Tag Archives: professional development

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!


Why don’t teachers use eBooks for professional development?

28 Aug

post by Mike Griffin on why Korean students don’t use apps for learning English made me think about some work I’ve been doing recently that involves teachers. Without going into too much detail, I’ve been looking at the potential for ELT professional development eBooks and trying to establish why there seems to be very limited demand for digital versions of existing print titles.

Now, given the title of this post, I guess it’s worth pointing out that I’m aware that there are language teachers out there already buying professional development eBooks. However, all the evidence suggests that most aren’t, despite the proliferation of laptops, tablets and eReaders, and the ease of purchasing eBooks online. The vast majority of language teachers and ex-language teachers I know, myself included, have at least a couple of ‘classic’ ELT methodology books on their (physical) bookshelves, and the more fortunate ones will have a well-stocked resource library where they teach, giving access to both practical guides and theoretical texts.

So at a time when Amazon and many others are telling us eBook sales are booming, why is the ELT industry still so wedded to print? Here are a few of the most common responses I’ve heard from teachers:

  1. eReaders are for fiction, tablets are for apps and social media. Reference texts and methodology books don’t really suit either device. Print is best because I can quickly find what I want, and I can bookmark and annotate pages.
  2. I don’t buy books for professional development. I rely on my library or school, where the only option is print.
  3. Publishers are not giving teachers the incentives to purchase digital. Digital needs to be cheaper, maybe up to 50% cheaper, and there needs to be extra features like audio, video and interactive exercises.
  4. There are so many free online resources, including blogs, journal articles and social media communities, with content more suited to reading on mobile devices, so there’s no need to buy methodology eBooks. Or print books for that matter.
  5. I do read eBooks, but I don’t pay. I only download free PDF versions, you know, the ones you kindly make available on those Russian websites.

This is of course all anecdotal and there are counter-arguments to every one of these points. You can bookmark and annotate eBooks, there is potential for excellent search functionality, the expectation of more content and features for a considerably lower price can be challenging but if approached sensibly can be addressed, and whilst there are some fantastic, thought-provoking bloggers around, this is content that should arguably complement rather than replace cutting-edge, high quality methodology and applied linguistics publishing. Finally, if you need convincing that downloading pirate PDFs is damaging and unacceptable, take the time to read this ELTJam post.

The potential is there for digital delivery to improve the reader’s experience when it comes to methodology and reference titles (in ELT beyond), and for publishers to deliver content in more flexible ways through subscriptions, disaggregated content and library services. However, if print is what most language teachers want (and what teacher trainers and lecturers insist on putting on reading lists) how much time should publishers really spend trying to convince them to switch to digital? And is it a case of switching, or would teachers appreciate redeemable codes for free or low-cost eBooks bundled with the print books, thereby putting a single purchase on both their virtual and physical bookshelves?

I don’t think there are definitive answers to any of these questions, and ELT publishers are either going to continue scratching their heads or, as we’re already seeing (mentioning no names), abandoning professional development publishing in order to focus more energy on the blockbuster courses where there’s greater profit to be made. Whilst I’m all too aware of the importance of keeping publishing profitable, I don’t believe that should be the only driver when it comes to methodology and applied linguistics. Quality publishing in this area is what stimulates debate, brings about change and essentially underpins the professionalism in ELT. What I hope digital content will allow, perhaps combined with print, is more – not less – professional development publishing, better accessibility to ‘classic’ titles, and the ability to reach a greater audience through more flexible content delivered at a lower price. This is simple and yet incredibly complicated, so do get in touch if you have a global solution, and in the meantime, please step away from those illegal downloads.

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