Six talks worth watching

Professional development is often associated with attending conferences. In my experience, you can usually tell within the first five minutes if the talk or workshop is going to be any good. The positive effect of moving such events online is that you don’t need to worry about being spotted while trying to sneak away from a lecture that you find excruciatingly boring. To be fair to the speakers, it’s impossible to please everyone when you are talking to a group of teachers with varied experience, qualifications, interests, etc.

Fortunately, there are recordings of some useful education-related talks available on YouTube. I have already mentioned a couple of them on this blog, so I thought it would be a good idea to select a few more videos, write a short summary of each of them, and point out some moments I found humorous. If you’d like to recommend any other talks, let me know in the comments section.

Scott Thornbury: What’s the latest method?
You know that you can always rely on Scott Thornbury to deliver an engaging talk because he is an experienced presenter and skilled public speaker. This talk is an entertaining overview of teaching methods used throughout the years. There are plenty of references to literature and hilarious examples from obscure books for students. I think this talk serves as a pretty good argument against strictly adhering to a magic method that promises amazing results. The talk ends when some guy tentatively walks onto the stage to tell Thornbury that he has run out of time, which shows that issues with timing don’t affect only Delta Module Two candidates.

Stephen Krashen: The power of reading
Everyone remembers Stephen Krashen for his hypotheses related to second language acquisition. He later became involved in educational policy activism, and one of his priorities is improving access to books. In this talk that focuses on the benefits of reading, Krashen refers to relevant research and provides pretty convincing arguments for free voluntary reading. He states that reading influences more aspects of life than just academic results. The talk also includes a Bill Cosby reference, which is something that most likely wouldn’t happen these days.

Russ Mayne: A guide to pseudoscience in ELT
I wonder what strange contraption was used to record this talk because the video definitely doesn’t look like something made in 2014. Anyway, I highly recommend that you ignore the poor audio and image quality and watch this gem of a talk. It has everything you’d want from a guide on myths on ELT. Russ Mayne mentions horoscopes, refers to Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and provides a helpful slide with names of major organisations and authors who are complicit in spreading nonsense. Brilliant stuff!

If Karl Pilkington’s superhero idea ever gets made into a movie, I will personally contact film studios with a pitch for a spin-off. Imagine that: He’s just a normal guy who doesn’t need a special costume. When he hears someone somewhere in the world promoting the use of learning styles and multiple intelligences in the classroom, he flies in and…

Philip Kerr: The return of translation
This is a very useful webinar for teachers who work in places that ban using L1 in the classroom. Philip Kerr makes it clear that we should be more open-minded when it comes to using translation because our students can actually benefit from it. I like the fact that he shows practical examples of translation activities that you can use in your teaching practice. If you watch the whole video, you will be rewarded with a funny swear word and the speaker’s heartfelt Christmas wishes. Nice one!

Rod Ellis: Using tasks in language teaching
This webinar will provide you with basic tenets related to using tasks in the classroom, including focus on form. It was nice to see Rod Ellis confirm that TBLT can be used in the online environment because the theory of language learning isn’t affected by the fact that you’re talking to your students through Zoom. There is nothing revolutionary in the webinar, but it’s good to hear everything straight from Rod Ellis’ mouth. By the way, that body part features quite prominently in the top right corner of the video because Cambridge University Press forgot to include the upper half of the speaker’s face in the recording.

Luke Meddings: 3-2-1: A classroom for everyone
One of the main proponents of Dogme gave this thought-provoking talk on the approach twelve years after its creation. Luke Meddings makes some interesting comments about this alternative to coursebook-driven teaching. He briefly mentions learning styles and multiple intelligences. I guess Russ Mayne wasn’t in the audience that day because I didn’t hear any audible groans in the recording. To his credit, Meddings says that we should try to build a community and include a variety of task types rather than pay attention to those theories.

No Spanish in the classroom?

Being a reflective teacher is an important element of professional development because it makes you think about your teaching practice. It’s quite useful to ask yourself why you are teaching the way you are teaching. Reflecting on your work isn’t always a pleasant process because it can lead to opening a can of worms. However, I think that admitting that you got something wrong can help you improve as a teacher even if it means denting your ego.

I spent eighteen months after completing my CELTA oblivious of any real professional development. I just kept doing what I thought was correct at the time. Fortunately, I decided to study for Delta Module One, and reading ELT books made me question things for the first time in my teaching career. For example, when I was tasked with assessing students’ speaking skills, it involved asking them to draw a card with a random topic and giving them a minute to prepare a monologue. When I read Testing for Language Teachers by Arthur Hughes, I found out that this is not a recommended procedure because it makes learners unnecessarily stressed. The book helped me explore some more considerate and effective ways of assessing speaking.

No Spanish in the classroom?

All teachers makes mistakes, particularly at the beginning of their careers. My biggest one was persisting with the No Spanish! policy for quite a long time. In my defence, I taught a multilingual group of students during my CELTA course, so it was necessary to rely only on English. It took me a while to realise that penalising Colombian students for using their native language wasn’t a good strategy. Everyone else seemed to be doing that as well, so I didn’t see any problem with enforcing the rule.

Again, I needed an intervention from the outside to show me that there are other perspectives on the topic of L1 use in the classroom. When I decided to focus on teaching monolingual classes in Colombia for my Delta Module Three assignment, I needed to research the area. The role of learners’ native language is a key issue, so I started reading more about it, and Vivian Cook’s article Using the First Language in the Classroom proved to be a game changer in this regard.

There are solid arguments for using only L2 in the classroom, and I completely understand how the direct method came about. However, it doesn’t seem to be the best options for monolingual environments such as Colombia. Cook says that the interaction between L1 and L2 is a fact of life and fighting against it doesn’t make much sense. He suggests treating learners’ mother tongue as a useful resource and taking advantage of it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean promoting unrestricted use of the native language in the classroom because that would be taking things to the other extreme. If possible, L1 should be used in a more principled way. For example, there are a lot of cognates between English and Spanish, and it’s pretty useful to expose students to them. In fact, that’s what I relied on when I moved to Colombia with limited knowledge of the Spanish language. This inevitably means exploring the area of false friends to avoid misunderstanding. I don’t see any harm in looking at similarities and differences in some grammar structures either. 

I also think that using L1 when it comes to lexical chunks can help you save valuable class time. Let’s use the expression it’s worth it as an example. When you encounter it in a text, you can spend a couple of minutes trying to clarify its meaning using some contrived examples, and there is still no guarantee that it will be fully understood by everyone in the classroom. Using its Spanish equivalent vale la pena will immediately resolve that issue. L1 can be very useful in terms of class management too, particularly with beginners. I see no point in torturing students who have just started learning the language with English-only instructions when you can help them out using their mother tongue in case they are struggling with a task.

In addition, I have no qualms about using translation activities in my lessons. I am not advocating for the return of the outdated grammar-translation method that doesn’t pay any attention of speaking. Asking my students to translate a hoax message I had received through WhatsApp can help kick-start a discussion about fake information on the internet, and I see no issue with including fun stuff like that in my lessons from time to time. I recommend watching Philip Kerr’s webinar The return of translation for more information on the topic.

When I look back at the beginning of my teaching career, there are a few memories that now make me say to myself That was a bit daft, wasn’t it? and banning the use of L1 in the classroom was undoubtedly one of them. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help us address various misconceptions. I think it’s really important for us teachers to be open-minded and willing to change our stance in case we encounter evidence suggesting that our students may not benefit from our actions.