The L in ELT

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The L in ELT

A report from the International ETAI Conference "Engage Enhance Energize" which took place in Ashkelon, Israel, between 4 and 6 July 2016

When Naomi Epstein asked everyone who was planning to attend and present at ETAI 2014 Summer conference to sum up their teaching career and life in seven words, I wrote “Let’s put the L back in ELT” as my 7-word bio. Nobody seemed to mind or make a big deal. This is unlike LexicalLab's similar-sounding strap-line "Putting the Language back into Language Teaching" which has drawn criticism from some who found it arrogant and insulting.
This year’s International ETAI conference really put Language back into ELT. It was truly one of the best ELT conferences I’ve ever been to (but then I’m biased because I was one of the conveners). With a wide variety of talks, workshops, forums and symposia, the topics ranged from energizing Business English students with exciting activities to promoting learner engagement through literature, and tied in nicely with the three keywords in the conference title "Engage Enhance Energize". I was really pleased, however, that "Enhance" also emerged strongly as a theme throughout the conference with various presentations pulling in the same direction: our main goal as language teachers is to develop student's language skills.
Photo by Adele Raemer

Penny Ur’s morning plenary on Day 2 hit the nail on the head. Entitled “Enhancing language learning: the primary goal” Penny Ur urged teachers to get their priorities right and not to confuse means with ends. She cast doubt on the assumption that students should always be activated during lessons and reminded the audience that encouraging the use of digital tools does not guarantee better language learning. Her comment about Kahoot, a popular tool among many teachers, sent waves through Twitter and ripples of murmurs through the audience in the packed hall. She sparked further discussion on Twitter with her remark that rubrics do not necessarily enhance learning.

As a follow up to her clear and well structured plenary, Penny Ur reiterated her key messages in a Pecha Kucha 20x20 presentation, as part of the evening programme that day. To the surprise of some participants, she gave credibility to such time-tested instructional practices as oral correction and learning by heart, which have been getting a bit of a hard time lately.

Photo by Jane Cohen
Some of the points Penny Ur raised in the morning plenary were echoed in Hugh Dellar’s afternoon plenary, which was generously interspersed with personal anecdotes that helped drive the message home. It was quite surprising to see that these two authors who come from completely different backgrounds and approaches have so much in common. The main thrust of Hugh's talk was that that language is learned from language, therefore teachers should help learners engage with language by giving better examples and asking them questions about language, for example, eliciting collocates of a word that came up in a homework exercise. Interestingly, this ran somewhat counter to Penny Ur's claim that teachers shouldn't spend valuable lesson time on going through homework answers with the whole class (she did suggest some effective alternatives though). However, a common thread underlying both presentations was the need to (re)evaluate how much real (language) learning takes place in class.
Photo by Marjorie Rosenberg

Finally, Dorothy Zemach expressed similar concerns from the perspective of teaching materials in her keynote talk on Day 1 entitled The Chocolate Museum. Dorothy argued that the desire to make sure students have fun in class can often be detrimental to our main goal: language learning. The Chocolate Museum (and not The Chocolate Factory, as some thought) was a reference to a text in Dorothy's coursebook, which, as some teachers had confessed to her, teen learners couldn't relate to. Dorothy explained that a coursebook author often spends a lot of time grading the text and the questions that follow, and making sure it is rich in lexis and grammar that we want students to be exposed to. The bottom line of her session was that not every activity is supposed to be fun and that student satisfaction should derive from their achievement, sense of progress and mastery of language rather than enjoyment of classroom activities.

Overall, although the ideas expressed in the three talks I have highlighted here were not eye-opening revelations for me personally, it was refreshing to see similar ideas expressed by such a wide range of presenters. They confirmed many of my personal beliefs about language learning and teaching and concerns about the state of ELT today, in which technology takes precedence over pedagogy (see my rant HERE); skinning and scamming over vocabulary knowledge; and, generally, teaching of skills is erroneously valued above knowledge.

If you were at ETAI2016, what were your main takeaway points from the conference? I would like to hear your thoughts in the comment below.

  • You can see tweets from the conference HERE
  • See my other summaries and reports from conferences HERE
  • You can read the article Hugh Dellar's talk was based on in the special Lexical Approach issue of Humanising Language Teaching which I co-edited three years ago - click HERE

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