TESOL to IATEFL: from building bridges to twistin’ my melons (man)

11 Apr


As I travel up to IATEFL Manchester on a train with surprisingly good free wifi (well done Virgin Trains!) here are some thoughts on my trip a couple of weeks ago to the other side of the Atlantic, for TESOL 2015.

The theme of this year’s TESOL conference was Crossing Borders, Building Bridges. I guess a nod to the fact that it was held in Toronto. However, as I have a serious allergy to tired metaphors I made a conscious effort to avoid talks that had shoehorned bridges into their titles and abstracts. This random strategy seemed to be effective, as on the whole, I found the talks I attended engaging and enlightening. Here’s a couple of highlights:

D J Kaiser – Pronunciation

Firstly, great name. But also a really engaging speaker. D J Kaiser talked about research he’s doing into pronunciation apps. He’s downloaded 100+ iOS apps and is working his way through each of them, blogging as he goes. The presentation gave a whistlestop tour of the first 20 apps he’s assessed and reviewed, and by the end of it, I couldn’t help but think, no-one’s really nailed pronunciation apps, have they? Issues include:

  • Apps that focus on accent reduction, rather than improving intelligibility
  • Voice recognition software that isn’t up to scratch, or is poorly calibrated
  • Lack of meaningful feedback

The apps D J Kaiser has downloaded vary from free (some with in-app purchasing), to around $50 USD, with an average of $2.89 and a median of $0. My feeling is that if you’re going to produce a pronunciation app with any real educational value, it needs to be designed with a specific learner in mind, both in terms of age and first language. And given the amount of investment that would be required in terms of voice recognition software, figuring out how to give useful feedback, applying expertise in pronunciation skills and language learning methodology, and creating something that works beautifully on a tablet or smartphone, I can’t really see it being viable as a standalone product. Perhaps part of a wider skills-based course, delivered online or through an app?

Anyway, D J Kaiser has over 80 apps to work through yet, so I’ll be keeping an eye on his blog and Twitter account to see if he turns up any pronunciation gems:

djkaiserphd.wordpress.com / @djkaiser_phd

Andrew Nye – Professional Development

Andrew is a colleague of mine from a few years back, when I was working for what was then Cambridge ESOL, now rebranded as Cambridge English Language Assessment (I guess clarity being favoured over brevity there). I couldn’t travel all the way to Canada and not show an ex-colleague some support so I dutifully took my seat, but within five minutes was pleased I had. I knew Andrew would be a competent speaker, what I hadn’t realised was how far the Cambridge English Teaching Framework had come, and how good it looked online.

There is some overlap with the Cambridge English Teaching Framework and the work I do on ELT professional development titles, but until attending Andrew’s talk, I must admit I hadn’t really engaged with the details and with the background to the project. In short, it’s an incredibly well-research framework that helps language teachers to establish their own areas of competency and then build a plan for continuing professional development. It’s based very much on the idea that the difference between a good teacher and an excellent teacher is awareness of areas for improvement. And as illustrated by a great Alice in Wonderland quote, you can’t really be expected to work out which way you need to go, until you have an idea of where you need to go:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where…” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

The beta version of the tracker, which places you on the framework, can be accessed here:


I attended a few commercial talks as well (interesting to see Rosetta Stone branching into blended learning and classroom materials, and employing a curriculum consultant), and of course caught up with friends and colleagues from both sides of the Atlantic. Now, as I fast approach Leeds, time to get myself ready for IATEFL Manchester. Whilst I’m adverse to trite metaphors, I was hoping for a few more Manchester-based music references in this year’s list of IATEFL talks, but sadly there’s little evidence of this at a first read through the programme. However, hats off to the speaker who’s squeezed ‘Twistin’ my melons’ into his title, I’ll definitely try and make it to that one. Step on!


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