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.

Mike Long: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

When you start teaching English in Colombia in an entry-level position, you are usually given a coursebook and told how many units you are supposed to cover. I assume this is common in many parts of the world because it’s the most convenient way to teach languages. However, it doesn’t seem to be the most effective approach. It’s definitely a good idea to explore other options, so I would like to focus on a book written by Michael H. Long, a proponent of Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT).

Long’s work deserves a lot of attention, and I recommend that you listen to this interview with him on the SLB Podcast. I had written a draft of this blog post about his book Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching several months ago, and this paragraph originally included more positive information. Sadly, Professor Long passed away in February this year. You can read more about this brilliant scholar and his impact on teachers around the world on this website created in his memory.

Mike Long: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

The first part of the book deals with second language acquisition (SLA). I find this topic fascinating because the fine details of our language learning process are still shrouded in mystery. Long does a great job of describing the main SLA theories and their practical implications. Even though I had previously studied ideas of well-known academics like Krashen and Prahbu, I learnt something new about their work. Right from the beginning, you will notice that Long is very diligent when it comes to referring to books and studies. In fact, there are no fewer than 56 pages of references at the end of Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching!

Long argues against treating languages as objects, and he is definitely not a fan of the synthetic approach. Dividing a foreign language into small pieces and teaching them one at a time doesn’t necessarily lead to good results. My own experience as a Spanish learner and an English teacher certainly confirms that assumption. Why do so many Colombian students say “he have” when the present simple is dealt with in one of the first units of every coursebook for beginners? I don’t think that we learn languages by simply imitating what the teacher or the coursebook says. Half of my students keep saying I am agree, but I have never taught them that and it doesn’t appear in the coursebook either. It seems that explicit teaching of individual items doesn’t always work well in real life.  

Obviously, Long proposes TBLT as a more appropriate way of teaching languages. What I love about his book is the fact that it’s not just about language. Long talks about the role of education and TBLT’s philosophical principles, and emphasises the need to treat students as rational human beings. Learning by doing, emancipation and egalitarian teacher-student relationships are one of the principles mentioned, and I think it’s difficult to disagree with any of them. I definitely feel more comfortable when my students see me as a communication partner rather than a person of authority who is meant to lecture them about the wonders of English grammar.

The book provides you with concrete steps for implementing Task-Based Language Teaching in a classroom setting. Long suggests abandoning coursebooks, which may seem like a radical idea, but there are pretty good reasons for that. If you want your course to be truly personalised and relevant, you need to conduct a needs analysis and design the course for your group of students from scratch. In addition to syllabus design, the book deals with materials, methodological principles and evaluation. It also provides useful advice related to focus on form and giving negative feedback to students.

Everything in the book makes perfect sense to me and I have no doubt that TBLT is very effective. Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching should be read by those responsible for the way English is taught in their organisation. That said, as Long himself admits, his version of TBLT is unlikely to replace traditional coursebook-driven teaching. To be honest, I can’t imagine many Colombian institutions spending money on needs analyses, course design and training teachers in TBLT when they can simply adopt a structural syllabus provided by a coursebook. It just doesn’t seem to be a financially viable option.

I would love to get a chance to work on a TBLT project at some point in the future. In the meantime, I plan to keep going beyond the coursebook as much as possible because I believe that my students benefit from using English in a meaningful manner. Even if your course ends with a discrete-point test of grammar and lexis, it’s perfectly fine to deviate from an externally imposed syllabus from time to time. Designing tasks and materials that are more relevant for your learners is undoubtedly more demanding than just following your coursebook, but it will lead to a more satisfying experience for both you and your students.