English Teachers Confront Neglect

Athens News

Language-teaching experts examine
oft-ignored and highly controversial
rofessional issues

By Kathryn Lukey-Coutsocostas

In Thessaloniki

Teaching a new language might seem an asy enough task: just pick up a couple of good textbooks and go to it. But it is never as easy as it looks.

The underappreciated difficulties of foreign-language pedagogy will be one of the main issues discussed at the November 4-6 convention organised by the TESOL (Teachers"of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Macedonia- Thrace, Northern Greece. The theme of this year's event focuses on the neglected areas of English-language teaching.

Should Anastasia Ekonomidou avoid traditional
methods when teaching colours to her pre-juniors?

Sara Hannam, the vice chair of TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece, says the choice of the theme is "in recognition of the fact that all teachers feel there is either a skill or language focus that they just don't have time to cover in the hustle bustle of the classroom".

The Athens News discussed the issues with four of plenary speakers ahead of the convention.

Pockets of neglect

Margit Szesztay, who has worked as an English-language teacher and teacher trainer in Hungary for over 20 years, says she is concerned that many educators consider traditional practices passe. "These include translation, repetition, the use of language drills and learning-by-heart activities in general," she says. "I know several teachers who use these 'old-fashioned' methods but are actually afraid to admit this."

According to Szesztay, promoting traditional teaching methods, like having students learn texts by heart, is controversial because in the past these approaches were used to the exclusion of anything innovative, and often garnered poor results.

Steve Taylor-Knowles who has over 11 years' experience as an ELT teacher, writer, examiner and trainer, is greatly concerned about "natural" English. "One thing that is often neglected under the intense pressure to get kids through exams is developing in them a sense of what is 'natural' in English," he says.

"This may mean that [native and non-native speaker] teachers have to work on their own English first," explains Taylor-Knowles. "Any suggestion that perhaps there are people teaching whose English is not as natural as it should be is bound to be controversial," he explains. He also warns of pressure exerted on teachers by superiors, school administrators and parents to stick to the narrower syllabus when teachers try to provide more exposure to natural sources.

As for Nicos Sifakis, who teaches at the School of Humanities of the Hellenic Open University, he feels that teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Greece need more support. "Buzzwords abound and scholars seem to find a way to communicate amongst themselves by publishing articles and exchanging viewpoints in conferences," he says. "But a quick look at teaching sites and teacher-friendly journals shows that the average EFL teacher is at a loss."

But focusing on teacher needs is bound to rock the boat. Outlining the conflicting agenda between publishers and teachers, Sifakis explains that ''textbooks are supposed to target as wide a population of learners at a particular level as possible - otherwise they would not sell - whereas the teacher should ideally aim at tailoring a course to the needs and progress of individual learners. "

Acconiing to Sifakis, an empowered teacher would concentrate on transmitting language skills first, and only then exam-taking skills. The empowered teacher would have a say.

A number of neglected areas draw Marina Mattheoudakis' attention. "Teaching and research on pronunciation, for example, have lagged behind almost all other," aspects of language learning and instruction," says the lecturer from the department of theoretical and applied linguistics in the School of English at Aristotle University. She says vocabulary and grammar need more integration in language teaching, as do cultural issues.

Practical solutions

"It is not enough to organise seminars and workshops for teachers; these provide teachers with information and updated knowledge, but not necessarily with the skills to transfer and apply this knowledge in their classroom," says Mattheoudakis. "What is necessary is continuous support by their advisors, access to libraries and to resources in general, as well as opportunities for cooperation with other colleagues."

According to Sifakis, teachers must have full control to the curriculum. They must also be able to pinpoint their learners' needs so as to tailor their teaching style as required. He also says current trends in English must also be followed. "The English used for global communication is not necessarily the sarne as the English that is tested by the well-known proficiency tests or as the English taught in 'terminology' classes," says Sifakis. Taylore-Knowles advises teachers to supply plenty of natural (not schoolbook)English."We consrnntly~neeFto be -providing students with topical articles and debates from the Internet, with age-appropriate contemporary fiction..with native§peakers to interview in class, with living language, both written and spoken," he says.

Szesztay calls for an integrated classroom approach. "More 'traditional' methods can coexist peacefully and effectively with group discussions, role plays, project work and other more communicative forms of language practice."

TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece .conference on November 4-6 at the Capsis Hotel, 18 Moni1Stiriou Street, Thessalonikj, Registration is November 4 at tpm afidNovember 5-6 at 9am. A year's membership.includes the conference fee: 45 euros (individuals), 40 euros (state school teachers} and 38 euros (group membership). For information contact 6945591152

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