Adrian Tennant’s Six Acts of Sheep in ELT


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This week I got the following interesting list in my inbox, from Adrian Tennant. Adrian is a prolific materials writer and occasional provocateur. He is the author of a column in the IATEFL Voices journal in which he challenges assumptions about language teaching, and is known in some circles as Doctor Evil. No surprise then that he wanted to do a list like this. Here are “six acts of sheep” in ELT, according to Adrian!

As with many other professions, teachers tend to follow the latest trends and particularly if it’s associated with a famous name in the field. Now, in many cases there is nothing wrong with this, but occasionally a little more thinking would enable people to realise that the idea is not quite as good as it first appears. Here are 6 that I’d highlight.

1. Universal Grammar (and Chomsky)

Yes, I’m going to attack Chomsky. My ‘bone’ with his idea of Universal Grammar is that it simply doesn’t hold water when put to the test. There are languages, such as Piraha (an indigenous language from the Amazon) which simply don’t fit the theory. And, of course, it’s a theory rather than reality. Can language really be innate? I haven’t got a lot of space here so to keep it simple I’d say that we use language through necessity – a need to communicate. Our environment & culture dictate what we can talk about and, if anything is innate, it’s our cognitive ability and not an underlying grammar that enables us to use language.

2. The Four skills.

 I’m not sure who the genius was that came up with the idea of having discrete skills. I’m hard pressed to think of any other than reading that don’t entail at least one of the other skills at some point. And, unfortunately, it’s got to the absurdity where people teach ‘Speaking lessons’! Does nobody listen during these lessons?

The sooner we think of what people actually do and stop dividing things into false ‘blocks’ the better for everyone – both teacher and learner.

3. TTT / STT

This is one of the silliest of ideas that abounds. Simply put the less the teacher speaks the more the students will! It appears to be based on statistics or percentages rather than the reality of the classroom or possibly on the fear of silence. In fact, if the teacher doesn’t say anything the likelihood is that neither will the students. Surely the key should be the quality, not the quantity?

4. Testing

Of course we have to test students, but the question is what are we testing them for? Do we want to find out what they know, or are we more interested in finding out what they don’t know?! Unfortunately, the majority of tests are designed for the latter – if you don’t know the answer …. Of course, open tests, which are the ultimate way of finding out what students actually know are extremely hard to mark both in terms of the breadth of information they may contain and also in the subjectiveness inherent in their design.

5. Preteaching

 A personal bug bear if ever there was one. It’s not that I don’t like preteaching vocabulary – I quite enjoy it. Ten minutes focussing on 8 words that might cause my students some problems when they read a text or listen to the CD. My issue is that it just isn’t natural or authentic. I mean, when was the last time you were walking down the street and somebody came up to you and said, “We’re going to have a conversation, but before we start here are 6 words you might not know.”? Absurd! Much better to help our students work out vocabulary from context than give it to them on a plate.

6. Authentic materials

There is certainly nothing wrong with authentic materials, but why is it that we use them with inauthentic tasks? To be honest, I think we’d be better off using inauthentic materials with authentic tasks. What do I mean? Well. you have a nice meaty newspaper article full of ‘rich’ language and then a set of multiple choice (True / False) questions. Now, honestly, when was the last time you read something in the newspaper and then answered ten multiple choice questions? If we are going to go after ‘authentic’, I think we need to think of hat we really do in life and not pay lip service which is what we seem to be doing much of the time.

Nottingham, May 2009

Published in: on June 5, 2009 at 4:43 pm  Comments (27)  
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