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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: / @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!


Step away from the stage

3 Aug
microphone on stage

In my teenage years I was a huge Van Halen fan. There, I’ve said it, it’s out there. Now no matter what you think of men in Lycra, ridiculous guitar solos and the excesses of 70s and 80s American rock, there is little doubting that Van Halen knew how to put on a show. In fact, in the early 80s they were putting on some of the biggest touring rock performances that the world had ever seen. There are some great Van Halen stories (honestly, look them up) and with front man David Lee Roth, they provided the media with no shortage of rock n roll quotes and cliches, “I used to have a drug problem, now I make enough money”.


Anyway, an MTV interview with David Lee Roth – I think around the time he was forging a solo career – has always stuck in my mind. It was on the subject of performance:

“If you can’t do it in a white t-shirt, a pair of jeans, under one white light bulb … you can’t do it.”

Now I’m (painfully) aware that ELT and Marketing conferences are not full of rock star performances, but then again an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo from Jeremy Harmer really wouldn’t seem appropriate anyway. However, the idea that a genuine ability to perform is only truly revealed when you strip it back to the bare necessities, is for me just as true for conference presenters as it is for musicians.


I was reminded of this at a recent conference when a corrupted file meant the presenter found themselves standing in front of an audience without presentation slides. And yet they still managed to deliver an engaging, coherent and structured presentation. I doubt many speakers I’ve seen over the years could do the same if stripped of their PowerPoint crutch at the last minute. Yet surely having an engaging story to tell, or information to impart, should be the foundation of any good talk?


If an audience has chosen to come and listen to what you have to say at a conference, then I feel the least you can do as a speaker is carefully think through what you’re going to present, ensure that you have something worth saying, and rehearse, then rehearse again. The worst presentation I attended at IATEFL earlier this year was for what promised to be a case study of a new online professional development resource. About halfway through, and following a series of holiday snaps and lame metaphors about climbing mountains (supported by more dull holiday snaps) it became apparent that the online resource had yet to launch and the presenter was wasting both his time and the audience’s. Over the course of 30 minutes he proceeded to commit the following presentation sins:


1. Cover up your lack of anything meaningful to communicate by throwing together  some ‘amusing’ or visually stunning PowerPoint slides.


Although in this specific case the amateurish nature of the slides was what added an additional layer of irritation, I’m just as wary of iPad and MacBook users employing whatever software is in fashion. You can bet your extortionate conference fee they’ll have spent five times longer selecting images and animating their slides than thinking about and rehearsing what they’re going to say.


2. Blindly ignore the fact that your talk has nothing to do with the title and abstract you submitted 6 months ago, and stumble through a narrative that you sketched out in the bar last night.


Some people have a real talent for thinking on their feet and ad libing in front of an audience. However, most of us don’t. If heckling was more acceptable at professional conferences, perhaps some of the less self-aware presenters would start to get the message.


3. Read what’s written on your slides, word for word.


Like many people, and presumably you too if you’re reading this blog, I’m pretty good at reading. So if I’m part of a captive audience and I’m presented with a slide with words on, I’ll read them. I don’t need the presenter to read them to me. Technology should enhance what’s being presented, not serve as an autocue for the speaker. Conversely, if you include a slide that’s impossible to read, and introduce it with ‘sorry you can’t read this’ why have you bothered showing the slide in the first place?


Of course there are times when visuals are important, product demonstrations for example, and I’m not disputing that technology can add value to a presentation. However, I think an unplugged conference would genuinely bring out only the best and most competent of public speakers, and those who really had something to say. If you’ve got something great to talk about, then feel free to jazz it up with PowerPoint, Keynote, a brass band, dancing bears or whatever takes your fancy. But if the basics aren’t in place may I kindly suggest you sit back down in the audience until you have something worth presenting?

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