I don’t think this is any fault of ours, anyone who has done much reading regarding the theoretical underpinnings of the EFL/ESL industry will have been swamped by SLA theory, as if it is the answer to all our problems, most academic courses and journals seem to indicate that if we apply relevant chunks of SLA to our lesson planning and activities, our students are miraculously going to start acquiring the target language at a rate of knots (o.k. this may be a slight exaggeration on my part!).
My point isn’t that we should do away with the theoretical knowledge, that it isn’t relevant or that is shouldn’t enter our discussions and influence our planning, but I believe there are fundamental, day to day issues, that we need to admit to, discuss, share and deal with before we worry about how closely our activities intertie with SLA.
I’m going to provide an example here, I am only providing this example because it is fresh in my mind, I think the point I want to make can be applied to the majority of chats, journal articles, books and so on that we engage with in the pursuit of professional development; myself and some good friends (who I know won’t mind me using this example) were discussing how we can build our students fluency (yes I know, I must be a VERY exciting person to go to the pub with!), and the chat very quickly became a SLA enthusiast’s paradise, and in part rightly so, it’s important that as professional educators we are aware of how research and theory has shown our students develop fluency. But, when we had moved and gone home, I didn’t really feel we had gained anything that would, on Monday morning, really help me deal with the issues I face in improving my students’ fluency. You see, for me, the problem was that even with all the knowledge of SLA in the world, I knew a number of my students would come into class tired, not interested or engaged in developing their own fluency. SLA was not going to help me with this, and I really think this is the real situation most teachers are facing. Maybe we don’t want to admit it, maybe we feel that admitting our students aren’t engaged in what we are doing makes us look like a bad teacher, but it is the reality.
To provide another example, I was recently involved in a chat on how we can use students feedback in our classrooms, much of the chat focused on the theoretical side (and I, by the way, was moderating/hosting the chat) of when, where and why we should use student feedback and we shared the usual theoretical reasons as to why we may not have used certain forms of student feedback (or any at all), and then one teacher admitted to the group he simply hasn’t done it because he is worried about what the students might say. Now that is a real practical problem that I am sure he is not the only teacher facing, these are problems that if we don’t admit to, share and help each other with, renders the rest of the theory useless. Thanks to that teacher’s honesty we were able to deal with this issue, offer practical advice from our experiences, and that teacher probably gained a lot more from the chat that any other. I really think discussing such practical problems needs significantly more focus, attention and respect for the teachers identifying them in their own classrooms.
Such situations, I believe, are the stark reality that most teachers face. We just don’t always have students that are going to sit and do every task we ask them exactly how we ask them to do, we all face different problems within our teaching contexts and I really think it’s time we weren’t afraid to admit that half our students come in and sleep, or they just want to play games, or they are used to different, often somewhat traditional teaching styles, or that they are just not getting it. Some of us teach public school kids that just want to get to the end of the lesson, or we teach in academies with kids whose parents are forcing them to attend, or we have business persons whose company is sending them to learn English, or we teach students from cultures that SLA just wasn’t developed on or for, and in all these situations, I’m sorry, but I just think being told the relevant part of SLA theory is often very much not what we are looking for or what we need.
A good friend suggested to me this is all well and good, but we can talk about motivation all day long, however I don’t think this is necessarily about motivation, I think every topic, every aspect of language teaching, carries with it inherent problems we face in the classroom. Motivation is just one type of problem we might face, teaching, just for example, an activity practicing listening for details, for one teacher, can carry all sorts of other practical problems besides motivation, just as developing fluency can.
I really feel it is time we started talking about what is really happening in our classrooms and institutions, the real problems we face, as it is through our shared experiences that we can really start to help each other.
SLA, textbooks, journals and research just don’t always provide the answers we need, but our shared experiences often do, so let’s not see experiences and real life problems as any less important than the theory that underpins our industry. It’s time we got real and encouraged the admission of the day to day problems ourselves and our students face, and not always respond to it with a barrage of theory that, quite honestly, is often not what we are looking for.
First of all thanks for your awesome comment mate!
I think you are absolutely right to draw a distinction between ELT theory and SLA theory, however I think both are often used, discussed and seen as solutions in ways they perhaps shouldn’t be.
Your point regarding the discouragement of sharing what is happening in our classroom is extremely valid, I wonder if this pressure actually increases with the more experienced we get, as if by getting more experienced our students are magically going to turn into English language angels?!
I also don’t think you’re being overly negative, NETs in the public education system are overwhelmingly set up to ‘fail’. Often they are then blamed when they do fail.
Although experiences are personal and varied I think that if we spent more time sharing our experiences we would often find common ground, that often contexts worlds apart might overlap in ways we never knew or expected, but unless we start analysing what is really happening and seeing theory as a ‘get out clause’ this will never happen.
Thanks so much for your awesome comment mate,