Experiences

5 things I learned at IATEFL 2016

Laura Patsko

IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) is over for another year. Laura Patsko, our Senior ELT Research Manager, reflects on what she learned during the event.

I always learn a lot at the annual IATEFL conference, and this year was no exception. I was there for the full 5 days – the pre-conference event and the conference proper – and in this post, I’ll just mention one thing I learned from each day.

Day 1: It’s often easier to be creative when you’re forced to work within certain constraints.

At the PronSIG pre-conference event on Monday, Mark Hancock demonstrated how teachers might go about creating pronunciation teaching materials, and how tough it can be if you’re given no clear focus or purpose.

For example, if somebody gave you the task, “make a new piece of pronunciation material”, it would be hard to start because you’ve been given totally free reign. But if they said, “make a piece of pronunciation material for A2 level learners focusing on the difference between /p/ and /b/ consonant sounds”, you would be more likely to think, “That’s interesting! How can I design something perfect for that specific thing?” And you’d probably come up with a range of creative ideas, instead of being completely stuck.

Day 2: Some people might call me “wavy”.

If they liked my sense of style, that is. This slang word meaning ‘cool’ or ‘stylish’ is pretty new – David Crystal mentioned in his opening plenary that he came across the word in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog back in January 2016.

Day 3: Re-formatting text can improve learners’ reading performance.

There’s some interesting research which suggests (and which was replicated, on a very small scale, in John Herbert’s presentation!) that learners perform better at scanning tasks when the text they’re reading is formatted differently than normal.

There are several ways of doing this – by printing each new sentence at the start of a new line, with a line space between it and the previous sentence; by printing each new sentence on a new line but starting at the same point on the vertical axis where the previous sentence stopped; or by dividing a text line by line into ‘breath groups’ (roughly speaking, that means starting a new line every time you might pause for breath when speaking). Students scanning a text for specific words seem to be able to find them faster – and achieve general comprehension of the text faster – than when reading normally formatted texts, like this one you’re reading right now.

Day 4: A lot of “applied linguistics” research is actually inapplicable, unapplied or – very sadly – misapplied.

So said Leo Selivan in a forum on helping teachers engage with research. To be honest, this wasn’t really something I learned during the conference, but it was definitely a welcome message. I remember doing my master’s degree in ELT and Applied Linguistics and being amazed – not only by how much I learned, but also at how difficult it was to learn it.

There were two key reasons for this, both of which Leo touched on in his presentation: first of all, a lot of great research is locked behind firewalls which aren’t accessible to teachers unless they work or study in a university; and second of all, academic literature is characterised by an abundance of impenetrable jargon. It’s a real shame that so much fantastic research happens in our field but that it is often so hard for teachers to access and apply.

Day 5: Pre-service trainee teachers are more capable than we might think of responding to emergent language during their lessons.

Melissa Corlett from SGI London, a private language school which delivers both English language and teacher training courses, gave a great presentation on Saturday morning about how she integrated a focus on emergent language into a long-standing pre-service teacher training course.

Like many pre-service courses, trainees were typically expected to anticipate their learners’ lexical needs and difficulties, plan accordingly, and teach what they’d planned. But of course, learners can always surprise us and things in the real world don’t always go according to plan! This can be quite unnerving for an inexperienced teacher, and when their teaching practice tends to be graded on the basis of not diverging from their carefully-prepared lesson plan, the potential is quite high for the teacher to continue proceeding through activities without responding to what emerges naturally in the learners’ output. Melissa decided to try and address these issues, and introduced some small changes to the teacher training course structure and grading, starting from the beginning of the course, to great effect.

By starting from Day 1 with the acknowledgment that not all the linguistic needs and abilities of students can be anticipated and incorporated into our lesson plans, Melissa’s trainee teachers were much more comfortable when dealing with new language items as they arose during lessons. This relieved some of the pressure on trainees to teach exactly what they’d planned, exactly how they’d planned it (which we all know is quite unrealistic!), and effectively removed the misleading implication that a ‘good presenter’ is the same as a ‘good teacher’. In fact, teaching well means responding appropriately to learners’ needs – before, during and after class – and learning to expect the unexpected!

All in all, another enjoyable and informative conference. Can’t wait till next year’s – see you in Glasgow!

To watch all of our sponsored talks at this year’s event, please click here.

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