I came across this article recently, about artificially intelligent marking machines. Whilst not as terrifying as the corpse-eating battlebots which have also been in the news, my initial reaction was still one of distaste. But the more I thought about it, the more ambivalent I became.

People like tests. Students like to have a piece of paper which shows how good they are. Employers and schools like to see pieces of paper which demonstrate clearly that the candidate is up to the linguistic reigours demanded of them. But the whole system is an illusion. We have the hugely popular Test of English for International Communication which requires not a peep from the examinee – a multiple choice listening, vocab and grammar test using only native speaker varieties of English. Where is the “international” or the “communication” in that?

 You might favour something from the Cambridge suite then? At least the candidate has to demonstrate a degree of oral proficiency. But if you’ve ever been through the examiners standardisation process, you’ll realise how deadly difficult it is to pick a 3.5 from a 4 in the PET Oral Exam. Those tests are rubric-ed to within an inch of their lives, effectively making the examiners robots.

As assessors of language, we are torn between two urges. We might start marking our stack of writing papers with absolute adherence to our carefully composed marking scheme, but two-thirds of the way down the pile it has all become much more impressionistic. Should we be unfailingly consistant by sucking the life out of our assessment, or mark holistically and let a few students get better or worse grades than they perhaps deserve.

Let’s face it, testing is a bit of a crapshoot. Are the placement tests we have now always accurate? I would doubt that anyone has had a class in which every student had been appropriately placed. So why not let the robots have a crack so we can get on with the teaching?

ibuki, reading for pleasure

Extensive reading –  reading for pleasure, reading widely, reading what one wants to read, reading at one’s current level of attainment. Does it actually work? You’ll be waiting a long time if you want conclusive proof of anything to do with learning languages, but the general consensus seems to be that it is a pretty good thing (another good article here).

The publishers are certainly getting behind it. If I were wearing my cynical hat I would suggest that they might make more money shifting millions of little books that take less effort to develop. But I don’t really have a head that suits hats, and a lot of the graded readers being produced these days are, in fairness, very nice indeed and thoughtfully put together.

The trouble is how to use them. True extensive reading is autonomous; the very second a teacher puts a hand to it it loses that quality. However, some choices are better than others when choosing how to proceed.

  • Keeping track of student reading.

Some would question whether this is necessary at all. Realistically, for most of us it is a requirement in an academic programme. A paper reading record (pdf here) can be sufficient, but this semester I am using librarything.com (a very handy guide to which can be found here). On balance, it is probably better not to give a reading requirement. If you do, although some students might choose to exercise their right to read nothing, even the most keen will probably just stop at the minimum asked of them. With no clear guidance, though, I find that most students tend to read as much as they can to be safe.

  • Choosing what the students read.

Basically, you shouldn’t, although this may depend on what is available. I am currently fortunate enough to work in a school with an extensive library, so the only limit I put on students is that they try and read at their level. I’m not especially dogmatic about this, either – I also ask the learners to find news articles of interest to them to bring in for discussion. Strictly speaking, news articles (being short and complex) constitute intensive reading, but the freedom to choose from the entire internet is very “extensive”.

Some teachers like to use class sets, and have everyone read together. Although this removes freedom of choice, it can be less intimidating in the early stages of a project as students can discuss shared readings from a position of mutual understanding.

  • Reacting to reading.

Almost all graded readers have comprehension questions at the back, and (as is the trend these days), a raft of supporting test books, activity worksheets and teachers guides. I understand that the market probably demands it, that it is a great selling point for the busy / lazy teacher, but it is somewhat contrary to what extensive reading ought to be.  A graded reader can very easily become a very long intensive reading. One notable exception is the Oxford Bookworms Club, which introduces learners to reading circles for discussion. Largely, though, most published materials appear to place greater emphasis on checking comprehension than interperating or responding to reading in a personal way.

I ask students to summarise what they are reading for one another, and to create their own discussion questions based on the themes or ideas in their books. Plundered partly from Maley and Duff’s “Literature”, partly from Bamford and Day’s “Extensive Reading Activities for Language Teaching” , I’ve set my students a choice of two assignments from a possible eleven (pdf here) this semester. It’s not huge, but it does give them a variety of ways to respond to what they have read.

There is a great deal of joy in finishing a whole book in a foreign language, more so if it’s one you chose yourself, and you understood it. If you are lucky enough to have access to graded readers, make the most of them. ( All books mentioned available in the bookstore, folks!)

Are all the debates about the best way to teach driven by the needs of individual teachers? For example, if a particular teacher can’t get out of bed in the morning, thinks youtube is an emergency plumbing service, and is fluent in the learners’ L1, what are the odds that the class instructions will be given in Spanish and taught with pencil, paper and whatever the teacher can find in his pockets? For the sake of balance, I should point out that his colleague down the hall can’t speak a word of the local lingo and stayed up till three last night playing “Xylagore IIX – Revenge of the Gigamarths” online, and that’s what his students will be focusing on today (and woe betide anyone who utters a word in “the foreign”).

Both teachers can find research by the bucket load which shows they are pedagogically sound. But perhaps they (and I mean we) ought to admit that they are working backwards. That is, they teach how they LIKE to teach and then select the information that supports them.

But here is the big question*. So what? Doesn’t a happy and enthusiastic teacher beat one who is fighting to teach against type, against her inner beliefs? Is it more important to be comfortable, than “sound”? Do the debates over the use or non-use of certain techniques, methods or tools actually matter?

*I know, there are four questions. But basically it is one question written four times for dramatic effect.

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It seems somewhat solipsistic to write my first post about other blogs I’ve kept, but I suppose to some extent all blogs are exercises in solopsism, so here goes nothing….

My first blog was an attempt to set up an online teacher development group. I tried far too hard with all the wrong things (using particular applications, stipulating rules for participation) and not hard enough with the really important things (writing quality content, and often). I’m probably a little hard on myself there, it was a noble endeavour… and anyone interested can read more about it here. We did gather a truly diverse group of people, from all over the world, who then proceeded not to talk to each other.

What I did learn from that experience is that there are existing networks for that kind of thing. That groups form organically out of the discussion, rather than discussion forming out of artificially created groups.

My second blog is ongoing, and has been much more successful. At least, I judge it to be more successful by rather arbitrary means. This one is the blog I manage for my students, and through this blog I have learnt to relinquish control. The blog was set up originally to deliver media and content to university students, English majors, and to give them a collaboration space. Of course, it evolved pretty quickly once it became apparent that the students weren’t watching the videos, reading all the articles or listening to all the music I’d tracked down for them (at least, not as much or as many as I’d hoped). Although I’d never seen myself as a controlling teacher, I realised that it wouldn’t work unless it was the students’ own space. The long summer vacation was the ideal opportunity to test this out, and I set them the task of posting one item a week and commenting on two others over the break. The links flooded in, and the interaction in the comments was great to see.

There are a couple of niggling doubts, though.

Firstly, if the students are required to do something, how autonomous is it? I allowed total freedom of posting (which meant a lot of cute cat videos, cute boy band videos, and people falling over). But I still asked them to do it. I suppose we can differentiate between the autonomy of philosophy, and the autonomy of educational institutions. Theoretically, the learner can make an autonomous decision to refuse the teacher’s ideas or methods, but this may mean failure (to pass the course and/or to improve their English). For this reason, I didn’t make the blog a requirement, but if one doesn’t require students to attend self access centres or use VLE’s, how do you justify the expense and effort of creating and maintaining them? How to balance the the dream of autonomy with the reality of institutional education?

The other problem I don’t actually see as a problem, but some people might. That is, how much language do they learn? Probably very little, but I’d argue that not everything has to directly input, practice or test new language.

Again, you can read more of my thoughts on the student blogging here.

First post, I hope future posts will be a bit more focused!