Friday, 13 December 2013

Efficiency and Redundancy in the L2 Classroom, Part II

Teacher Training Considerations

1.   Theory to Practice
It’s all very well for me to flippantly sign off with a line like ‘that requires thought,’ but what kind of thought, exactly? I’ve previously tried to express these ideas more colloquially on my other blog and that post got picked up by a JET messageboard, which was very gratifying. However, most commenters seemed to interpret what I was saying primarily as a call to speak more slowly, and that isn’t the main thrust at all. How, then, do we frame this in a way that inexperienced teachers can understand and apply? And, more to the point, why would we want to?

2.   Discourse Analysis and Teacher Experience
In Sinclair and Coulthard’s original research on classroom discourse, did they give any indication of the teachers’ levels of experience? Many of the examples presented seem to suggest (at least as captured on the page) fairly experienced teachers with a relatively firm grasp of the conventions of classroom discourse, however unconscious that grasp may have been. I would contend that those conventions represent a pretty specific, specialist form of discourse and as such they must be learned, and if they must be learned they can, to some extent, be taught.

Observing more inexperienced teachers in the classroom it’s become apparent that what I used to talk about in terms of issues with ‘confidence’ or ‘exerting authority’ are particularly manifest during boundary transactions: ending activities, gaining student attention, starting new sections of the class etc. This is perhaps due to the nature of the ALT industry with a preponderance of (undertrained) staff in their early 20’s who have never really been in any position of authority over anyone before. There’s a tendency for them to treat students as equals in a way that there isn’t perhaps for more seasoned teachers. I’m not sure this is entirely cultural, either (though that’s probably part of it – there’s more automatic deference in Japan. Or rather, there are greater assumptions of parity in the Anglosphere).

This means that suggestions to directly teach discourse strategies to L2 students appear to be skipping over a significant, crucial, and perhaps more easily attainable step – teaching classroom discourse strategies to teachers themselves. This, of course, hinges on the assumption that those strategies as described in the literature are, in fact, effective for promoting learning, however you choose to define that. Anecdotally I‘d suggest that they’re effective for creating and reinforcing the teacher-student hierarchy, and thus classroom discipline (which is not insignificant), but that’s not the same thing. Regardless, there’s clear scope for application here, I think.

3.   Non-Native Teacher Discourse Strategies
As of this year Japanese senior high school English lessons are supposed to be conducted entirely (or at least mostly) in English. Needless to say that in practice this is more of an aspiration than a realization.*

This section may be a touch confused, as there are several issues crashing into each other here, most of which stem from the following question –

Why use English for outer** interactions in the EFL classroom?

Possible answers include –
l  To expose students to as much English as possible
l  To model target language
l  To model ‘correct’ usage

All of these are subtly different, and I think that a lot of JTEs get hung up on the last one. Their initial instinct is to try and make their classroom English as fluent and as native-like as possible (which we’ll take as ‘correct’ for now, or at least as the perception of ‘correct’ by most JTEs). But as we saw last time, that’s actively counterproductive when it comes to lower level learner comprehension (and Japanese high school students are ALL lower level learners, really).

This creates a negative spiral in terms of confidence, both for students (because they simply can’t understand) and teachers (because they can’t make themselves understood). This, of course, is one of the most significant drawbacks of the native-speaker paradigm. It’s fair to say that on a day-to-day basis the majority of my Japanese colleagues’ original English interactions (by which I mean purposefully communicative functions conducted in order to exchange non-predetermined information – so not the textbooks) are with native speakers (by which I mean me). The paradigm they were educated and trained under, and the one they continue to be most experienced with, is that of communication with native speakers.

Unfortunately, when they use English to communicate to (rarely with) their students, it’s a lingua franca exchange, and the rules for those are different. Their entire professional lives have been a search for increasing sophistication and complexity in pursuit of the native speaker ideal and now, ironically in pursuit of that self-same ideal for their students, they’re finding that it’s not appropriate. Sadly, many of them are blaming it on their ‘poor’ levels of English. And, to an extent, it is a problem with their language skills, but not in the way that they think it is. It doesn’t stem from a deficiency, but an excess.

I’ll hold it there, because this could very well descend into a rant about Japanese teacher training practice (or lack thereof). But the point is that this problem of excess is very, very similar to the problems faced by native speakers when they first start teaching in the EFL classroom. The difference being, of course, that the main compensatory strategy open to non-native speakers (i.e. speak in Japanese), isn’t available to native speakers, so anyone even vaguely committed to the job*** will have to develop alternative discourse strategies out of necessity. And thus, if I’m suggesting that conclusions drawn from spoken discourse analysis may present opportunities for training new native speaking teachers, the same should (should) also apply for non-native speakers.

The question, as ever, is how. And that, unfortunately, is where I start to fall down slightly. Answers on a postcard to the usual address please.

*From here on I’ll be using Japanese and English as exemplars of L1 and L2, respectively.
**It should be noted that I’m not a huge fan of Willis and Halliday’s Inner/Outer terminology, but we’ll go with it here for simplicity’s sake.
***There’s a can of worms right there.

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