Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Natives and non-natives - justified discrimination?

Recently the BESIG discussion forum has exploded into life, which is a very welcome development. I belong to three such forums, BESIG, IATET and EULETA, and all three seem to come and go in waves, usually until someone complains about "all these messages cluttering up my in-box". I've never been able to work that one out - surely an active discussion forum is infinitely better than an inactive one, and even the apparently irrelevant postings sometimes generate wonderful debates.

(I also come and go with the forums - sometimes I read everything, get involved in discussions and look forward to the next nuggets of wisdom; other times I'm too busy and barely have time to delete all the stuff cluttering my in-box - but that's more about me and my workload than the quality of the discussions.)

Anyway, a week or so ago on BESIG there was a great little debate about natives and non-natives that came out of nowhere - someone had posted a job ad that specified it was for native speakers only. And the floodgates opened. I didn't get involved in the debate because I was deep in deadline hell (still am actually), but I do need to get some things out of my system, so here goes.

I've spent almost all my teaching career in the natives-only sector. When I started here in Poland in 1996, there was a stereotype that Polish people couldn't teach English as well as us. Apparently Polish teachers of English were too obsessed with grammar; they explained rather than elicited; their lessons were boring and ineffective.

That at least was the message I got from my employers and my students. No idea how accurate the stereotype was. At the time I didn't question it. I'll come back to the issue of stereotypes later.

Then in 2003 I moved to International House, where I was briefly Director of Studies. (I left after 4 months because I was told there was no money to pay me from May to September - this being just after my daughter was born. Not a good time). Towards the end of my time there I was interviewing a teacher for a position in the school. She was wonderfully qualified and experienced, and very impressive. (I discovered today, by coincidence, that's she's become a sucessful course book writer).

But my boss (Polish) vetoed my decision to give her a job. Because the teacher was Polish. The customers won't like it. They have certain expectations, you know.

Again, I accepted that. The customer's always right. Can't argue with the market, and all that.

Next I moved on to the British Council (doubled my salary and had no responsibility - good career move). Another institution dominated by native speakers, but also one that takes equality and discrimination very seriously.

In my first year I attended a conference in Glasgow for BC teachers. One of the sessions I attended was entitled I want a proper British English teacher. The presenter explained that some clients had complained about non-white teachers in the teaching centre (I think the teachers in question were British of Asian origin), so the centre manager explained to the client No, we will not change your teacher. It's alright - all our teachers are fully qualified native speakers.

In other words, the customer isn't always right. The presentation was about standing up to discrimination. Hear hear!

But that got me thinking. The manager (rightly) came down hard on racial discrimination. But he replaced it with discrimination based on nationality. On the surface, the manager was being thoroughly modern and liberal and anti-discriminatory, but under the surface, his message was No, don't worry, they're not nasty foreigners. They're Brits (or Americans or others from the inner circle).

In other words, criticising one type of discrimination while indulging in another. No wonder the client was confused, perhaps.

Before I get into trouble, I'm absolutely not saying one type of discrimination is less bad than another, or one type justifies another type. I disagree with all kinds of discrimination. Discriminating against British non-whites is wrong, and so is disciminating against non-British non-whites. And so is discriminating against non-British whites, for that matter.

It's also illegal, by the way. Probably - good ol' Wikipedia assures me that discrimination based on nationality is covered under anti-discrimination law. (I can't been able to find any evidence of this in actual statutes, but I haven't looked very hard).

You could argue that this is politcal correctness gone mad, and some people have argued exactly that. Surely if you want to learn a language, a native speaker is better than a non-native? Stands to reason, right?

Well, not necessarily. For me as a learner of Polish, I'd probably be better off asking a non-Pole to explain the grammar. For most natives, their own grammar is too deeply entrenched to be available for analysis and explanation. (OK, I know I should get over my obsession with grammar - but that's just what I'm like as a learner). Non-natives have the bemefit of knowing the language from the outside - how it works, what's difficult to get your head round, etc. They also have experience of learning the language. And, very often, they know their learners' language too. Some pretty big advantages.

The much more important issue, however, is that we're dealing in stereotypes. I said a non-Pole might be better at explaining Polish grammar to me, but I can't say all non-Poles would be better than all Poles. That'd be ridiculous.

Equally, perhaps there are many non-native English speaker teachers who have poor English (perhaps) or who can't teach according to a particular methodology.

Perhaps ...

Even if that were true, it would be wrong to deduce that because teacher A was born in country B and not country C, she can't teach English as well as teacher D (who was born in country C).

You can't judge individuals based on stereotypes. Treat each individual on their own merit.

The teacher I wanted to recruit at IH had wonderful English and a better grasp of methodological theory that I did at the time. The only justification for not employing her was the stereotype.

And what of the customer being always right? Well, they're not. We don't tolerate racist customers or pander to their prejudices (I hope). And I think we need the guts and the confidence to stand up to customers who demand a particular flag on their teacher's passport.

Sure, you might lose a few customers. Maybe lots of customers. But if you have a strict policy of recruiting absolutely the best teachers, whatever it says on their passport, you may find the customers who stay are happier and recommend your school to other potential customers.

Anyway, I'm aware this is a hornets' nest, so very much looking forward to your comments.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

How did PPP become a dirty word?

Recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of walk-throughs – presentations which involve guiding an audience through a unit of a course book to explain the deeper methodology behind it, to show how exercises build up to achieve a sub-aim, sub-aims build up to achieve aims and aims build up to create a coherent section in a coherent unit. Another reason for these walk-throughs is to elicit ideas for how to use the materials in class – supplementing, personalising, adapting, that sort of thing.

The first time I did it was in my analysis of Business Opportunities and Business Objectives, and a couple of weeks ago I walked through a unit of Introduction to International Legal English (see photo below, taken by one of the co-athors of that book, Matt Frith). And I was at it again at the BESIG conference, walking through our wonderful new book, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-intermediate. This afternoon I’m flying off to Austria for a training event in Klagenfurt tomorrow, doing yet more walk-throughs for two of the books in my series, Cambridge English for Engineering and Nursing Intermediate+.)


But there’s something worrying me in the back of my mind as I’m talking about the wonderful methodology. I feel guilty every time I mention or even hint at the idea of presentation-practice-production – the famous PPP model that we were all taught on our initial teacher training (like my CTEFLA, or the CELTA as it is now).

On my diploma course we learnt that the PPP model is actually extremely na├»ve and something to avoid at all costs. It’s as if these staples of English teaching methodology are an embarrassing relic from the bad old days.

Or at least that’s the message I took away from my training – perhaps my trainer was les extreme and I got overexcited.

So is PPP dead? Well, certainly, the purest form of PPP would be a disaster. Teacher stands at front of class and gives a presentation. Students do a solitary practice exercise. Students do a freer productive task to demonstrate what they’ve learnt, but … ooops, they haven’t learnt anything.

But does anybody really teach like that? And just because the pure form is rubbish, we shouldn’t dismiss the model. We just need to fix it.

If you think about it, PPP, if done properly and sensitively, is a completely logical way of going about things. Of course many teaches make a hash of it (as I’ll explain below), and of course there’s much, much more to teaching than PPP.

But as long as there is actually some sort of input involved in teaching (and it’s not all student-generated self-teaching), that input needs to presented somehow. It needs to be practiced somehow. And students need a chance to use in a more natural situation. And … er … those three steps need to be in that order.

(Before you start spitting at the screen, I’ll deal with that issue of order in a second when I mention TTT).

Imagine you want to learn to paint, or to be a belly dancer, or whatever. You go along to your evening class and what do you expect? Well, perhaps someone to show you what to do, then a chance to analyse it and master it, and then a chance to apply your new skills in as natural, integrated situation.

(My big sister’s a world-class belly dance instructor – I’ll ask her one day if that’s how she does it).

So what’s wrong with PPP? Let’s look at the stages in order, starting with the presentation

I once observed a lesson taught by a very nice but rather inexperienced teacher. The lesson started with her drawing all sorts of wonderful timelines on the board (past simple and past continuous, if I remember correctly), with plenty of example sentences and counter-examples. I got a lot out of it, but I’m not sure if the students did. The teacher forgot (a) to find out what they already knew – perhaps they already knew all of this already, and (b) to involve them in the presentation. If the teacher had done those two things, she could still have done the same presentation but it would have been much better. The students would then have been happy to be confirming what they knew – even showing off to the teacher about how good they were, and much more ready to ask about things they didn’t understand.

A presentation doesn’t have to be teacher-led, and it doesn’t have to involve timelines. Everything we teach, be it vocab, phrases, pronunciation techniques, business skills, collocations, learner training skills, whatever – there’s always some form of presentation.

One of the simplest techniques involves teaching useful phrases from an audioscript. After they’ve listened, students read the script to underline useful phrases. Or you could give them the phrases with the words on slips of paper to sort. Or present them as a gapfill. It doesn’t really matter. There’s useful language in there, and it’s the teacher’s role to make the students aware of it. Ideally, the student should be fully involved in discovering the useful language and selecting whether it is in fact useful. But they still need support and guidance from the teacher.

What of TTT (test-teach-test)? This is often presented as an alternative to PPP, but it’s not – it’s just a sensible extension of it. The initial test could be a role-play or exercise or game or discussion, where the teacher has a good laugh at how badly the students perform the task. Or sees that the students can already do the job really well, and therefore abandons the presentation and pulls plan B out. (Stick a video on, perhaps). The test informs the presentation, practice and production – in other words the teach and test stages. So TTT is just TPPP.

The second P is practice. My diploma trainer used to say PPP stood for piss-poor practice. (He was much more vulgar than me – sorry about that). But of course that’s incredibly easy to fix.

Er … just do more and better practice. Loads of it. Not just gap fills and error correction but controlled speaking, less controlled speaking, moving-bits-of-paper-around games, moving-students-around games, vocab revision games, …

The key is this: as long as the practice activities are useful and varied and fun, you can do no end of them. You can also do them in a non-linear way – so when you’re in the middle of unit 4, you can go back and do more practice from unit 1 and unit 3.

Moving on to the third P, practice. (I feel like I’m doing a conference presentation … there’ll be time for questions at the end).

As a new teacher, I was always disappointed when students completely failed to use target language in their free practice activities (discussions, role-plays, simulations, etc.). As soon as they relax, they fall into their old bad habits, their lazy, safe, easy ways of speaking. Simple tenses, simple vocab, simple phrases (“I disagree”, rather than “I’m not sure I completely agree with you”).

Well, that’s just one of the hazards of teaching, and we need to get over it. We’ve absolutely got to provide lots of practice opportunities, and we’ve got to encourage students to use target language (if, of course, it really is useful to them, which is a completely different issue – but a very important one). Tell them explicitly that you’ll be listening out for the target language during the production task, or get them to listen out or each other. Praise the students that use the target language, and gush about how wonderful it sounds. And keep noticing it, praising it and nagging about it in all subsequent speaking tasks.

One of my old favourite games is to print the target phrases on slips of paper. Before the speaking exercise, students have done something with the slips (like sort them into categories according to function or level of formality or whatever). Then during the speaking activity, they have to use as many of the phrases as possible. When they use one in an authentic way, they can take the slip of paper from the desk. At the end, the one with the most slips is the winner. Of course some students will be silly and overuse the phrases, but even so, the results usually sound great. Again, praise the students – tell them how nice it sounded, even though it was only a game.

So, to recap, PPP is fine, as long as it’s done intelligently. In fact, as long as there’s still some teaching involved in teaching, it should be a staple tool for all teachers.