ELT – Ten Things I Hate About You
Sometimes a title just hits the spot. Today, I woke up, inexplicably, at 02:30. Yesterday it was at 04:30. The day before it was 04:00. I feel like a character in a Stephen King novel – so much so that I daren’t look out of the window. As I type, I can feel my fingers tapping more slowly than usual. My brain is fogged up, as if someone was trying to exterminate the cockroaches that are in there. I put the coffee pot on and when it began to gargle and splutter, I discovered that only a third of the water had come through and what was waiting to be poured out was of the same consistency as the pig’s blood in the bucket that doused Carrie. Today’s offering was never going to be very zen. Talk this week on Twitter was of a Secret DoS book – if only I had the smarts to do that. I could call it ELT – Ten Thousand Things I Hate About You. Come with me as I discover what the first ten might be…
1. I hate the fact that you and mainstream education don’t talk to each other.
What is it with that? Did you meet Mainstream Pedagogy at a party and she laughed at your braces? Did she give you that look when you asked her to dance? Did she tell all her friends how you blurted out your secret love for her?
No, you probably sat on the sidelines and sneered that you were too good for her. Well, let me tell you this: she’s too darned good for you, ELT. The world of education is a rich world of diversity that ELT seems to be oblivious of. And this is despite the fact that the vast majority of our practitioners are swimming in the waters of mainstream education. By this I mean that the vast majority of English language teachers are working within the conventional education system – not in grubby little sweatshops where they eke out enough to drink their troubles away at the weekend. Where the hell are the voices of these teachers within our literature?
It seems to me [i.e. I may very well be wrong here] that the majority of us who write on ELT are working in the private sector or the quasi-private sector. Our training was almost uniquely CELTA/DELTA and we were trained by CELTA/DELTA trainers. They taught us about such things as theories about language acquisition and different types of syllabus. They didn’t teach us very much about classroom management, educational theory, rigorous research, the nature of learning, current educational debates. Why not? Because we teach in such a wide variety of contexts? That doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. I work in a context that is radically different to most school teachers and yet I find their blogs, their reading lists and their reflections to be just the ticket.
Where my colleagues are discussing how to make the dreary more palatable, the school teachers that I follow on Twitter are getting into a storm about whether to prioritise skills development over knowledge acquisition; about whether the progressive tradition is up its own arse; about the need to focus on behaviour management above all else; about the developments reaching us from the world of cognitive sciences.
Why aren’t we having these debates more loudly?
2. I hate coursebooks.
This usually has to be written alongside some twee bilge about how no offence is meant to coursebook writers who are all just doing the best and tying darned hard to help. That isn’t my style, I’m sorry to say. Coursebook writers – how could you? Hang your heads in shame. Please don’t come along and say, But there are some really very good coursebooks out there. There are not. There are utterly dreadful coursebooks and there are ones which are just about bearable. In parts. I have met some very pleasant coursebook writers and I really don’t want to offend. This is no more than the bombast of some anonymous no-mark who hasn’t got the creative genius that these writers have. I know that my inability to get along with coursebooks probably says more about me than it does about anything else at all. But I have yet to find a coursebook that inspired either me or the students. And I’ve been in the game for two decades. Can any of you think of one single title that students were desperate to get back to? Anything that broke the mould? Anything that didn’t have pointless comprehension questions following a listening or anything that didn’t have facile gapped sentences following a reading? That didn’t have the ridiculous instructions to Student A to turn to page X and Student B to turn to page Y. That didn’t peddle the lie that is the grammar syllabus? And because our cultural tools shape the way that we think and the way that we think shapes the world in which we live, it follows that the world’s greatest evils are in part due to the design of coursebooks and, it pains me to say it, coursebook writers.
3. I hate levels.
I see them for what they are – a cheap and lousy way to squeeze more money out of the innocent while making them hate themselves and label themselves as abject failures. In my mind there are three types of language learners: people who are painfully crap at using the language, people who can get by in the language and people whose ability to use the language makes you gasp in wonderment (and secretly hate them for doing what you will never be able to do). If I were to undo my fatwah on coursebooks, book tiltes would reflect my triumverate of levels thus: Headway: You’re So Bad It Hurts; Headway – I Suppose You’ll Do; Headway: Holy Crap! Where Did You Learn to Speak Like That?!?!
But no. We have to take the three general areas of Elementary, Intermediate and Proficient and we have to smash them into smaller categories. You can now be a starter who progresses to a beginner who then develops into an elementary before emerging as a pre-intermediate (oh please!!!) prior to returning to the chrysalis and fluttering out later as an intermediate who then sweats blood to become an upper intermediate then transmogrifies into a pre-advanced and finally reaches the near-Nirvana status of advanced. Each stage will cost you roughly £25 a coursebook and a further £15 for the workbook. It’s evil, I tell ya, pure unadulterated satanism.
And each stage must have a class. God help the school that says that you are elementary when you were clearly a pre-intermediate in your last place. Because levels are real now. And progress is linear. God help the DOS who has to manage a school where levels are mixed: now you have teachers who “Just Can’t Work With This Chaos!” and students who find it “All Too Easy”. Obviously, they are right because levels are real now, aren’t they? Now teachers can sit around pondering whether little Ahmed should go into Intermediate or stay in Pre-Intermediate. Yo! As you sit around trying to sound professional and analytical, the very nature of your analysis reveals you to be a bucket of witlessness. Pre-Intermediate means Elementary, f’rchrissakes; Upper Intermediate means Intermediate. Deal with it! But the books…FUCK THE BOOKS!
4. I hate grammar.
Actually, I don’t hate grammar. I rather love the blessed thing. But I do hate the tireless debate about the role it has in language learning. And I especially hate the role it has in language teaching. My view on grammar is this: when you are at the start of your language learning adventure, you need to be drenched in grammar. You need to learn that there are generative rules that you can learn that will start you rolling down (up???) the hill of language usage. You can meticulously put together a sentence that allows you to get an approximation of your intent out into the world of Other People: Je voudrais un chat, s’il vous plait. In my world, you would be well drilled in the past tenses, the present tenses and the verb forms for the future. You would be drilled relentlessly in the modals and ways of expressing hypotheses. Yep: lots of verbs. I would focus on form and function. I might be tempted to dive into article usage.
Then I’d switch focus. From Intermediate level upwards (and there is only one more level after intermediate), I would abandon grammar teaching and focus upon language usage. I might employ grammar to explain why something was wrong or as a trivial little heuristic to enrich students’ ways of processing new language, but that would be it. And I’d give it a lot of thought before I started down that path. There would be a focus on accuracy, but without a need to use grammar as the sole arbiter of accurate language:
Why do we write I have eaten there before?
Let’s see…can we get some more examples that look like this?
- I have seen this film already!
- We have studied this before.
- I haven’t met him yet.
Good. Can you see what these have in common? Can you use this language to tell me something about you and your life?
Instead, if someone asks the question, Why do we write I have eaten there before?, before I can even open my mouth, there will be a student who says, Is it because it is an action which took place at some unknown point in the past and which is in some way relevant to the present situation in whcih the speaker and/or writer finds him or her self? Way to go, ELT!
The world in which I live has students who bark on about the need for difficult grammar or who want to go to a higher level (bleurgh) because they have already studied this. And cheek by jowl with these irritating little irritants are the teachers who tell me that they would like the cover teacher to continue to focus on the usage of the future past perfect continuous in the passive because, well, the students don’t quite seem to have got it yet. If you work for me (and you might, you know), please be assured that I hear this and inwardly roll my eyes and wish that this country had the same lack of labour laws that they do in North Korea.
5. I hate the fact that ELT is probably the most destructive force for language learning that language learners will ever be exposed to.
Yep. I do. There’s a very nice young Irish man over at http://www.fluentin3months.com who is enjoying the trappings of illusory fame these days. He is peddling the idea that with hard work, anyone can become a proficient language learner and he has written a book to help people do just this. By all accounts…well, strictly speaking, by his account…it is a message that people want to hear. Leaving aside the fact that I think that his message is akin to saying to the morbidly obese, Look – if you just work really hard at it, you will be able to beat Usain Bolt in a run around the block- some of his writing captured in words what I have long thought but not known I was thinking it. One thing that really rang bells for me was his view that language schools militate against successful language acquisition because they encourage the view that Well, all I have to do is go there for X hours a week and wait for the words to start tripping out of me. Sez Benny, you need to start living the fecking language 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And Benny is spot on.
ELT with its poxy academies staffed by under-qualified teachers using hideous coursebooks to progress through fraudulent levels is creating a view of language learning that is so far divorced from reality that somebody should arm the ombudsman and gather together a posse. With the commodification of English, never before has it been said more truly that people learn English in spite of studying the damn thing.
6. I hate the polarised arguments.
- Grammar V Not Grammar
- Coursebooks V Not Coursebooks
- Technology V Not Technology
- Dogme V Not Dogme
Who really gives a damn? No one has been able to prove that one is better than the other and we all end up pontificating solemnly about something that is no more than our opinion. I say “we” because I am just as bad. It seems that people can learn English very impressively using pretty much all of the approaches that have ever been approached. Some people see this as evidence of the need to adopt a policy of…ahem…principled eclecticism. Arse! I see it as proof positive that whatever we do doesn’t really matter. As I’ve said before, it’s more important how you do it. You don’t have to be eclectic. Do what you want, but do it convincingly.
7. I hate the gurus.
I’m not going to name names here. But there are many. Some are deserving and come across as properly humble. I don’t hate them. But some revel in their status as names in our fishtank. They peddle the same tired old nonsense that they always have and they are as vapid and as vacuous as any other type of person who fits the “job” title celebrity. I have sat through some of their presentations and come away thinking, I have listened to you for an hour and you have told me nothing. You employed the same time-wasting manoeuvres that I do with students when I haven’t prepared sufficiently and your whole talk was no more than smoke and mirrors. William Baldwin was on to these people when he wrote, “As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest blabbers.”
8. I hate the exploitation.
I work with people who have degrees, postgraduate degrees and years of experience in many different contexts. Some of them have families and mortgages. Some of them are employed on zero hours contracts – which means we pay them for the hours we get them to teach, but there our relationship ends. We have no commitment to them, we pay them a starting salary that is marginally higher than what an unqualified school teacher earns in the UK and we never increase this. We are not the most exploitative company that exists.
I am expected to demand high from these teachers, but understand the truth that there is to be found in the maxim about paying peanuts and getting monkeys. Truth be told, I manage a team of very committed monkeys for the most part, but this is a tribute to them because they are committed, once again, in spite of the context in which they work.
Oh, for someone to put a stranglehold on the throat of the cash cow and choke it to within an inch of its life!
9. I hate the academic arms race.
Why on earth do you need to have a postgraduate degree and published research to get a job teaching English at some universities? Why should EAP be reserved, under the aegis of the Accreditation UK handbook, for those with a diploma? Wherefrom the upscaling to where a doctorate is the only degree worth getting? And with so much upscaling, why is the theoretical (and practical) knowledge of ELT so lacking? See next point.
10. I hate the lack of academic rigour.
Because, I’m sorry to say, most things that I read which are written about teaching English are not really written about teaching English. A lot of the blogs, and the webpages and the professional sites and the publications tend to be about how to disguise the teaching of English. You can click on a blog and find activities to use when watching a film, listening to a song, exploring website, reading a book, whatever. And it’s the same old stuff: gap fills, reordering, talk with a friend, find more out about…, summarise, listen and understand [great instructions!]. But there’s little discussion about what it means to teach reading or to teach listening or to teach speaking. Just activities. No discussion about their design; no discussion about the theoretical assumptions that they are based upon; no explanation for how filling in the gaps can help improve listening. It’s just mindless pap. Inspired by coursebooks…
And what passes for educational research isn’t much better: my MA was woeful. The quality of research was dreadful, but I got the certificate (now lost). Just this morning, I was reading something that purported to be a piece of research into an aspect of ELT. it had been submitted for a DELTA assignment and it was no more than fanboy drivel. It was biased from the outset and…surprise surprise…the findings were pretty much in line with what the author had always believed anyway. What world is this? What kingdom? This kind of stuff is not rare in ELT, and the fact that it gets published or gets the award suggests that the standards are low. Of course, I may be suffering from what Daniel Kahnemann called the What You See Is All There Is bias. Because of the internet, the standards have dropped – anyone can publish any old crap (look at me!). I chose to do my MA at a reasonably-priced institution – it doesn’t follow that I would have got an MA from some of our more august institutes of higher education. But this is a polemic, and there’s little to be gained from being magnanimous and trying to see all sides of the issue.
And now that I have put this hate-filled nonsense out there, it is time to go and engage with the beast. I hate everything about it, but I’m in it for life.