Review: All of the Above

Dorothy Zemach is an ELT professional with extensive experience in a variety of areas. Many teachers have used her materials in the classroom; I did so in the first two years of teaching English in Colombia. She is the go-to person if you want to learn about self-publishing. If you are interested in that, keep an eye on the iTDi website for one of her future courses. When she advertised her latest book All of the Above: Essays on Teaching English as a Foreign Language on social media, I knew that it would be worth reading.

Dorothy Zemach: All of the Above

My first impression was that All of the Above would be similar to Scott Thornbury’s Big Questions in ELT, which is another title I recommend to teachers, since both books are collections of unrelated shorter texts. There are some key differences, though. While Thornbury refers to other resources in his book, Zemach’s essays are much more personal and the content is based on her own experience. I’m happy to say that I think it works very well and makes for an enjoyable read.

All of the Above comprises sixteen essays and three additional chapters dedicated to games, so there are a lot of takeaway points one can get from the book. I’d like to use this blog post to comment on a few ideas that made me think about my work as a teacher.

What I really like about the book is that Zemach refers to various teaching contexts in which she has worked. She points out that some teaching approaches may not work equally well in all environments. Having fun in the classroom without any tangible results isn’t ideal, and some students may actually learn useful language through drilling activities. That reminded me of Lighbown and Spada’s book How Languages are Learned, which mentions that gifted students are capable of reaching a high level of English even when their teachers use what many of us would call outdated methods. I’d say this is a good moment to promote the idea of doing meaningful activities in the classroom and providing the learners with feedback on the language (the focus on form approach).

The book also takes a look at tools that can help people improve their written texts. I agree with the author who says that students should spellcheck their documents before submitting them. I do so myself when I write blog posts or send important emails, so I advise my students to use that as well. Zemach then shows screenshots depicting some ridiculous corrections suggested by a grammar checker to warn against using that tool. I think that depends on the kind of software one uses because the spelling and grammar checker utilised by Google Docs is genuinely good. It’s not perfect and I wouldn’t rely on it at all times, but I find it helpful in my online classes. It can give the students immediate suggestions related to grammar, which can provide some good opportunities for learning.

When I read ELT literature, I’m very happy when I encounter practical tips that I can use in my professional life. I have some experience with changing jobs and attending interviews, but All of the Above provided me with an important recommendation I hadn’t thought of before. The author suggests that teachers ask about the institution’s policy on absences during the job interview. That immediately brought back a memory of a situation that took place right after I’d started working at a language institute a few years ago. A colleague of mine asked me to sub for him due to having a doctor’s appointment, and I agreed. Unfortunately, the teacher was then told off by the director for making unauthorised arrangements and the substitution request was declined because of a difference between our hourly rates. My attempt to help my colleague out inadvertently created a bit of an issue, and I wished I had asked about the policy beforehand.

My favourite essay in the book is called My dear. The author says that there are benefits to using social media for professional purposes, but it also causes some issues that should be talked about. This passage of the essay describes a rather curious phenomenon:

Clearly, that is not how everyone uses Facebook, or I wouldn’t get so many strangers sending me the “Hi” messages. Often, in fact, that is the entire message—“Hi.” From someone I don’t recognize. I have no idea what sort of response they are expecting. Do they want me to stop in the middle of my work day and respond with “Hi” as well? Do we then move on to “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks, and you”? But why? Why would we (two virtual strangers, with nothing more in common than that we both teach English) do that?

To put it simply, some people don’t come across well on social media, and that includes English teachers too. I’m aware of cultural differences, but I expect people to have at least some basic sense of decency when communicating online. Some private messages and public posts make me wonder how that individual talks to their students and whether teaching is the right profession for them. I don’t mind being perceived as rude when I don’t want to waste time on conversations that I’m 100% sure won’t get anywhere. Apart from the ‘Hi’ people, I tend to get ‘friends’, who you can read about on the ELT Planning blog, and other interesting characters. I’ve even had to block a few users when I didn’t feel comfortable with the discussion at all.

Zemach highlights the fact that invasive chats are initiated mainly by men. That is related to another huge issue because there seems to be a fine line between being an awkward stranger and something much worse. It’s not a secret that women often receive inappropriate messages on social media, even on supposedly professional platforms such as LinkedIn. I have no idea why someone would think that online harassment is a good idea, but there are people like that out there.

The author suggests that the culture of chat messages should receive more attention in ELT materials. It certainly makes sense to use authentic or made up chats in the classroom and analyse them. In addition, I often communicate with my learners through WhatsApp, and when I get a message that could make a bad impression on someone, I address it in the subsequent lesson and provide the student with some examples of more appropriate language that could be used instead.

There are plenty of other thought-provoking ideas in the book, and I think everybody interested in ELT will probably find something useful in it. The book is also well-written and easy to read, which is exactly what you would expect from a title written by an experienced author and editor. If you enjoy reading TEFL-related essays, Dorothy Zemach’s All of the Above will make a really nice addition to your digital or physical library.

John Field: Listening in the Language Classroom (2008)

When I get asked for book recommendations, there are a few names that always spring to my mind in relation to specific areas. Teachers interested in teaching listening skills usually receive a quick one-word answer: Field. That’s basically all you need to know from me because reading this author’s book Listening in the Language Classroom is likely to change the way you deal with listening in your classes. John Field is a respected figure in ELT, but he doesn’t seem to be active on social media, so his work doesn’t get that much attention on the internet. Well, let me give you a few reasons why every English teacher should read this book.

John Field: Listening in the Language Classroom

First of all, listening seems to be kind of a neglected area. Coursebooks usually promote using the traditional lesson format with three stages that all teachers are probably familiar with. We typically ask our students a few comprehension questions to check if they have understood the text, but the problem with this approach is that there isn’t much actual teaching taking place in that type of lesson. Of course, there is time and place for testing comprehension, for example in proficiency exams. The main theme of Field’s book is that we should do much more than that in our lessons.

The listening comprehension approach is based on activities used in testing reading even though the nature of listening isn’t the same. Written texts allow you to read some passages again to double check your answers; listening is more challenging in this respect. Listening to English speakers is also quite difficult due to the language’s peculiar relationship between spelling and pronunciation, which may cause beginners to feel completely lost. You may have seen this short film showing how English sounds to those who don’t speak the language:

Field suggests that we focus on processes that are employed when listeners try to understand a text. He describes why students struggle with decoding what they hear, and since I’m a curious person, I like conducting my own experiments. The procedure is quite simple: Find an authentic text, let’s say a 10-second segment from a TV series, ideally with a few contractions and modal verbs, and ask your students to transcribe exactly what they hear. Even when the utterances are quite simple and the learners are familiar with the lexis and grammar structures, you may encounter some completely unexpected words in their transcripts. Connected speech is a common source of confusion, even for high-level English learners.

Listeners often use the context and co-text to fill those gaps in understanding, which is perfectly normal. In fact, I had a lot fun with my Delta LSA based on top-down processing. You obviously can’t rely on the context and background knowledge all the time, so what can be done to improve the students’ ability to decode rapid speech? Listening in the Language Classroom contains plenty of useful tips to help you with that. Listening is inextricably linked with pronunciation, so it may be necessary to address some key differences between English and the learners’ mother tongue. My favourite example is the word chocolate, which has four syllables in Spanish but only two in English; this simple distinction can be used to make the students aware of the importance of stress and the role of the schwa (/ə/).

Connected speech isn’t composed of completely random features, but it actually makes logical sense when you consider the rhythm of English and analyse how phonemes are produced. There is a complete list of weak forms, so why couldn’t they be taught? Field suggests targeted practice in recognising function words in connected speech, which I find extremely helpful in my own teaching practice. I believe that the students should know that Tell him is often pronounced /telɪm/ and Where does he live? may sound like /weədəzɪlɪv/ because it will help them understand spoken English a little bit better.

I understand that the idea of teaching listening and pronunciation may seem daunting, especially to new teachers, because we usually don’t think about what happens in our mouth when we speak. I think it’s worth studying all the places and manners of articulation that are described in Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundations. Having that knowledge probably won’t help you impress people at a party, but you can use it to help your students improve their listening skills. Why is the World Cup pronounced /wɜ:lkʌp/? Why do some people say /fʊpbɔ:l/ instead of /fʊtbɔ:l/? What on earth is going on when English speakers say /wʊʤʊlaɪk/? These questions don’t keep many people up at night, yet there are pretty good reasons for addressing them in the classroom. Such lessons can be a lot of fun as well, which is a pleasant bonus.

Teaching listening is more complex than just focusing on connected speech, so I recommend that you read the whole book. Field encourages teachers to go beyond asking the students to eavesdrop on coursebook conversations that don’t even sound like real-life speech. If you feel that your listening lessons could lead to better results, you should consider using the procedures mentioned in Listening in the Language Classroom in your own classes.

In fact, this book recommendation is based on my own experience. Working as a freelancer has given me an opportunity to experiment with new kinds of classes, and for the past few months I’ve been running courses for students who wish to improve their listening skills. Field’s book keeps providing me with ideas for designing materials and activities that help the students develop their listening skills. I find literature that challenges traditional approaches to teaching extremely important, and this title will definitely motivate the reader to explore a less-travelled path when it comes to teaching listening.

Finally, I’d like to hear from those who have read Listening in the Language Classroom. Do you agree with Field’s criticism of the comprehension approach? Have you used any of his recommendations in your classes? Feel free to leave a comment here or on my social media profiles.