Wednesday, November 21, 2012

“To teach or not to teach. That is the question, isn’t it?” - an #ELTchat summary

Guest post by Carolyn Kerr @KerrCarolyn

I suggested this topic for #ELTchat following a discussion at our local professional association's annual dinner ATESOL ACT Annual Spring Dinner. In a discussion about speaker affinity with audiences, our guest speaker, Jeremy Jones of the University of Canberra, had us reflecting on who uses sentence tags, suggesting that Gen Y no longer tend to use them (except perhaps in Britain?), or use other versions. The teachers present wondered whether we should skip that bit of the text book?

As you can see, it got voted up for the chat and led us in many different directions. New #ELTchatter, Carolyn Kerr put her hand up for the summary, but as she didn't have a blog to post it on (yet!) I volunteered to host it for her here. My very first guest blogger! She has done a simply brilliant job of the summary and I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

“To teach or not to teach. That is the question, isn’t it?”

When it comes to deciding what to teach and what to give a wide berth, idioms, inversions and even question tags have us scratching our heads, don’t they? And with language seeming to develop at a rate of knots, it’s hard to keep up.

On November 7th 2012 at 2100 CET @ELTChat asked the question. Hardly a second had passed when twitter was a buzz with idioms and inversions, although for me it was at times as clear as mud!

Joking aside, the main questions that arose were the three not-so-traditional R’s:

Redunancy – when does a piece of language become obsolete?

Generation Y don’t use question tags, right? But baby boomers do, don’t they? Or do they? Therein lies the problem. Does that mean that question tags are ‘redundant’ for some learners? Shared from a recent TESOL dinner:
  • @cioccas We decided need to teach them to over 50s, but maybe not to younger learners. We agreed that Gen Y don't use question tags the way they are used in coursebooks
But can we know for sure that this is a one way street to obsolesence. Trends change and
  • @cioccas it's hard to keep up with younger generation slang, idioms, etc.
  • @naomishema How do we judge which idiom is really out of date?
Now something that is that tricky to deal with begs the next R question:

Relevant, still? - @Shaunwilden Aren’t most idioms pointless anyway ?

The answer depended on the leaners needs. If you’re living and working in an English speaking country then the common idioms are a key to both communication and culture. Who do your learners want or need to communicate with? What language are they ‘stumbling across’? If it’s a language peppered with innit, issat or aye right, then question tags tend to become more of a ‘polite’ form that a fundamental. And who’s to say that idioms only my granny would use are not relevant if you, like some
  • some Ss are working with 80+ year-olds in aged care facilities! @cioccas
To add to age relevance, we have geographical relevance:
  • @ ljp2010 loads of idioms seem very brit-centric to me too, often ones i've never heard of in cbs.
and to prove the point a link to Hugh Laurie and Ellen de Generes failing to ‘get’ each other’s idioms
And some laughs for those 'down under' at
The world of work idioms is easy to get lost in too. For Business English learners, if they don’t know that a company with a glass ceiling is not necessarily one housed in a Norman Foster building, they could be in for a shock when they start working there. We need to give learners the skills to deal with such language, whether it be in terms of tools, deductive skills or teaching. Help is at hand:
  • @SueAnnan pointed us to - brilliant for BE jargon
Learners may come across outdated idiomatic language, whether we teach it or not.
  • @Marisa_C: I think all these - even outdated expressions useful for following literature...
So even the redundant becomes relevant again. And what’s more, idiomatic language appears in exams:
  • @shaznosel CPE exam full of 'em and as a native speaker I use so few. my grandma used loads!
So if we accept that redundant language can be relevant for some learners, we arrive at the last of the three R’s:

Receptive skill – do learners only need to understand them?

Well actually, once you head towards fluency, idiomatic language does matter for both the receptive and the productive skills:
  • @Marisa_C idiomatic lang EVIDENCE of fluency (Prodromou research)
So for CPE Candidates at least it is clearly not just a receptive issue. But is it a priority for other leaners? And what about inversions, which feature in coursebooks and exams too?
  • @ljp2010 So difficult to use naturally are they that sts typically turn into yoda for a few weeks after teaching them.
Do we want to run the risk of ‘Yodafying’ our learners (‘Learn inversions you will’). Or just teach them to recognise, understand, smile and nod politely?

It’s not as if we’re lacking other things to teach them:
  • @ljp2010 Wouldn't skills work be more beneficial? guessing meaning from context, asking for clarification, paraphrasing....
Again here a number of us were on the fence. Some shared the fun of teaching idioms for production, and stressed that their learners really got a kick out of it.
  • @Shaunwilden I never see the point of teaching idioms but my sts love them so...
  • @shaznosel I only teach them for certain exam boards and the odd one for fun and to enrich ss lang
  • @Marisa_C Oh yes, always love a game of idioms charade :-) each word and then the whole idiom
For others it was not on our radar, either because of the learners’ level or because it doesn’t fit with learners’ needs. Dealing with idioms as they emerge rather than getting a bee in your bonnet seems the answer for some.
  • @esolcourses: I explain idioms to s's when they ask about them, but not convinced as to their general usefulness...
We skirted around the topic of teaching idioms for non-native speaker teachers – although it was clear that NS and NNS alike can be caught on the back foot when it comes to an idiom emerging in the lesson that we’ve never even heard of! Sticking to the course books is one idea, however be warned:
  • @Shaunwilden:@naomishema probably dated if it's in a course book :-)
But help is at hand. Steven Collins has written two self study books for NS and NNS teachers which are specifically aimed at just this issue ( Informative and fun for anyone interested in British Idioms.

But if the teachers can self study, why not the learners?
  • @Marisa_C: You Tube - give them a Mission - listen and find idioms to bring back to class
  • @Shaunwilden you tube and wallwisher combined and students searching for their own ideas

The chat drew to a close with a somewhat frightening flurry of animal behaviours: someone squirrelling around to find a link, whilst another was running around like a headless chook. It’s easy to see why some learners enjoy idioms and other everyday expressions – some of us certainly enjoy using them!!!

So that was the story of our chat. Thank you all for tweeting and reading, oh and here’s how the story ends:
  • @shaznosel Fun chat as idioms can be funny! Night all..tired after writing last summary!!
  • @Shaunwilden So it's time to hit hay and put this chat to bed.....thanks all for joining
  • @ ljp2010 don't let the bed bugs bite ljp2010

Then ELTchat said its goodbyes and turned out its lights. So the lights were OFF and no one was home, which is oh so different from:
  • @SueAnnan: The lights are on but there's no one at home.

Other Links

A bit out of date, but fun: