News from English UK Teachers’ Conference 2011 – a Fractal Approach

This year’s teachers’ conference was held at Prospero House, close to the South Bank in London. The opening plenary was given by Maurice Claypole. He looked at the chaotic nature of language and the implications for teaching.

One of the things he stressed is that meanings are not fixed and that if we teach as if they are then learners will not be properly prepared for what they hear.

A few examples that come to mind are:

  • the choice of tenses that we have to express the same meaning
  • variations in how people in a particular community use the same vocabulary
  • international and regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar
  • the large number of ‘correct responses’ that can be made to an utterance

He said that what we see when we look at language are ‘self-similar patterns’, which are rarely the same. For example a functional situation such as ordering in a restaurant will seldom involve exactly the same verbal exchanges, which means that role plays and dialogues need to be taught very flexibly rather than as fixed formulae.

Related to this Maurice claimed that context is the main determiner of meaning. He gave the example of saying ‘I’ll have a ….. of red wine please’. Even if one did not say the word ‘glass’ or mumbled it so that it couldn’t be heard properly, the context would probably result in the waiter getting you a glass of wine.

Referring to multiple choice exercises, he said that it would be much more useful if most of the options were possible correct answers and that learners had to choose which were possible rather than the one which was right. Presumably one could then discuss some of the differences between the possible answers and by doing so enlarge the learner’s knowledge.

He also argued that the ‘communicative approach’ to language learning, where the emphasis is on spoken skills, leaves learners lacking sufficient passive skills. The example he gave was where an English language learner gives a business presentation in English and all goes well but when the presentation is over and the topic of conversation amongst the participants changes to what to do in the evening, the non-native speaker is completely lost as they can’t follow the less regulated, more informal and less predictable exchanges.

In the home tuition context this shows how important the learning is outside of ‘formal lesson time’: what the learner picks up from snippets of conversation, overheard remarks, unfinished sentences of family members etc.

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