The vital books are the shared ones

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat May 20 16:30:58 UTC 2006

The vital books are the shared ones
By Guardian Unlimited / T-Ching 10:43am

There was an interesting moment a few weeks ago where top-down and
bottom-up language activism almost met at the barricades, writes Luke
Meddings. No sooner had President Chirac made his very top-down protest,
by walking out of an EU summit meeting when a fellow Frenchman insisted on
speaking in English, than an English language blog sprang up to cover the
protests against his own government's proposed liberalisation of the
labour laws.

While these labour laws are not quite as liberal as those traditionally
practised in ELT, it is hard to imagine a worse-case scenario for M.Chirac
than protest in his own streets being conducted (or at least reported) in
English. The French head of state is however no stranger to language
dissent. He elected to speak French throughout a tete-a-tete dinner with
President Bush last year, despite being - in contrast to his host - fluent
in English. I ended the previous entry on the blog by suggesting that this
is an age not of revolution, at least in classroom terms, but of
devolution; an age in which knowledge is devolved to its users to be
applied as best fits a given context.

The availability online of word frequency lists is just one example; it is
increasingly possible to track down the sort of resources which lie behind
coursebook and exam syllabus design in the public domain. The Common
European Framework for Languages is one such resource, and while it can
hardly be characterised as a lively read it offers valuable insights into
the sort of thinking that shapes coursebooks, syllabus and language
policy. The external context of use (Table 5 - it's that kind of document)
is one potentially rich way of linking what is learned into the classroom
to the environments in which the people in the room are most likely to and
interested in using English. Share it with your students and build a
lesson from there. Build a series of lessons from there.

That's what a coursebook does.

Is this, as has been suggested on this site, dangerous talk? Well, many
teachers will always be quite happy with a coursebook that they feel
works; they will add to it their own commitment and personality. Perhaps
T-ching isn't for everyone. And an inexperienced teacher is unlikely to
want to strike out at once into wholly uncharted water; it would be the
responsibility of a Director of Studies to temper unrealistic ambition
while encouraging any initiatives towards a more self-sufficient way of

Teacher trainers strike a cautionary note when it comes to delivery
teaching: we learn that sticking too rigidly to the textbook can damaging.
Why should we not also learn that setting ones own objectives, and sharing
this process with the learners, demands caution? It needs to be learned
and facilitated by institutions as well as individuals. We seem to be
doing alright with a more bottom-up approach to information elsewhere in
life. Of course the internet is rife with what the Subway Sect called vile
evils (now that is an obscure reference, but how else are we to sustain
the things we love if not through their rehearsal), but it has transformed
not just the amount of information that is freely available, but the way
we relate to information. It's ours to share. The monks have lost.

This debate isn't about the presence or absence of grammar, or of
knowledge about language in all its forms, but about how this information
is used. The key, I believe, is to see the vital books in the room not as
the ones with lessons and activities in, but as the shared resources - a
learner dictionary, for starters - which can be referenced by teacher and
learners as required. And this (yes!) is the sixth step of T-ching. To be
prepared not just with an open mind, but with a couple of good reference
books. Whoever said devolution was sexy?

Meanwhile, one or two posters have asked what on earth (or words to that
effect) the link between T-ching and advancing the profession might be.
Well, I reckon one reason that much private sector ELT is stalled in a
vicious circle of low-rent courses and low-paid teachers is that it offers
such an unaltered and unaltering diet of course delivery. If there were
schools offering a different kind of learning experience, it might enable
them to charge a premium for it. And the unambitious ELT economy might get
a much-needed kick up the arse.

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