ELT From the Experts’ Perspective

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by ELT Trainers

Learners should take advantage of every single learning opportunity to improve and learn from the experienced ones.  That is exactly what happened on Friday, September 11th, when ELT Trainers, ELT participants, and some AEP instructors received Bernadette Musetti, Allen Ascher, and Alfieri Avilan at Keiser University International Language Institute in San Marcos. The gathering aimed at providing an opportunity to have an academic exchange of thoughts and learning between the visitors and the participants who have been studying and discovering Pearson’s online TDI content over the last six months.

Dr. Musetti, a book writer and an expert in Standard-Based assessment and ESOL, shared her advice and experience while working with ESOL learners as well as her expertise on setting standards for language programs.   Furthermore, the participants had an open forum with Mr. Ascher, one of the writers of the distinguished and awarded Top Notch and Submit book series. Ascher also participated in Pearson’s Teacher Development Interactive modules as the principal developer of the Teaching Speaking module.  The attendees learned about the series philosophy and module’s academic foundation. Last but not least, Mr. Alfieri Avilan, Pearson’s Academic Consultant and Keiser’s International Language Institute Academic Advisor for the development of the English Language Teacher Certificate, shared his knowledge in the use of technology in the classroom.

Here is a summary of the experts’ advice.

1. Teaching

Being the Language Institute courses mostly developed at the EFL and ESP levels, teachers asked the experts’ advice about teaching strategies that satisfactorily suit ESL learners and are paramount when teaching a foreign language. One essential piece of advice to consider is that teachers cannot continue embracing both traditional teaching and styles of learning.  Secondly, teachers and students have to rely on interaction at all learning levels and stages so as to develop in the learner confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Though games are simple and very basic, Dr. Musetti suggests using them to develop learners’ language skills and interpersonal communication. When students describe each other, post their descriptions, or find differences in pictures, they also develop vocabulary and speaking skills in general. These activities  do not only entertain students but also give  them chances to produce language in context and enable learners to engage in meaningful language interaction, explained Dr. Musetti.

Similarly, Allen Ascher complemented that traditional practices such as asking True and False statements and Yes/No questions after a listening, grammar, reading, or vocabulary exercise do not contribute to  learners’ language development, much less their critical thinking. For example, during True or False drilling, “the students have a 50-percent chance to give the right answers and …that’s not good”, said Ascher. “I want my students to be able to show me how they get to that answer. Or explain how they get to that answer and when I don’t have that happen I can’t see my students have learned. I cannot see if they know it unless they show me they can,” he added.

When the role of technology as a key leading factor to language exposure and learning was raised, Alfieri Avilan advised teachers not to become blind adepts of technology and to demystify the belief that links effective teaching to the use of technology and its resources. Avilan explained that “technology is part of (the process).  What we need to understand is …how we can combine these tools so the students can actually go beyond the fact of the use of these elements and create language moments.” Nowadays, many teachers are more concerned about what they miss and lack (better connectivity, State-of-the-art technology, and more gadgets); however, they tend to forget that these elements will not replace the role and the job of a teacher. Indeed, he added that “technology is not in the center; what is the center is the learners.” Therefore, teachers have to plan, so they can make adequate decisions about what and how to teach and with what resources.

  1. Learning

First of all, when helping young adults and adult learners learn, Dr. Musetti suggested using a more direct approach so as to obtain a more genuine integration in the learning process. “Be really explicit with your students and explain this is the approach I am thinking, and this is what I believe and why. And this is how you are going to benefit from it,” she explained. Why should teachers give explicit information? Because otherwise the students will be very confused, since what you are doing and trying to achieve in your classes does not match up with their course expectations and your teaching delivery.  Indeed, she added, “That’s the problem some teachers are having because their students are used to a certain way, a certain expectation, a certain approach to learning.”

Consequently, teachers need to be explicit about their teaching and learning goals and say what the goals require. “When teachers make their students part of this process, clarified the expert, “teaching time becomes easier, and the collaborative work improves. Being explicit is beneficial in terms of students learning.”

Second, a teacher’s work becomes more effective and rewarding when his or her students see learning as a process in which they create and build things.  As a result, if the conditions and environment induce to learning, the students’ affective learning filter reduces, concluded Alfieri Avilan.

Third, Ascher pointed out that “teachers play a crucial role in keeping students on their toes, keeping them thinking, and keeping them guessing.” If we were to transfer this thought to the classroom, then everything would come down to the kind of questions that teachers ask and to the students’ effort and success in providing satisfactory answers. Whenever a student provides an answer, ask him or her to explain the response.  When the students can explain their answers, teachers can see what students really and already know and whether they have actually learnt or not.

  1. Standards, Standardization, Assessment…

Dr. Musetti talked about the role of having standards and the importance of assessment in any teaching and language learning process. She advised teachers that before establishing any standard, they should do some research, look into it and assess the standard’s real value. “It is a critical thinking task…” because standards and assessment cannot be taken lightly.

In addition, “If any given institution feels ready to assume the process,” Dr. Musetti explained, “the institution should develop its own standards,  proficiency exams, assessment, and have  them on multiple and institutional levels.” “More importantly,” she emphasized, “the institution standards do not need to be exactly linked to the materials. The materials may become the learners’ exit criteria, however. This thought challenges the habit of developing programs and curriculum around well-known textbook series and publishers. Nevertheless, Dr. Musetti explicated that she is not against this practice since adopting standards is not harmful. In fact, an academic or national institution may adopt others’ standards and work with them as well, but these standards need to be adjusted to meet the institutions’ and learners’ specific needs and wants.

“What is the standard that Nicaragua needs? That you need?” She asked. There are different kinds of standards and purposes, and intentions. There are large scale standards for teacher preparation, for English language development, or there might be a national standard. Certainly, every institution may work toward a standard (even compete), but how they “are reaching the standard is up to them. However, having standards doesn’t have to mean standardization,” she explained.

Having standards is a path to follow and guide one’s work; however, there are other elements to consider. “The students are one essential element,” said Avilan.  How much they learn and how they get to that learning after a given learning experience is important. Another element to take into consideration is what skills they have developed and which strategies they were able to improve. Then it is not only understanding content but also understanding how the “puzzle integrates and what tools are required to carry out the assessment process.”

“Effective assessment,” Ascher added, “provides teachers with concrete evidence of the work done.  If your students are able to explain their learning, then your job is done. On the contrary, if they cannot explain their learning, you have the obligation to find out why they were not able to achieve the goal.”  Ascher went on to say that “this teacher’s reflection points out a teacher’s constant need to assess; whether to stop and review or to continue and move onto the next content.” He advises that get more at their students’ level to clearly understand what they need and lack, what they have achieved and what they have not. For instance, he illustrated, “if you teach vocabulary, ask questions that keep your students thinking even though the book gets out of questions, drive your students crazy with your questioning.” Then you can search for common grounds and standard processes.  All of it comes down to well-founded teaching practices.

To conclude, all panelists agreed that standards will not always work. Since standards are just words on a piece of paper, users have to be taught the standards, and then they have to assess them. The process of developing standards and standardization “takes a lot of fidelity on how you implement them and you assess them,” Dr. Musetti said. Last but not least, “if you find out the standards are or have been very useful… then and only then your institutions may be ready for standardization…”

  1. Food for Thought…

The following is  a list of the most critical thoughts brought up by the panelists.

Allan Ascher

  1. I cannot consider my students have learned unless they show me how they get to that answer or explain how they get to that answer.
  1. One of the most important questions to me in the classroom is Why? If the student gives an answer, ask Why? And I drive my students crazy with that why…
  1. Teachers play the role of keeping students on their toes, keeping them thinking, keeping them guessing, keeping them…

Bernadette Mussetti

  1. Be really explicit with your students and explain this is the approach I am thinking and this is what I believe and why, and this is how you are going to benefit from it.
  1. Developing standards; it is worth investigating. It is worth looking into it and seeing if this works for us…It is a critical thinking task.
  1. Having standards doesn’t have to mean standardization.

Alfieri Avilan

  1. Technology is not in the center; what is the center is the learners.
  1. Learning is a process of creating things and building things up so that is what the main use of technology should be about.