SL in Action: The 1st Istanbul Arel University International ELT Conference 29th-30th May 2009
The 1st Istanbul Arel University International ELT Conference 29th-30th May 2009
Greg Grimaldi, School of Languages, Sabancı University
I was pleased to be able to attend the first day of the first ELT conference to take place at Arel University, Istanbul, an institution which itself was established just two years ago. The overarching theme of the conference was ?Managing Innovative Changes in TEFL ? New Insights Beyond Methods?. Several plenaries and a wide array of concurrent sessions were packed into the two days, featuring Paul Seligson as well as two trainers well known in Turkey, Kristina Smith and Tom Godfrey. Also presenting was Tanju Deveci from Sabancı University?s School of Languages: in a session titled ?Transformative Learning?, making use of student comments, he discussed our in-house coursebooks, the Beyond the Boundaries series, and how our programme aims to help students adapt to university, challenge their own and others? perspectives, and thereby shape their own identities.
An English Proficiency Exam for Turkey?
The opening plenary was delivered by Professor Özcan Demirel of Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey, who spoke on ?CEFR-Based Language Testing? and proposed a top-down approach to standardising the assessment of English in Turkey. He believes that the (Turkish) Higher Education Council?s Centre for the Selection and Placement of Students should design a test of English for all Turkish universities to use in deciding whether to exempt students from Preparatory English classes before they enter their degree programmes proper. This test would be related to the Common European Framework of Reference criteria and submitted to the Council of Europe to be considered for official recognition. My personal view is that such a product, if designed well, should be a welcome addition to the options currently available for evaluating university students? English levels. However, student profiles and university requirements of preparatory schools obviously vary wildly from one institution to another, and those programmes should ideally respond to the specific needs of their parent institution as well as their students. Moreover, the importance a Preparatory English programme places on defining its own exit criteria and fairly assessing the extent to which they are met is a measure of the degree of vitality, self-determination, and drive for self-improvement existent there. It is essential, I believe, that such a fundamental element of an institution?s identity should not be imparted involuntarily.
Improving Speaking Assessment
Susan Davies, the next plenary speaker, revealed that any institution can apply to have its language test(s) accredited by the Council of Europe and advised those interested to consult its website. She spoke first of the challenges related to the assessment of speaking, which can be summarised as ephemerality, practicality, validity, reliability, utility (whether a test discriminates), and washback. She recommended the process of improvement that the exams produced by her organisation (City & Guilds, the British qualifications body) had undergone:
- The ratings scales were revised and revalidated according to the CEFR. Tests were recorded and performance evaluation standardised. For each of the (four) task types, at every level, examiners now know what candidates ought to be able to do (in terms of accuracy, range, pronunciation and fluency), and simply evaluate whether they exceed, meet or fail to meet those criteria. A ?global? evaluation (also encompassing, for example, task achievement) is made as well.
- The tasks and language expected in each test were benchmarked: an interlocutor frame was produced (for reliability); test writers practised writing very tight task descriptions; topic choice was scrutinised; and testers became more aware of which functions and grammatical knowledge the students would need.
- Ongoing monitoring of both candidates and examiners? performance as well as the tests themselves was established.
Steps Towards Learner-Centredness
In between the plenaries, I attended two sessions, the first by Anna Beilharz from Işık Schools in Ayazağa, Istanbul, who encouraged us to inform our teaching with reflection on both our own most positive learning experiences and our personal motivations for being teachers. She proposed a simple 4-stage planning process of considering 1) students? needs, 2) their starting-points, 3) externally imposed frameworks, and 4) within those limitations, options for methods and assessment which maximise students? ?roundedness?. Anna contends that the three skills students will need most in their future careers will be problem-solving, adapting and learning itself. To develop these, she advocates progressing towards learner-centredness by gradually handing over as much responsibility for decision-making as possible (see diagram below, from her handout). As an example of a negotiation and problem-solving task, we tried a cutting-out and discussion activity on house design from Southern Grampian Adult Education?s DIY literacy resources, which she helped develop.
(click on the image above for larger view)
Although I accept that the distance instructors can advance towards a truly learner-centred environment will often be restricted by factors external to the classroom, some movement in that direction is surely possible and desirable with all ages and types of learners.
Making Change Work
The other concurrent session I attended was by Metin Timuçin, head of the Department of Foreign Languages at Sakarya University, Turkey, who drew on leadership and management theory as well as experience of integrating computer-assisted language learning into his school?s curriculum to explore the process of introducing innovations in TEFL contexts. He claimed that change usually fails for three main reasons: 1) the goals are unclear or unrealistic, so the teachers do not have either the direction or the ability necessary to achieve what is expected of them; 2) the perpetrators have poor credibility (a poor record of introducing change, or suspect reasons); and 3) the changes are too complex and overwhelming, with the result that teachers are working on too many fronts at once.
Metin referred to four consequences of change which the literature states staff need help in negotiating; they comprise shifts from 1) a sense of loss to one of commitment, 2) old to new competences, 3) confusion to coherence, and 4) conflict to consensus. Strategies to achieve this would be, respectively, 1) making the change meaningful: challenging staff to accept the reality of the need for the innovation, thereby engendering unease at not changing, but all the while preserving an atmosphere of psychological safety by allowing time for it to be implemented, plus some kind of continuity, and opportunities for personal contact with the change instigators; 2) making training continuous, coherent and personal: help often comes only at the beginning of when a novel procedure or programme is implemented, but as change devalues old skills, teachers need to be engaged by having what they value recognised and valued in an ongoing process of development and dialogue; 3) providing everyone with the clarity regarding authority, responsibilities, and decision-making that they need, because change always causes chaos through realigning structures, functions and roles; and 4) generating a critical mass of support (which is hard to quantify, and depends too on who it includes) as well as using power in positive ways, since winners and losers are usually created by shifting power relationships, and so not everyone will immediately ? or perhaps ever ? support every change.
Characteristics of Academic Grammar
The session which proved to relate most to my own interests was the day?s final plenary, by Rod Webb, who confessed to vested interests through his affilation with Garnet Education (which produces mainly EAP coursebooks) but nonetheless insisted upon profound differences between general English and (even general) academic English. He mentioned the detriment to motivation that is generated by irrelevant and/or repetitive teaching – or, as he put it, ENOP: ?English for No Obvious Purpose?. This often includes too much focus on tenses and trivial topics and/or content, which university students later report bear little relation to the knowledge of (and in) English they need the following year. Rod perceptively suggested that most people are naturally goal-oriented, but aren?t sure what their goals should be; students want something purposeful and different (from typical ?General English?): even though they may not often know what they need, they do usually know what they don?t need.
Rod stated that phrases and sentences in academic English were overall the longest of all genres, and the main part of his presentation focused on four features found in academic-sounding language: 1) complex noun phrases, 2) prepositional phrases, 3) clause joining and embedding, and 4) adverbials indicating stance. Common characteristics of noun phrases include quantifying phrases, adjectives, and post-modification of the head noun using prepositional phrases and relative clauses: students need to recognise these and later be led to expand the noun phrases they write. A statement is also often expanded on, qualified or justified by prepositional phrases, often plus a relative clause, e.g. ?according to +name? or ?contrary to +n phr, who states / believes (etc.) +clause?. Another aspect requiring focus is different methods of adding (often subtle) authorial stance to writing, starting with adverbs (?Controversially,??) and simple comment clauses: ?Kendall claims/forgets that??; ?It is easy / surprising to see that??. Finally, there are a number of commonly occurring grammatical structures for linking ideas, which include various forms of ?which +clause? (as just demonstrated), ellipsis (often used when listing, currently being demonstrated), simple conjunctions (as is about to be demonstrated), and employing V-ing to add new information to a clause, permitting the sentence to proceed (you get the idea). If, despite the proliferation of these, students are taught only conjunctions and transition adverbs, that is all they will use.
The talk ended with the following recommendations: expose students to authentic texts and focus on their (relevant and useful) language from an early stage; utilise expert informants (lecturers and graduating students); practise language analysis; encourage critical reading (focusing on texts which convey information); and promote reflection. The latter may have been an aim of both that session and the conference as a whole, and if so I claim it was certainly attained in this listener.