#IATEFL2017: How to shoehorn a talk

The subtitle to the talk “Infusing teaching materials and practices with new insights on learning” 1 on the Cambridge site was:
“What does the latest evidence tell us about how language is acquired? How might we apply these insights when course books seem to impose a predetermined way of teaching and assessing learners?”

When I read this subtitle I was pretty darn interested. Alas it seems the subtitle editor did not consult with the presenter (Dr. Gad Lim). For in the talk, the “pre-determined” approach of coursebooks (CB) is not addressed. Talk of CB is confined to the second half of the presentation and then only to shoehorn example pages from an unknown CB to illustrate some learning principles outlined in the first part of the talk.

Also as an unashamed Chomsky fan the unnecessary and mistaken needling comments against generative grammar theory was irksome. But I will let that lie in this post : )

What was more of an issue was the muddying of the research waters on language learning. In one of his final comments the presenter states:

“What you think about learning will make a difference in how you teach so I hope today you have learned a little bit about how language learning actually happens,..”

That is a fine sentiment yet I thought he gave a very partial account. It would have been great if references to the theories he talked about were given (maybe audience members got such refs included in a handout?). In the talk itself the names of the theories he alludes to are not stated. He mainly covers usage based theories but other things such as meta-cognitive strategies when he talked about self-assessment near the end are also used.

“..it’s not that black box. Our brains are actually quite good at processing frequency information, contextual information, recency information, a lot of automaticity but there is that other part of our brain that just needs things pointed out; okay that’s a more recent part of our brain that just needs things pointing out; it’s harder work but if you just put this two things together learning happens best; and if you can think about each one of these things and how you might actually apply them in the classroom in the materials you create then learning should happen much more efficiently for your learners”

The main meat of the first part of the talk was trying to convince the audience that information from stimuli in the environment such as frequency information are used by people to learn languages. Certainly a good case for frequency effects in language learning has been put forward by people such as Nick Ellis 2. However claiming that CBs that include highly frequent items are following the findings of “new insights” need to be put aside the counterclaim that CBs could also be said to be using the old insights of frequency principles as laid out by the progenitor of the audio-lingual method Robert Lado.

“so if you actually had materials where you repeat the same idea in several different ways then you get some practice repeatedly.”

The above statement comes along with the following screenshot of a page from an unknown CB:

Shoehorn 1

The claim is that it is enough to make some feature in the input salient enough such as “repeat the same idea in several different ways” where the example in the screenshot of the CB is of repeating connecting words in matching, gap fills and sentence completion exercises.

However theories such as Bill VanPatten’s processing input shows “just because something is made more salient or more frequent in the input does not mean that learners will process it correctly or even process it at all” 3. So if we take connectors what is it about processing input containing connectors such as and, but, so, because that causes issues for learners? Once such processing issues can be identified appropriate structured input activities can be written.

The following screenshot of a table of contents divided into themes is meant to illustrate the principal of context:

Shoehorn 2

In fact I say it shows a handy organizer for material writers rather than context effects for language learners.

In reference to the following two screenshots of signposting language in spoken and written registers:

Shoehorn 3
Shoehorn 4

the presenter says:
“If you put them close to one another they will learn to know that some of these signposting words go with spoken language and some of them go with written language.”

Highlighting spoken and written forms of language items can be as helpful as saying oh you use that in more informal contexts and that in more formal contexts. Again the same criticism VanPatten makes earlier applies, that is, the CB example ignores the problem of processing input.

Next he equates recency with recycling and makes the following statement without any seeming sense of self-awareness (with regard to course books):

“in fact quite often our students will not necessarily learn the thing at the exact point you first taught it, okay..”

This assumption “that learners learn what teachers teach when they teach it” is what Michael Long highlights all CBs implicitly adopt 4; further all CBs do not take into account the learner’s internal syllabus. Learners will only acquire language when they are good and ready.

The presenter does acknowledge the role of the learner somewhat in the following statement:
“..which would argue for, sadly , it means you need to observe your students and you need to go back and you need to do your lesson planning in an iterative fashion. Figuring out what they haven’t gotten or just expose them to the same thing several times throughout so that they have different opportunities to pick it up”

But then he goes and spoils it by another CB shoehorning attempt:

Shoehorn 5
Shoehorn 6

Either that or some Cambridge bod signaled, sotto voce, it was time for another CB screenshot “Gad, show em the adverbs of frequency that appears in more than one place in the book”

He goes on to mention spaced repetition in relation to recency but how does a coursebook space out learning items? This is not mentioned but another blatant attempt to rationalize the CB by linking it to a learning effect without any further comment.

It seems to me that the presenter had got excited about some psycho-linguistic evidence for usage based theories and wanted to give a talk on that. Unfortunately his employers insisted he tie that to coursebooks and that is where this talk went awry.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Infusing teaching materials and practices with new insights on learning

2. Ellis, N. C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing. Studies in second language acquisition, 24(02), 143-188.

3. VanPatten, B. (2009). Processing matters in input enhancement. In Piske, T. & Young-Scholten, M. (eds.), Input matters in SLA (pp. 47-61). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

4. Long, M. H. (2009). Methodological principles for language teaching. In Long, M. H. & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 373-94). Oxford: Blackwell.

#IATEFL2017 – Stopping the buck

The interviews with Andy Hockley 1 and Marek Kiczkowiak 2 discuss the issue of native speakerism –

a pervasive ideology within ELT, characterized by the belief that ‘native-speaker’ teachers represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of the English language and of English language teaching methodology3.

Marek Kiczkowiak who campaigns on this via TeflEquity Advocates 4 responded to the interviewer’s question of the reception of his pre-conference talk to academic managers and directors of studies (DOS’s):

Most of those DOS’s that came here today are very supportive of non-native speakers, they are interested in equal opportunities but they do find that very often that their hands are tied. Because sometimes the way agents sell the courses to the students who then come to the UK to their school is very different to what their school offers. The school offers a very diverse staffroom but the way the agents have sold the course is that they will have the class with your typical white western looking native speaker.” (my emphasis)

I was surprised that Marek accepted what he has called in the past the TEFL blame game 5 – native speakerism is due to market demand, what students and parents want. If we look at the issue of agents we could point out that a lot of the major schools have an agent procedure. So these big schools could apply positive pressure to what their agents sell. Similarly the British Council who accredit language schools can also play a big part, since agents often only work with BC accredited schools.

The systemic bias that is evident in the current setup of ELT has to be examined alongside the individual bias. Some glimpses of this systemic or structural bias are seen in the interview with Andy Hockley. Initially individual biases are mentioned, for example:

hire ethically, don’t have biases
people who come to this conference are not among the most biased
the majority of those who come to the conference are converted let’s call it
in smaller schools, in smaller places there is this unconscious bias that native speakers are better than non-native speakers

Andy Hockley then mentions his research on academic managers where “increasingly educational organizations are merging, are becoming bigger and more corporate”. Managers complain “they have to do so much corporate number stuff, kpi’s and all these things, they don’t have time to focus on education”.

KPIs are organizational metrics called key performance indicators, which have been critiqued as performativity i.e. “indicators of quality that are taken as definitions of quality”. 6 Andy makes this point when he says “people read data with their own biases in the first place so the data is not really relevant” and “I don’t think, at least so far, that the data is telling us much about what is going on in the classroom”.

Here the organizational reasons, the managers who talked to Andy gave, show the nature of the challenge for TEFL Equity Advocates and other groups such as TaWSIG 7 to organize for fairer and more equitable working conditions.

So let’s stop passing the buck and start hitting it.


  1. IATEFL 2017 Andy Hockley interview:

2. IATEFL 2017 Marek Kiczkowiak interview:

3. Holliday, A. (2006). Native-speakerism. ELT journal, 60(4), 385-387. [https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/60/4/385/499514/Native-speakerism]

4. TEFL Equity Advocates [https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/]

5. The TEFL blame game continued [https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/the-tefl-blame-game-continued/]

6. Biesta, G. (2015). Education, Measurement and the Professions: Reclaiming a space for democratic professionality in education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-16. [http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/11141]

7. TaWSIG [http://teachersasworkers.org]

#IATEFL 2017 – Corpus related talks and posters

The razzledazzle that is IATEFL is approaching soon. So here is a list of talks and posters related to corpora that is listed on the conference programme (pdf). I hope we get some good tweeters for these and some recordings.

Tuesday 4 April
A beginner’s guide to creating vocabulary lists with corpus software
Michael Jones (Saudi Aramco)
Using a practical example, this teacher-focused talk aims to demystify the use of corpus linguistics to make effective vocabulary choices. Attendees will be shown how easy it is, even for neophytes, to use the free AntConc corpus analysis software to compile context-specific custom corpora and keyword lists. Those teaching ESP or business English will find the talk particularly useful.

Student-built corpora: do students see the benefit?
Catherine Prewett-Schrempf & Matthew Urmston (Vienna University of
Applied Sciences for Management & Communication)
How are corpora language activities perceived by students? I will present an action research project aimed at examining student response to using corpora for a writing assignment. The context is a first-semester Business English course at the Vienna University of Applied Sciences, where students draw on both a learner corpus and an expert corpus to self-correct their work.

FUSE – The Finnish Upper Secondary School Corpus of Spoken English
Lasse Ehrnrooth (Alppila Upper Secondary School)
This poster looks at the linguistic features present in the current version of FUSE, the Finnish Upper Secondary School Corpus of Spoken English. The speech corpus consists of transcribed dialogues recorded during various, official, spoken English examinations in Finnish upper secondary schools. The research focus will be on hesitation markers and overlapping speech.

Wednesday 5 April
Lexis and exam preparation: fitting the pieces into the puzzle
Sharon Hartle (University of Verona, Language Centre)
One aspect of use of English that upper intermediate and advanced learners find particularly challenging is lexical grammar: collocation, verb patterns, etc., and how to use them effectively. This presentation shows how to train learners to use two corpora – the American Corpus (COCA) and SkeLL (Sketch Engine for English Language Learning) – to improve awareness of lexis for exam preparation purposes.

Corpora and business English: developing learners’ collocational competence
Radwa Younis (Future University in Egypt)
This workshop is going to highlight the potential of using corpora to teach collocation in business English. We will define collocation and shed light on its peculiar aspects that present challenges to learners. The workshop will suggest some corpus-based activities to assist learners in developing a repertoire of business English collocations.

Strategies for speaking tests: corpus-based tips for preparing students
Gemma Bellhouse & Alex Thorp (Trinity College, London)
Learners of English must often take an interactive speaking test to prove they can communicate effectively. But how can students prepare for unpredictable communication? Are there strategies used by test candidates, and could learning them make speaking performance more successful? Using new corpus data, this
talk outlines ‘active listening’ strategies to support test preparation and awareness of communicative competence.

Thursday 6 April
A corpus study of teacher talk in the EFL classroom
Eric Nicaise (Universite Catholique Louvain / Haute Ecole Louvain-en- Hainaut)
The talk will present CONNEcT, an acronym for A Corpus of Native and Non-native EFL Classroom Teacher Talk. CONNEcT constituted the main source of data for my doctoral thesis. It consists of transcripts of native and non-native English lesson audio-recordings carried out in secondary education. The talk will mainly focus on some of the corpus findings and suggestions for applications.

Linking adverbials and transition markers in trainee teachers’ language usage
Odette Vassallo (University of Malta)
Linking adverbials and transition markers is an essential part of discourse cohesion. These features help to ensure clarity of communication in classroom teacher talk. This talk discusses the findings of a corpus-based study focussing on the patterns of language usage of trainee teachers. It offers some initial thoughts on the implications of the study’s findings for teacher education and development.