 5 hours a day from Monday to Friday) and assume that students can handle the enormous amount of information they’d be exposed to, allowing their brains to consolidate memory, which requires time and space. It may as well be possible, but not quite likely, particularly in an English as a Foreign Language context where students are only exposed to L2 in class. That’s why we need to be highly suspicious of methods that promise such incredible outcomes. Nevertheless, as I said, it could be possible. In fact, I could talk about memorization techniques used by memory athletes and go on about this, but I’ll save that for a future post because it’s not the reality for most of us.

Finally, the research we have available on how effective native-speaker teachers are and how they are viewed by students suggests that both native and non-native teachers can be equally effective and preferred by the students, which means that what really matters is teaching qualification and effort to cater to students’ needs (Mossu, 2006; Mullock, 2010; Chun, 2014; Wang & Jenkins, 2016).

All these discoveries came from serious research and they have real implications in ELT. The wrong, or partially wrong, ideas being spread for ages may contribute to stigmatization, exclusion, reduced motivation, capitalization on methods that actually do not work and the like. That’s where MBE is handy: to fight against neuromyths and inform everyone about how we actually learn. Let’s just say that if my mom and dad had known about these things that MBE is trying to promote back in the day when I was growing up, I’d have learned Swedish and probably be quite fluent nowadays. Who knows, I might even have gotten better grades at school because of the cognitive gains. Well, I suppose we’ll never know now and I’ll have to keep talking to my half-siblings in English.

My final message to those of you who are in education, ELT or any area that involves learning: learn about MBE and help debunk some of the neuromyths. Start from Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s wonderful book Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. That’s a great starting point. If we all learn more about how the brain actually works and follow the new developments of neuroscience, particularly how they can be applied in educational settings, everyone wins. 

Andrews, E., Frigau, L., Voyvodic-Casabo, C., Voyvodic, J., & Wright, J. (2013). Multilingualism and fMRI: Longitudinal Study of Second Language Acquisition. Brain sciences, 3(2), 849-76. doi:10.3390/brainsci3020849

Abutalebi J (2008) Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychol 128: 466–478.

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2014.889141

Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern-day “wild child”. New York: Academic Press

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How Long Does It Take English Learners To Attain Proficiency?.

Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition:Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263-277.

Hubel, D., & Wiesel, T. (1959). Receptive fields of single neurones in the cat’s striate cortex. The Journal of Physiology, 148, 574-91.

Krashen, S. (1973). Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period. Language Learning, 23, 63–74.

Kuhl PK, Ramírez RR, Bosseler A, Lin JF, Imada T. (2014). Infants’ brain activity in response to speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2014, 111 (31) 11238-11245; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410963111

Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The biological foundations of language. Hospital Practice, 2(12), 59-67.


10 Free Courses Starting This Week…

Foundations of Virtual Instruction

Ignite Your Everyday Creativity

Teach English Now! Technology Enhanced Teaching

Teaching Tips for Tricky English Grammar

Young People and their Mental Health

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Curriculum

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Planning for Teaching and Learning

Writing for Young Readers: Opening the Treasure Chest

Teach English Now! Teaching Language Online

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Introduction to Student Assessment

Making Ourselves a Priority: Gaining Time and Motivation

And here it is – fanfare please – our first guest post!

Thank you to Olivia Price-Bates, ADOS at a school in Italy and recent participant on the 5 Day Summer Challenge (click here for details of the next one)

Time.  The greatest nemesis to all teachers and school owners. Whether it’s managing to cover all stages in your lesson plan or just lamenting there are not enough hours in the day, lack of time is often cited as being one of the most difficult aspects of our profession. Striking that perfect work-life balance to deliver great lessons and still have time to explore the wonders of the country that you’ve adopted is challenging, and seeking time-saving solutions seem to be on most teachers’ wish lists.

As an ADOS and mum of two, juggling work and family life takes its toll, especially living in Southern Italy where the concept of time is flexible and even the seemingly most simple of tasks like posting a letter can shave hours off your day.   While I’m enjoying a well earned summer break, I’m aware of the new school year creeping into view and am starting to think of how I can best be prepared for the year ahead.  I feel privileged that we teachers get to make resolutions twice a year, both in January as the new year rolls in and again in September as we set ourselves the goals and objectives we aim to achieve in the forthcoming school year.

Having raided the stationery department, I’m now sitting down to think of my personal and team goals for the school year and like all resolutions while they’re made with good intentions and an injection of energy after a well-deserved rest, it’s easy to let the day to day of school life, deadlines and family commitments become obstacles in the way of achieving our goals. So how can we and our teachers stay motivated?

Growth comes through reflection and giving ourselves the time to reflect on our experiences can pave the way for more of those magical light bulb moments occurring more and more often but we need to find ways to make time to allow these to happen so that we don’t fall back on behaviours that while gaining us time can cause our teaching to stagnate and stunt our professional growth.

   * START NOW: The initial and undoubtedly most important factor in motivation is setting out clear goals of what you want and can realistically manage to achieve. The hardest part of realising our goals is taking that first step but making that initial commitment, signing up to that course, buying that book or writing that checklist is a sure-fire way to release the dopamine which will keep us motivated to stick to our objectives.  Procrastination is always lurking so why not start NOW.  Think about 6 things you want to achieve over the next school year, either from a teaching or management perspective depending on your context.  Make sure they are specific and measurable in some way, for example instead of saying ‘I want better classroom management skills’, say ‘I want to reduce the level of L1 in my classroom by introducing multi-level activities which appeal to different learner styles’.  By breaking down objectives into small, achievable chunks which you can clearly see the extent of their success you will increase motivation whether it be intrinsic or extrinsic.

   * STICK TO A SCHEDULE – From the outset, decide how and when you are going to dedicate time to achieving your goals. We are, after all, creatures of habits and so to become successful we need to make our tasks part of our behavioural routine.  Ask yourself how you can make time work for you? My goal is to dedicate more time to reflecting on my teaching. So a small change I’m making, which will hopefully have big results, is changing my lesson plan template to include a reflection section where after the lesson I can quickly write which aspects were successful and which didn’t work.  This will help me build up a better picture overall of classes and methods which will inform all of my teaching, fingers crossed.  

Knowing exactly when you can find time in your daily schedule will make you more likely to stick to goals: perhaps your daily commute is the perfect time to dedicate to watching webinars or listening to podcasts, maybe instead of checking Instagram you can spend an hour every morning reading a book or following some key writers on Twitter.  By making it part of your daily routine, and an enjoyable part, you’re more likely to stick to it.

   *  A PROBLEM SHARED… Hands up if you’re guilty of taking on the world and not delegating or asking for help as often as you probably should.  I imagine most of us are guilty of piling our plates too high with work commitments and therefore giving ourselves more stress than we actually need.  I wax lyrical about how teaching means we ourselves are always learning, so let’s make sure that we are dedicating enough time to listen to others.

New perspectives, advice and input will all prove invaluable when it comes to achieving our own CPD objectives so make sure you take the time to go for that coffee (or glass of wine) and have a good old chat.  Developing relationships makes for a happy workplace and we all know that positivity breeds productivity; you may find that suddenly your workload reduces because of new collaborations or new ways to work on things you deemed to be time consuming.

* GOOD JOB! Recognising and celebrating effort, whether it’s yours or another member of your team’s is a great motivator.  Student, teacher or manager, we all want to be appreciated and if we work hard that effort needs to be recognised.  Recording goals and celebrating our achievements will help us to keep going when the going gets tough, which incidentally always seems to coincide with exam periods!

   * TAKE TIME OUT – Teacher burnout happens far too frequently. Nobody can work effectively when they are exhausted, so know your limitations and learn the warning signs to know when a break is needed.  Remember the process is just as important (if not more) than the end goal and every step you make shows change and growth. Recognise that everything you do towards your own development is positive and even if you don’t end up writing that book, speaking at that conference or finding that perfect way of presenting the subjunctive, you have gained purpose, confidence and furthered your passion and knowledge in your career. Be proud. And celebrate with chocolate cake.

Freedom, Shackles and the Comfort Zone

I’ve read a lot of posts and articles recently encouraging teachers to get out of their comfort zones and thought I’d start by sharing this graphic from www.teachthought.com.

And while I don’t disagree with anything suggested in this post, I wonder how aware we actually are about what is, and isn’t, within our own comfort zone? How do we define our own comfort zone? How do we take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone? Is it even necessary?

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, comfort zone can be defined as a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested

Doesn’t sound like too bad a place to be, if you ask me! But is it really the best a teacher can do for their students? If we spend a lesson testing our learners’ ability and determination, surely it is only fair that we should be put to the same test? So, how do we know, exactly, what might be in (or out of) our comfort zone?

For the purposes of this post I conducted a little (extremely unscientific) research. I asked teachers from around the world ‘How would you define your comfort zone, as a teacher?’ Firstly, yes, I phrased the question badly – I assumed that the concept of a comfort zone would be universal – turns out, it’s not! There were lots of responses involving coffee, a comfy chair, no children and even the pub. Many more responses were about the type of learners or lessons that people like to teach; C1/2, business, adults, poetry etc. What very few seemed to do, was to equate it to their methods, activities and style of teaching. Maybe defining our comfort zones by what we enjoy is no bad thing though.

My favourite answer (thank you Philip Shigeo Brown) was ‘A developmental place where we often strive to be and yet strive to grow beyond by getting out of it’. I reckon he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Or at least he would have done if people were actually aware of the existence of their own comfort zone.

Senninger defined the different learning zones long these lines;

The Comfort Zone – the area in which you feel you have mastery, where you are happy, content and confident in your abilities.

The Learning Zone – where you stretch yourself, try something new, feel a little discomfort but not much in the way of stress. Looking at new ideas and thinking ‘yes, I could probably give that a go’.

The Panic Zone – does exactly what is says on the tin, new practices which genuinely scare the heebie-jeebies out of you. Stress on an unproductive level. Cold sweats, nightmares, irrational urges to go to the loo 47 times in 5 minutes, you get the idea.

On the whole, I get this explanation and I like it. I would probably make just one teensy change…

I don’t see how the lines can be defined, there must be degrees of challenge? Surely there can’t be some arbitrary tipping point at which things go from stretch to utter terror? (having said that, my first conference presentation came jolly close…). To my mind there are some ideas that I am more comfortable with trying than others; some practices I would more readily incorporate into my teaching than others; some contexts that I would find more challenging, terrifying and stressful than others, but would still give it a go (as I do, periodically, with teenagers) and some stuff that I would just never even countenance (not much – but some).

The thing is, as we stretch ourselves, the things that start off panic inducing, gradually move into our learning (or stretch) zone. As the comfort zone becomes wider, the slightly scary thing becomes the comfortable thing and the terrifying thing also moves – to become a somewhat less terrifying thing. Imagine the plughole in the bath – that big hairy spider will go down it eventually, as the water spirals round.

If you google the topic you will find loads of ‘inspirational’ graphics along these lines.

Now, I don’t know about you – but I just find this plain depressing. Is it really suggesting that unless we take some almighty leap into the unknown, we will never be any more than mediocre, with sad mediocre lives and an uninspiring outlook on life? This is just unrealistic (a bit like a celeb’s Instagram accounts – where everything is perfect, they all wake up with a full face of make-up, a kale smoothie in their hand and no-one sweats at the gym). If we used this as ‘inspiration’ we’d NEVER get to the ‘good stuff’ because it’s just too far away!

The key is to take little steps. Reflect on your teaching, see where your own comfort zone lies and then decide where and whether you should move on a little (or a lot). Find something that interests you; a question you’d like the answer to, a new activity that helps your learners, collaborate with a colleague, read, observe a colleague and copy something that you feel works well, research other approaches to a recurrent classroom problem.

Your comfort zone is just that, comfortable. It isn’t a prison but neither should it be your goal (I was going to say it isn’t a gaol but neither should it be your goal – but wasn’t sure if old English words were universal and, actually, it looks a bit naff, but hay ho).

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in what you do (although there have been suggestions that the boredom of staying within your comfort zone may contribute to burnout) but, just for kicks, maybe add just a frisson of stretch.

References

Senninger, 2000 – Learning Zone Model; Abenteuer leiten – in Abenteuern lernen (Facilitating adventures – learning in adventures). Münster: Ökotopia Verlag

Ed Tech – The Journey or the Destination?

I recently read a post which was, basically, a teacher evangelising about using technology in the classroom. She said ‘I am passionate about my mission to get all of our teachers to embrace technology’ (or words to that effect). In the same week I read a post that was entitled ‘How to Ace Your Next Observation Lesson’, the first idea was to include ‘some sort of’ tech. apparently lesson observers just go nuts for that sort of thing. But why?

Are these people suggesting that all tech is good? That having tech in your lesson somewhere automatically elevates a mediocre lesson to a great lesson? It would seem so. I remember being told by the supposedly expert teaching team at the FE college I was working in a few years ago, that I should ‘use Face Book’ with my learners between classes. It is worth bearing in mind both that the learners in question were adult pre A1 level and that I had never used Face Book. There was no explanation as to HOW I should (or even could) use it, nor WHY it was apparently such an amazing idea to supplement their learning this way. It seemed that they just thought that tech was good, tech was modern, tech was the sign of a progressive learning environment, tech made everything better (and don’t get me started on the lesson observations that were marked down because I didn’t use the interactive features of the whiteboard…).

Using technology in and between lessons has to be done to improve the overall experience for our learners. Using tech for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone. We may see an interesting idea while tumbling down the internet rabbit hole and think ‘hmm, that looks fun I’ll use it my class’ – but first we should ask ourselves – WHY should we use it? HOW will it help our learners? WHERE does it fit with our lesson? and ARE our learners able to use it?

The SAMR model (Puentedura) takes these questions one step further and gets us to evaluate the tech by its application and purpose.

To better familiarise yourself with the whole SAMR approach there is an excellent video here. The basic idea is to reflect on why the tech is being used, is it merely as an adjunct? (such as replacing pen and paper with a screen and keyboard) or does it allow us to achieve something that would previously have been inconceivable? (like collaborating on a podcast with students from a school in a different country). The SAMR model also ensures that we consider the use of the tech in question, is it just for fun (which is not necessarily a bad thing – ‘brain breaks’ can aid learning) or is there a pedagogical purpose?

We need to be picky when it comes to tech, we need to evaluate what it is and why we are using it. There are loads of fantastic apps, programmes and software available out there – but we have to be sure that we are adding value to the learning experience with them, not just ‘teching’ for the sake of it.

References

Ruben R. Puentedura. Transformation, Technology, and Education. (2006)

6 Ways to Increase Your Learners’ Vocabulary

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Spaced repetition – once introduced, keep using the vocab so learners become familiar with it – review new vocabulary at the end of each lesson and the beginning of the next. Encourage the use of flashcards and/or apps like Quizlet and Brainscape for repetition between lessons. Typically, a word needs to be used 14 times before it is considered ‘learned’.

Teach in Context

Learners need to have somewhere to ‘put’ new vocabulary., if it is taught in context, studies have shown that they are more likely to retain it than words in isolation. Context also helps with comprehension of new vocabulary. So, if it is not relevant to the lesson – don’t introduce it yet!.

Read

Learners need to understand 95% (Laufer) of a text to make it enjoyable and comprehensible. Reading is an excellent way to be introduced to new vocabulary in context. Try graded readers, newspapers, magazines, internet articles – anything that interests the learner (sport, music, film reviews or even whole novels).

Teach Word Formations

Introduce learners to the different affixes that, using the same word stem, give a different meaning. With a knowledge of these prefixes & suffixes, learners can rapidly increase their working vocabulary. A little basic morphology and learners can create word families of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs all from one word.

Chunks and Collocations

Words are rarely used in isolation – teach your learners which words are commonly used together. Verbs and nouns together aid fluency. Knowing the function of a word (in action) makes it easier to understand and remember. Use Corpus based dictionaries and sites for practical examples like BNC/BYU and Just-the-Word.

Word Webs

Encourage learners to create lexical sets when learning new vocabulary. Include synonyms and antonyms and anything relevant. Writing words as a ‘web’ can make the words more memorable and connections and relationships between words easier to see than in a standard list. For an excellent example see vocabulary maps.