Cameron’s Grammar

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Today Caroline Lucas tested The Great Leader’s knowledge on the past progressive, coordinating and subordinating clauses  and modal verbs.
Cameron toffed it off with an evasive answer and everyone made those sounds that they make in Parliament.
The real question is that if DC really wants seven year olds to have that level of grammatical knowledge, knowledge that many of my first years students struggle with, what will be taught to these kids at HE levels 5 and 6?
Perhaps universities will have become completely unaffordable by then, which is why were stretching our year threes so much now?

Poles apart

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While running a first year workshop on prescriptive and descriptive grammar teaching yesterday, I decided to introduce the group to corpora. I had recently seen an excellent presentation by BALEAP poster award winner (2015) Debbie Haile on the use of corpora in the classroom at a conference and wanted to communicate the idea that grammar doesn’t always come from books. It would also provide a convenient break in the pace of the lesson.
One of the richest and most multi-functioned corpora is the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Not only can it’s 450,000,000 word database be searched for texts at different registers e.g. from Harpers Bazaar and Country Living to the Smithsonian and various academic journals, but is can also allow lemmatised and unlemmatised searches, wild cards and filters to be used very easily. In short, I considered it to be a great introduction for my students.
After searching requests from the group like ‘ostrich’ and ‘banana’, I revisited some of the lexical relationships we had reviewed at the start of the class. I wanted to demonstrate the power of corpora in indicating the usage of homonyms. One student came up with ‘pole’ as a possible homonym and I was satisfied that they had understood the previous class. The corpus came up with curtain pole, magnetic pole, North pole and pole cat. The students were now able to see the grammar of English in a real context and ergo, a much less prescribed way. A triumphant moment for education, only marred by the last example that I was blissfully unaware had remained on the screen while I was still enthusing about the use of corpora:
…it should be remembered that when pole dancing, it is courteous to wipe the pole after use…

Young people haven’t abandoned language learning. What about vice versa?

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In a recent article in the Guardian by Holly Young, the myth that young people have abandoned language learning is debunked. Young convinces us that many university students are taking languages as additional subjects. More so than ever before, in spite of most students signing up for STEM subjects.
This leads me to wonder what attitudes towards languages in Higher Education really are. There are fewer dedicated Language and Linguistics courses than before and this is worrying. Instead, as Young says, ab initio courses have been increasingly popular. All well and good, but these courses do not raise students’ language skills to levels sufficiently high enough to work in, let’s say, the Ministry of Defence; a traditional route for people with high language skills.
While universities attempt to focus on internationalisation, the idea that languages can be taught to everyone to a lower level only does half the job. It would be beneficial to these agendas if we had greater linguistic understanding and deeper cultural exchanges, rather than more people mostly understanding and cultural confusion. The fact is, we need both: more interest in languages, as well as more support for the particularly talented.
On the subject, a person close to me just entered a Linguistics degree at a not to-be-named 14th highest ranking university in the world, only to be told that certain language related modules were already full. This was in spite of her arriving a week earlier than most of the home students. Instead, she was obliged to take a module in Photography. Ultimately, this led to her dropping out of HE for a year and looking for an alternative where options are options for the highly skilled, as well as for those who wish to dabble in languages in their spare time.

Myths About Myths About English Language Learners

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On the fittingly titled Brilliant or Insane blog, there is a flame war raging. Mark Barnes posted an article called 5 Myths About English Language Learners by the self-styled ‘fluency MC’ and ‘knowledge entertainer’ Jason Levine. The article is all fair game and the points that Jason makes are similar to those being made in initial teacher training courses around the world, but they are somewhat one sided. Once again, it’s in the comments section where the magic happens so be sure to scroll down past the YouTube video of the fluency MC explicitly teaching grammatical forms.

To what extent does Bloom’s taxonomy actually apply to foreign language teaching and learning?

Finally, the application of Bloom’s Taxonomy to language learning is being questioned publicly. In earlier times, educators were adamant that language teachers need not concern themselves with the higher domains of the taxonomy. Now, it seems that we may be emerging from Benjamin Bloom’s long shadow. Gianfranco Conti is a fine critic and takes nearly 30 years of thinking head on.

The Language Gym

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Bloom’s taxonomy of higher order thinking skills has acquired a mythological status, amongst educators. It is one of those reference frameworks that teachers adhere to with some sort of blind allegiance and which, in 25 years of teaching, I have never heard anyone question or criticize. Yet, it is far from perfect and, as I intend to argue in this article, there are serious issues undermining its validity, both with its theoretical premises and its practical implementation in MFL curriculum planning and lesson evaluation in school settings.

Why should we be ‘wary’ of the Bloom taxonomy, as the ‘alarmist’ title of this article implies? Mainly because people forget or fail to consider that the Bloom Taxonomy was not meant as an evaluative tool and does not purport to measure ‘effective teaching’. In fact, the book in which the higher order thinking skills taxonomy was published is entitled: Taxonomy of Educational…

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Speak nice help

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When teaching vocabulary, there is a often a temptation to provide our learners with lists of high frequency words. While providing them with a list of decontextualised language items and expecting them to produce accurate sentences is as sensible as trying to write a symphony on a detuned guitar, I have certainly done it and, alongside other input, it can be useful.

One way to consider the impact of high frequency word lists on our learners’ language production is to try to convey complex ideas using the constraints of the thousand most commonly occurring words in English. The most famous example of this is Randall Monroe’s Web comic ‘Up Goer Five‘. In case you didn’t guess, the title itself is an explanation of the Saturn V rocket, constrained to the top thousand high frequency words in English. Now Monroe has released ‘Thing Explainer‘ more restricted science gibber jabber, available this time in dead tree form, as well as in epub format. Not only is it a bit of light entertainment, but it also reminds us of the challenges of a limited vocabulary.

Oh, by the way, according to a text editor inspired by Up Goer Five, the following words from the first paragraph alone would not be available: TEACHING, VOCABULARY, TEMPTATION, PROVIDE, LEARNERS, LISTS, FREQUENCY, PROVIDING, LIST, DECONTEXTUALISED, LANGUAGE, ITEMS, PRODUCE, ACCURATE, SENTENCES, SENSIBLE, SYMPHONY, DETUNED, GUITAR, CERTAINLY, ALONGSIDE, INPUT, USEFUL, IMPACT, FREQUENCY, LISTS,LEARNERS’, LANGUAGE, PRODUCTION, CONVEY, COMPLEX, CONSTRAINTS, THOUSAND, COMMONLY, OCCURRING, ENGLISH

Targeting the Target Language

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The linked article by the fantastic Scott Thornbury provides a review of the rise of communicative teaching from Berlitz to present models of delivery that emphasise the need for “native-like fluency” when recruiting teachers. Thornbury argues against this potentially exclusive practice (what does ‘native-like’ mean, or even ‘fluency’ for that matter?) and makes a compelling case for non-native L2 teachers.

Click here for the article.