Article Discussion Group Summary

Article Discussion Group, October 2014

Article Discussion Group, October 2014

October 13 saw the kick off of AusELT’s Article Discussion Group (ADG) which was conducted primarily via the Facebook community and focused on a contribution to the latest EAJ –  Teaching Pragmatics: An action research journeyin which the authors describe a 3-year project investigating the teaching of pragmatic norms in students ranging from A1 up to refugee learners and tertiary level learners.

The following is a summary of the ADG which occurred over the period of about 1 week with the addition of a parallel discussion group at The British Council Hong Kong (BCHK).

Question 1: How important is teaching pragmatics for your students?

Several people had interested anecdotes and reflections on the issue of importance of teaching pragmatics, ranging from Clare McGrath’s experience of a Japanese student’s confusion in response to the mention that jokes be told at wedding speeches, and Sophia Khan’s mention of Maria Doyle’s blog post on cultural miscommunication, to Mike Smith’s comments on the necessity of including such features on university pathway and preparation courses.  He commented that using anything but semi-authentic recordings would be a disservice to his students, but interestingly that much of the “small talk” of the classes centred around what he call day-to-day and orientation tasks such as getting a uni ID card, solving problems such as logons not working and other IT issues, familiarisation with campus surrounds and facilities and joining social and sporting clubs.

Several readers echoed their support of the authors’ use of semi-authentic texts in contexts of immediate importance to students. Languine Phil highlighted the importance of grading texts for lower levels but he also questioned the practicality of recording and videoing semi-authentic interactions on a regular basis. Some of the teachers present at the BCHK discussion group questioned the need and relevance of teaching pragmatics in a non-English speaking context, adding that much of the English encountered by their learners would be between non-native speakers of English, and also that there was very little if any teaching of pragmatics in the local curriculum or HKDSE (secondary leaving exam – an interesting reflection on its utility here).  They came to the conclusion that, unlike in the article being discussed, there was no immediate relevant context that their teachers could use for the basis of teaching pragmatics extensively.

Question 2: Do you use naturalistic texts in your classes? (fully authentic or semi authentic texts) and what benefits do you see to using recorded role plays using proficient speakers as materials to teach pragmatics? What drawbacks?

Languine Phil commented that he was a firm believer in teacher-written texts, until he, like Mike Smith, saw the benefit of using authentic texts, with the right support for lower level learners.  This might include adjusting features of the text to make important language more prominent.  Phil added that he saw the benefit of using native speakers (rather than actors) in unscripted role plays, but wondered how easy it would be to get authentic language out of these texts in practice and how feasible it would be for teachers to use some of their preparation time to start building/creating a public resource bank of semi-authentic recordings. For those teaching in monolingual contexts, you might find James Pengelley’s (*author of this summaryarticle on teaching sociolinguistic competence useful, which details how intermediate students reacted to comparing the same dialogue conducted by native Spanish speakers (in Spanish) and native English speakers.

Mike Smith added his concerns about time constraints that most teachers work under, especially those who are not on long-term full time contracts.  He also flagged the issue of needing access to proper video equipment which would require a significant investment to be used in class, although perhaps it might be a worthwhile experiment to pursue lower quality copies for professional development purposes.  Clare McGrath added that using online voice recording software (e.g. Vocaroo) would solve any issues of costume, set or lighting that you might find in videos, and wondered if teachers were to focus on a higher volume of shorter voice recordings, it might be possible to build an effective audiobank quickly.

Sophia Khan reiterated Mike’s concerns about having enough time (it’s easy enough when you’re on a low teaching load), but she (as did several others in the discussion) felt there was an interesting potential, proposed earlier by Phil, of sharing such resources publicly, say, within the AusELT community, possibly a section on the wiki with a selection of lesson plans and accompanying videos.  Sophia’s concerns about grading semi-authentic texts for lower learners was echoed by the Sue Valdeck and the BCHK group who also raised their concerns about the potential of quality control, if a group of teachers were to be allocated additional admin time to work on building a resource bank like this.

Agi Bodis wondered what, exactly, was being implied by “authentic” – whether is was native-like, or “not from a course book”, adding that the real issue is what level of pragmatic complexity would be beneficial for a particular learner group e.g. sarcastic language in a dialogue for beginners is too complex but it isn’t ‘inauthentic’.

Lesley Ciioccarelli referred to a highly recommended online resource developed by Lynda Yates, Terry Griffin and Jenny Guilfoyle, in conjunction with the AMEP on teaching employability communication skills to adult migrants.

Question 3: How useful do you see Simplified Discourse Tasks for your teaching?

Agi Bodis and Clare McGrath both added suggestions of adding paralinguistic and non-verbal elements to the DCT (DCT = Discourse Completion Task – for some examples of different kinds of DCTs, Clare recommended this article) used in the article, adding that using DCT’s might be more effective where students are asked to reflect on what was said, rather than what they might say in the same situation. Languine Phil rounded off this question with his belief that DCTs are more (maybe only) effective if they are used frequently in classes, rather than as a one-off.

The BCHK group queried the use of DCTs as a valid assessment of students’ ability to use the pragmatic features being tested. They acknowledged the assumption that knowledge of a linguistic feature is likely to precede (and potentially facilitate) an ability to produce it. They also expressed curiosity over the ways in which students in the study were assessed and to the lengths to which the authors went in order to best ensure independence of pre- and post-tests of pragmatic awareness.  The discussion then turned to the overarching purpose of action research and they concluded that they felt action research is best served when its intention is to improve understanding and relationships between those in the classroom – they felt that more precise disclosure of the means of assessment in the article would have been an useful addition to the article.

Clare McGrath (in an earlier thread) voiced her interest in developing tasks that might help to adapt their own texts – perhaps as a way of exploiting existing texts (and thus minimising word load?).  Sophia Khan added that Lynda Yates, a pragmatics specialist at Macquarie University, had recently published an article on this in which she uses the acronym PREFER as a way to guide teachers to use materials from a pragmatic perspective:

– Practice-relevant models

– Raising awareness of pragmatic and pronunciation issues and their interaction

– Experimentation with new pragmatic resources and pronunciation

– Feedback, Exploring the world outside

– Reflection on what to do and how to do it

Teachers looking for pragmatic lesson ‘frameworks’ in particular may benefit from this.

Question 4: It seems that a combination of being explicit by using such things as Discourse Completion Tasks and using authentic (or close to authentic) texts to focus on “formulaic sayings” can be useful for low level learners.  To what extent might this “liberate” teachers from dull coursebook content?

Sophia Khan commented here that she loved the idea of a coursebook based purely (or mainly?) on naturalistic texts – thought she remained skeptical of any thing like this being published in the near future, until at least publishers begin to move away from the grammar-driven course book syllabus that dominates mainstream materials. Agi Bodis cited the CSWE course book used in the Australia Migrant English Programme. Clare McGrath was able to give detailed insight into the CSWE course book and added that she felt the book was more tailored to giving students information about life and systems in Australia.

Clare also added to Agi’s point relating to the importance of the teaching culture at each particular school – where if pragmatics are included in teaching materials or assessment tasks, there would be very little consistency in the way pragmatics were covered, especially by early-career teachers, or those who were changing teaching contexts, especially between Migrant English and ELICOS programmes.

Languine Phil posted a link to a chapter from Listening to Australia (and supporting audio files) suggesting that it was a good example of a resource to inspire teachers to start incorporating their own activities to focus learners on features of pragmatics in audio scripts.

The BCHK group spent considerable time discussing the possibility and practicalities of adapting their current courses to accommodate a greater focus on pragmatics – with a staffroom of more than 100 teachers, they felt it would be an almost impossible task to meaningfully organise an audiobank in the way Clare had previously suggested. In addition, BCHK was the HQ for developing a “revolutionary”, customer-oriented course called MyClass in which students can choose the topic, time and teacher they wish to study from class to class.  It is a listening-speaking-lexis driven task-based course, with graded, scripted materials in every lesson, and attempts to cover some pragmatic features such as ‘sounding polite vs sounding sarcastic’. The question remains whether the distribution of pragmatic features MyClass courses are distributed in a way that is representative of native (or semi-authentic) contexts.

The group wondered if adapting the MyClass materials would be a valuable feature of future revisions of the course although it would require significant man hours to do so.  Given the unique characteristics of MyClass, and the relatively high need for training in each teaching centre where it has been rolled out within The BC network, the BCHK group also recognised that including a more explicit focus on pragmatic language in MyClass materials would also require further efforts in training teachers in the delivery of the course. Indeed, the group felt there were many examples of pragmatic features that couldn’t be easily taught in class without prepared materials – e.g. the use of silence and, given that each MyClass session runs for 90 minutes, and each group of students varies from session to session, there are limitations on the efficacy of the MyClass platform for covering pragmatics in great depth. This perhaps reiterates the point rased earlier, that pragmatics is most effectively dealt with when the learners have a homogenous target culture.

Thanks to all who participated in the discussion – online and face to face – we are all looking forward to the next one!

This post by @hairychef

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

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