ELT: In need of family therapy?

In my previous blogging incarnation on the CELT training site, I wrote about why lexical sets may be popular and about some of the downsides to them. That blog was closed when I left University of Westminster and I have since had a couple of requests to repost things. The first post – Why English Teachers shouldn’t prefer blonde – can be found here and the original follow-up is now available on they BELTA website here. As with nearly everything in ELT they are basically reinterpretations or repackaging of ideas that have come before. This article by Paul Nation covers similar ground (albeit with fewer practical examples) and is 15 years old and you’ll see some of the research he cites going back another 40! Why does such research not filter through to classrooms and materials more? Who’s to blame? Teacher? Trainer? Writer? Publisher? It seems to me we all have behaviours that impact on each other as in any family or group.

There’s no doubt that for a writer it’s easy to stick with a traditional lexical set. You think of some words and match them to a meaning or a picture or sort them in to other groups and hey presto! Job done! Our books – Outcomes and Innovations – are organised around topics and do often feature sets. We could be seen as being guilty of a certain kind of hypocrisy. Maybe we are, but then we’re also teachers and are products of our own learning and training experiences. I can’t entirely let go of my past. Part of me still likes a set and it’s not as though students learn nothing from studying them! As writers, we’ve tried to adapt ‘sets’ by generally showing usage and going beyond the single word. We also have lots of non-traditional sets in our books. However, this sometimes results in negative feedback from teachers or potential users. Some comments have been that the unit of vocabulary learning was “not really a set” or that the set was limited and had to be supplemented. (One imagines with more fruits or pieces of clothing, etc – though hopefully supplemented not to the extent that a class one of our trainees once took. He was studying Elementary Dutch and was given a supplementary list of 50 household objects, including items such as hostess trolley and banister!). Many teachers may also echo my friend Roy complaint that books generally have too much text on the page. Less words on the page works against exercises that are more text-based, which means more lists of single words.

Editors – who are also usually ex-teachers – pick up on this feedback and it naturally influences their comments. So, for example, they may question the selection of words and phrases from a text as not being ‘a coherent set’, even though by definition that language has cohered in the text students have just read or heard! Or they want more space for “design”. And yes, publishers are conservative and want to get as big a return on their investment as they can, so they will tend towards the centre ground. And writers want to be published and sell books. I can’t say how far this is true for other writers, but it’s our experience.

Then training courses such as CELTA also tend to present grammar plus (single) words approaches to language and may encourage teaching of sets as an aim for a particular class. This can happen even when trainers themselves have different views of language and teaching (whether task-based, lexical or whatever). Why don’t they change their courses? Is it a response to the coursebooks on offer? Is it because of the way that CELTAs tend to be inherited within institutions? Maybe it’s simply down to the pressures of time. Whatever. The result is that it reinforces expectations for new teachers, who may find other ways of structuring and presenting vocabulary difficult or ‘wrong’.

If we want change, where does that change begin and how can we make it more permanent? Or is it a case that ELT ain’t broke enough for us to want to fix it? Have we all just accepted our slightly dysfunctional family and decided to muddle through?

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