Category Archives: Approaches

Better, Best, or Next Practices in English Language Teaching

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I find the term best practice troubling; and I say this as I wear my language instructor hat and my consultant hat. Full disclosure: I am working on TESL Ontario’s Directory of Best Practice Resources. The Directory is a compendium of online (and hard copy) high quality resources for adult ESL and FSL instructors and administrators. Please check it out: http://bestpractices.teslontario.org/ . In putting together our Directory, our team scoured the literature for descriptions of best practices in adult English teaching, and we talked to researchers, administrators, and exemplary teachers, to identify effective materials to meet learner and instructor needs.

The notion of best practice seems to be the term du jour. Every profession – from social work, to psychiatry, to the legal community – is concerned with identifying best practices in the field. I’m not saying that is a bad thing. Educators who care about their students should be committed to professional development. We should be looking for ways to improve our teaching practice by staying abreast of developments in the field and adopting effective pedagogical practices and resources to enhance our students’ learning. No problem there!

What bothers me is the notion of best in the term best practice. There is a finality to the phrase that implies that once we have labeled a pedagogical strategy or a specific resource as the best, our search is over. Once we employ a best practice, there is nothing more to do, nothing more to learn. But we know that this is simply not the case. Looking back in the annals of language teaching, we find the now defunct Grammar-Translation approach, The Silent Way and the Audio-lingual approach, with its commitment to drills and set phrases. The current standard is the Communicative approach, also called the Natural approach, based on Krashen’s (1983) theory of comprehensible input, in which language learning relies on meaningful interaction – natural communication – in the target language. Language scholar Dean Mellow (2002) advocates Principled Eclecticism, a set of pedagogical guidelines for categorizing, selecting and sequencing learning activities, that form a coherent, pluralistic approach to language teaching. Theories and methods evolve, with the expectation of improving on existing practices.

What are the recognized best practices in second/additional language teaching? Jim Cummins (2007) states three assumptions have traditionally formed the basic tenets of language teaching and still dominate the conversation regarding best practice: the target language should be used exclusively in the classroom, translation between a student’s first language and the target language should not be encouraged, and finally, in immersion and bilingual settings, the two languages should be kept separate. Cummins has challenged these assumptions using empirical data, pointing to new insights in applied linguistics and cognitive psychology that provide new understandings of the bi/multilingual brain. He has called on educators (and policy makers) to abandon monolingual practices and instead, capitalize on learners’ linguistic capabilities and implement instructional strategies that build learners’ language and academic skills in English and their home languages. More recently, the pedagogical practice of translanguaging, articulated by Ofelia Garcia and Li Wei (2014), echoes Cummins’s work; English learners are encouraged to build their entire communicative repertoires, so that all languages are welcome and employed in the classroom. Could translanguaging transform the way we teach English to newcomers or will it go the way of the Silent Way?

Instead of looking for a singular best practice, we should perhaps focus attention and research on effective practices. After all, experienced instructors draw from their extensive teaching toolkits to meet the needs of their learners. Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (2012) use the terms best practice and next practice to describe innovation in the field of education. In their book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, the authors advocate for a mix that incorporates best practices – existing practices that are widely accepted for their effectiveness – with giving instructors the freedom, space and resources to create next practices, innovative approaches that grow out of experimentation with new and existing practices.

Clearly, there is no best practice, method or resource in teaching, although it would be nice to find the magic bullet, wouldn’t it? I find there is a kind of beauty in our never-ending quest to find what works best – or should I say really well – with our students. It’s an on-going process of discovery and self-discovery that makes us co-learners, alongside our students.


References

Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée10(2), 221-240.

Garcia. O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, education, and bilingualism. Houndsmill, Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.

Krashen, S.D., & Terrell, T.D. (1983). The Natural Approach. Hayward, CA: The Alemany Press.

Mellow, J.D. (2002). Toward principled eclecticism in language teaching: The two-dimensional model and the centring principle. TESL-Electronic Journal (5)4, A1. Retrieved from: http://www.tesl-ej.org/ej20/a1.html

What is translanguaging? (July 26, 2016).  EALJournal.org. Retrieved from: https://ealjournal.org/2016/07/26/what-is-translanguaging/

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Kahoot, not just for games anymore

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Using visuals is an integral part of our daily teaching practice; however, often, our visual aids are rather mundane. For example, one of the primary and most popular visual aid has been PowerPoint. Despite the benefits of using this tool, it can easily turn a classroom into a passive learning environment.

Having said this, there are other tools available through which knowledge and information can be transferred to students. One of the alternatives available is Kahoot. Now, many of us might have heard of or used this tool in our classrooms. Kahoot is a game-based teaching tool that teachers usually use to test student knowledge after their teaching is completed. However, Kahoot can be used for purposes other than testing. This post introduces Kahoot as a tool that can replace PowerPoint presentations Continue reading

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Learning and Resilience

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This year at the TESL ON conference, Asmaa Cober, Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre, will be one of our Keynote Speakers. The following blog post was written by Asmaa. Here she gives you a synopsis of her keynote address:

Learning never happens in a vacuum — people bring all of their experiences with them to the classroom. Newcomers (and refugees in particular) have a life history — experiences that greatly affect their ability to learn. We will explore some of the types of experiences that refugees bring with them to the classroom. Continue reading

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What’s So Funny? Looking at Different Cultural Approaches to Humour

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My husband and I laugh together a lot. I cannot imagine being with someone who does not share a sense of humour.  However, I know many couples who do not have the same sense of humour. One of my mother-in-law’s first dates with her future husband involved seeing a Laurel and Hardy movie during which he laughed loudly. She thought he was an idiot but went on to marry him.  Obviously, we don’t always laugh at the same things. This becomes quite apparent when you teach a second language class. Continue reading

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Getting in the Way of Progress

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This blog post is about the verb “to get,” and how sometimes this verb can get in the way of progress. Biber and Conrad (2001) list the verb “to get” as one of the twelve most commonly used verbs in spoken English, which explains why it would be an important verb to know. However, too much of a good thing can sometimes get in the way of progress. The verb “to get” and all its inflections can end up replacing every other possible verb, which in turn might prevent some learners from moving to the next stage of language proficiency. Continue reading

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Managing Strong Personalities in the Classroom

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I imagine we’ve all had classes in which one or two students dominate the room.  Maybe they ask questions at every turn or monopolize discussions, not leaving room for others to speak. Making room for everyone in the classroom without alienating these students can be a difficult task.  Here are some methods that can be used to keep a balanced classroom: Continue reading

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Reading, Reading, Reading. Why it’s so important!

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I was talking with a colleague, Lisa, during lunch break the other day. At our school, the students have a  1-hour class with a pronunciation instructor once per week. Lisa was suggesting  the merits of having a similar intensive lesson every week on reading.  After our discussion, I began to consider the importance of reading versus the other skills. I am beginning to wonder if reading is the key skill to developing English proficiency.

Don’t get me wrong – Teaching pronunciation is one of my favourite classes to teach. I guess I like the focus of language use and playing with the sounds, the stress, intonation and inflection. Many students have expressed that it is important for them, as well.

Anyway, back to reading.  Continue reading

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STRESSING OUT WITH THE BOMba’s

Last Spring, as I was sitting listening despondently to students mangling stress, I decided to give up on words, and create a sound pattern that was so visually simple, they’d be compelled to listen.

If you can’t hear a sound, it is very difficult to reproduce it. Our students hear stressed syllables, which would be okay, except in English over 60% of our syllables are unstressed, and we often forget to teach them how to listen for those unstressed syllables.

English spelling compounds the problem.  Continue reading

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Philosophical and Historical Mindedness: A New Teaching Philosophy of Innovation and Care

An Enlightening Experience

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It is really complicated to explain in words the satisfaction I feel and the changes that have occurred during my studies for my Professional Master of Education both on a personal and professional level. The overall experience was enlightening for me. My sister has recently asked me what the most meaningful parts of this process were for me. This is a complex question, for there were so many aspects worth mentioning; for instance, Continue reading

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The Art of Group Work

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Group work – just the mere mention of this makes some students cringe.  In fact, I have heard from students who actively choose courses that don’t involve group work even if at first the course sounds really interesting, but in reality, that limits the choices tremendously!  In other cases, I’ve stood at the front of the class and announced, “ok, let’s get into groups and…” and all of a sudden, I hear this cacophony of sighs transcend the room – no holding back, no filters. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of group work in education, and Continue reading

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