Hello dear reader. Welcome. Imagine you are asked to answer the following questions:
- In your experience, as either a student or a teacher, reflect on a time when you witnessed how culture impacted language learning. Describe the incident briefly.
- How did you or your teacher deal with the situation?
- What do you think about it now? What changes or modifications would you like to make to the approach that you or your teacher used?
Do any examples come to mind? If so I would truly appreciate it if you could share your response in the comments of this post. I would likely share it with future training course participants (unless you tell me you’d prefer me not to).
If you have a few minutes and are interested please do share your response. You might even choose to type it up before you read on. Please do give the questions some thought.
Don’t just skip to the next section. Yeah, you.
I doesn’t seem fair to just ask for replies without offering anything in return. I’d like to share the background for this and some of the responses I’ve seen and perhaps some food for thought. This task is from an online course on CBI I’ve been teaching on for a while.
Quite often participants (EFL teachers from around the world) respond with things like the following partially fictionalized responses.
- In my L1 bread is countable but in English it’s not so I need to teach students more about this and sometimes I bring bread as an example.
- In my L1 (Spanish) embarazada (pregnant) is not the same thing as embarrassed in English. Students get confused and maybe sometimes, ahem embarrassed, by this false friend and I need to teach them about the crucial difference. False cognates are tough.
- In Korea and Korean we count by ten thousands and in English they count by hundreds and thousands and millions and so on. It’s really hard for students to think differently. I have no idea how to handle this except for more practice.
- In Chinese we actually have so many borrowed words from English and sometimes the meaning is different in Chinese or Chinese English than “real” English. It’s tough to keep up with. Toast is one such example. Students can’t seem to realize that, by definition, toast needs to have been placed in a toaster and otherwise it’s probably just bread.
- My students were amazed to see that a word from their L1 is actually used in English. They thought it was amazing that flamingo, the bird, would be known by most native speakers in North America.
Do these answers match what you thought about for the original questions? To me they are a bit off the mark as I think they are about language more than culture. I try not to get into a whole thing on Whorfianism but I try to nudge participants to think less about language and more about the culture of learning for this assignment. I get that language and culture are linked and intertwined. I get that students can get confused about such things.
I guess for me, the “X is different in English than my language” is important but not central to a conversation about culture in the classroom. I also think such posts don’t lend themselves to a deep discussion. The takeaway is often something like, “I will focus more on this in class and make sure students get it.” Also many of the above answers are not really describing an incident but rather a difference (or similarity ) between languages.
As you might imagine, I try to provide models of answers that I think work well (and yes my initial request above is related to that) and also try to nudge participants in what I think is a more productive direction. I am also thinking about ways to revise the instructions and text that precedes this discussion.
To be clear, I don’t think the responses above are particularly bad or wrong but rather just not the most productive track for a discussion on how culture can impact learning. What do you think?
It’s an honor to have Dr. David Shaffer, a legend of ELT in Korea, as an interviewee here on the blog. I think I first met Dr. Shaffer online back in 2009 and have enjoyed interacting with him online and seeing him at conferences in Korea and beyond since then. It’s always a pleasure to talk to him and this conversation was no exception. Please find our discussion below.
Hey Dave, thanks for stopping by! I know you are busy! I appreciate you taking the time.
Thank you for inviting me, Michael. It’s an honor to be invited to this blog interview.
Can you tell readers a bit about yourself?
Certainly, I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania (where your mom tells you to “redd up” your room, your dad tells you that the car “needs washed,” and your grandmother “left” you have the last piece of pie).
After studying education at the Pennsylvania State University, I volunteered for the U.S. Peace Corps and ended up in Korea in 1971, teaching vocational education at the government-run vocational training center in Gwangju. After leaving the Peace Corps four years later, I moved to Chosun University and spent the remainder of my teaching career there (40 years, actually), getting advanced degrees in linguistics and getting married and raising a family along the way. At the conclusion of my time at the university, I was awarded the ROK Order of Merit for Service, a much appreciated award from the President of Korea, as orders of merit are very rarely given to anyone who is not a Korean national.
Wow. That is quite an honor. I’d like to offer a belated congratulations. By the way, can I get you drink? What are you having?
No, thank you. I don’t need a drink. I’m pretty much intoxicated at the moment–intoxicated with what I’m doing.
So, what do you do?
As I said, I spent my career in teaching at Chosun University, teaching in its several English departments over the years. While I was the Foreign Language Programs director, I established a post-graduate TESOL certificate program for the university. I’ve taught linguistics, teaching methodology, and English skills courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Some of the courses I enjoyed the most were applied linguistics courses in the TESOL certificate programs–but also the teaching methodology courses in the Graduate School of Education. Outside of the university’s doors — and often inside them–I have devoted quite a bit of time to Korea TESOL and other ELT organizations.
What’s keeping you busy these days?
Two things, mainly: Korea TESOL, as I alluded to a moment ago, and the Gwangju International Center (the GIC). At the GIC, the director twisted my arm a bit to accept the position of editor-in-chief of the Gwangju News, a 60-page monthly magazine serving the Gwangju and Jeollanam-do expat community and local English-speaking Korean community. In addition to my editing duties on the magazine, I pen a column on English language teaching and learning and sometimes specifically on Korea TESOL.
The GIC noticed that I had a second arm and twisted it until I agreed to be the chairman of the board of the GIC. That has led to duties such as sitting on the promotion committee of the World Human Rights Cities Forum, an annual Gwangju event, headed by the mayor of Gwangju. Upcoming is planning for the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the GIC later this year.
That sounds interesting and exciting.
It is. The other major occupier of my time is Korea TESOL (KOTESOL). Though I have been considerably involved with KOTESOL over the past 20 or so years, for the past two years, I have added the position of KOTESOL president to the mix. While presidential matters take up a certain amount of time, I spend more of my time working on KOTESOL publications. I am an editor of one kind or another on the KOTESOL Proceedings, the Korea TESOL Journal, and our quarterly magazine The English Connection.
Ahh yes, TEC.
Yes, a publication that you have been known to contribute to.
And then there’s the KOTESOL International Conference Committee, which I have been a part of for the past 19 years.
It is a community in itself. Granted, conference planning is a lot of work — I’m both the invited speakers director and the financial affairs director again this year — but the interaction with the other members of the team makes one feel warm inside and puts a smile on the face.
I think we will have a pretty darn good show to offer again this year; invited speakers include Rod Ellis, Andrew D. Cohen, Boyoung Lee, and Thomas Farrell, to name a few. I am also excited about our two featured panel discussions: “Women in Leadership in Korea” and ”Women in Leadership in ELT.” We are scheduling over 200 presentations of various types on various topics. Two-thirds of the presenters are based in 20 countries outside of Korea, and one-third of the KOTESOL membership is involved in conference preparations in one way or another. I am excited!
Sounds like it will be another great conference. It also sounds like a lot of work! You mentioned your column in the Gwangju News above. I’ve enjoyed reading your articles there (they always pop up on Academia.Edu for me). You recently wrote about why folks should go to ELT conferences. What do you think is particularly attractive about KOTESOL conferences and this year in particular? I know you mentioned some aspects of this year’s conference already.
Ah, you saw that! I believe I focused on the “community,” the presentations, and the invited speakers. KOTESOL realizes that our conference attendees are teachers of all ages and proficiency levels as well as researchers and administrators. We try to provide sessions on a wide variety of topics so that there are sessions that are relevant and of interest to everyone throughout the two-day conference.
To illustrate “community,” I will recall the story of one Korean professor with a long history of attending ELT conferences. She was invited to our conference for the first time, she came, and she was thoroughly impressed. She said that the conference made her feel happy, that the attendees were so friendly. She was surprised at how easily complete strangers would strike up a conversation with her about the session they had just attended, about their teaching situation, or about research they may be working on. KOTESOL conference-goers often feel like they are part of a two-day community, with some of the connections made at the conference lasting much longer.
I also mentioned presentations. At KOTESOL conferences, we try to have a balance of different types of presentations. Korea has over a dozen ELT associations national in scope, and each of these has an annual conference. Their presentations are typically 20-25 minutes in length and are research reports. While KOTESOL conferences do have this type of session, such sessions do not occupy a majority of the conference schedule. We have a large assortment of 45-minute workshops and talks, and a fair number of poster sessions, panel discussions, and colloquia. Mike’s note: Here is a link to the full schedule
I may be biased, but I think KOTESOL conferences provide a fine line-up of invited speakers each year, between eight and twelve speakers based in different parts of the globe, specializing in different parts of the field. I was recently at a conference in Seoul and they did what is quite common in Korea: They scheduled all six of their featured speakers for the same time slot. So, even though I would have liked to go to at least three of them, I could only see one. What KOTESOL does is schedule a featured session for each session-hour of the day, so if one wanted to, they could attend each of our featured and plenary sessions over the duration of the conference. And our invited speakers do workshops, too. I mentioned Ellis, Cohen, and Farrell earlier; each of them is doing a workshop in addition to their talk. As I said, I am excited.
It is exciting. I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences at KOTESOL International Conferences. I wish you and KOTESOL the best of luck for this event. I’ve participated in many workshops with Farrell and they are always eye-opening. Please give him my regards.
What do you think are the main challenges that face KOTESOL at the moment and in the near future?
Oh, your questions are getting more difficult, I see. Well, let’s see. I would say staying relevant. With the internet as a major source of information and communication, the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate. KOTESOL can’t keep doing the same thing as they did the year before and expect to further the profession. KOTESOL must evolve as the field and the world evolves, and hopefully lead in some of these areas.
Thinking of conferences again, we regularly consider the pros and cons of in-person presentations as opposed to live streaming. On the one hand, live streaming would be less costly, but such presentations do not yet draw the interest that seeing and hearing an ELT authority in person does. We will change as our conference-goers change. At present, we offer a conference app that allows for more interaction between attendees and with speakers and presenters.
Membership is always a concern, but if the organization stays relevant and if Korea continues to put emphasis on English language teaching, this should not present a problem. However, an area of increasing concern for not just KOTESOL but ELT organizations worldwide is the decline of print publishing. Much of KOTESOL’s support for its conferences was once publishers of ELT textbooks and teachers’ handbooks, but this support is steadily decreasing because of the financial situations of these publishers. The challenge is to identify new sources of revenue to support our conferences and related events. It is a challenge, but not something that the ingenuity and creativity of KOTESOL cannot effectively deal with.
Thank you for the response on that. I think your point about publishing is a good and often overlooked one. Speaking of the future, what is coming for you?
Some more of the same, hopefully. Within KOTESOL, I will be moving to the immediate past president position on the KOTESOL Council and will be involved in projects and tasks as directed by the president. I plan to continue to be active in KOTESOL publications — editing, proofing, managing. And I plan to be active on the 2020 International Conference Committee. Oh, an exciting new project that KOTESOL and I are getting involved in is collaborating with AsiaTEFL on their annual international conference, which will be held in Goyang– just north of Seoul–next June. I think that this will be a great opportunity for our KOTESOL members to experience an international conference of about 500 presentations in which the great majority of presentations will be from presenters based in Asia outside of Korea.
Oh, that’s great. To be honest, I’d forgotten that AsiaTEFL will be in Korea next year. It should be a great experience. Don’t worry the questions will get lighter and shorter from now. We are entering the lightning and random questions round.
What aspect of Korea in 2019 do you think would be most surprising to the Dave Shaffer of 1971?
That Korea would come to be considered the most connected (internet-wise) nation in the world. The Korea of 1971 couldn’t even provide reliable electricity to the light bulb hanging from my 1971 ceiling.
Right! In 1971 I guess even the idea of the internet itself would be amazing. To flip that question around, what aspect of Korea in 1971 do you think would be surprising to a foreign teacher working in Korea in 2019?
I can’t decide on just one. I would say the contents of the textbooks, the lack of supplementary materials, large class sizes (over 70 students in a typical high school English class), how freezing cold the classrooms were in winter and how sweltering hot they got in summer.
What are your favorite Korean foods?
Toenjang-guk (퇸장국, bean-paste soup), beondegi (번데기, silkworm chrysales), and bindae-tteok (빈대떡, mung-bean pancakes).
Do you have any book recommendations outside of TESOL?
Fear, by Bob Woodward. Simon and Schuster, 2018.
Solid choice. I will not comment on the beondegi! I will just say thank you for stopping by and again wish you the best for the upcoming conference.
And I will just say thank you for inviting me to do this interview.
Back in 2014 my friend Malu Sciamarelli asked me if I’d consider writing a guest post on her (then) blog. She was looking for a post on a “moment of inspiration.” I am not sure if the post I wrote qualifies but I think about the story from time to time and take some inspiration from it. I am re-posting the story here with Malu’s kind permission. I hope you enjoy it. Instead of giving an introduction about what it’s about I will just let you dive right in.
He was a good player, the kind of player you could win a few games in a row with. He was a tenacious defender and he despised losing. He was aggressive in that kind of gentlemanly and grown-up and not annoying way. He was an extremely capable shooter, especially with a deadly baseline jumper, and knocked down shots as they came to him within the flow of the game. He was also unselfish and was happy to pass for a better shot.
I remember the first time I met him. We were on the same team at the weekly “Men’s League” pick-up game in the small town I grew up in. He got me the ball where I wanted it and encouraged me. He even called me “Griff,” which I thought was pretty cool because to my knowledge we hadn’t even met yet. Other memorable things from that night were his fitness level, socks pulled up to his knees, and super nerdy goggles. This guy in his mid thirties was running with the high school kids and winning and rocking the Rec–Specs all the while. He was like some sort of dorky super-hero with his stamina, crisp chest passes and commitment to defense and the fundamentals. Even with all these memorable things I don’t think I paid Ray Boucher much mind after meeting him that random Tuesday night.
Later, in what was not at all random but might have seemed so at the time, we found out he was the new junior varsity basketball coach and thus the assistant for the varsity team. I don’t think it took long to become fascinated with this fiery, eloquent, kind, and perhaps peculiar man. Before games he used to come to the back of the bus and we would grill him with all sorts of strange questions which he patiently answered. I remember how he went to college in quite a few different places because he wanted to get a taste of some different places in the US. He was very forthright about his views and life experiences and I found this endearing. He was patient with the not-so-polite questions he was asked by a group of maybe not-so-polite high school students.
We grilled him about every little thing and I ended up finding out much more than I ever needed to know about the duties and responsibilities and inner conflicts of a state assessor for the purposes of eminent domain. Speaking of jobs, his wife was a lovely woman who worked as an ESL teacher. She might have been one of the first few people I ever met with this job. Maybe there was some inspiration there for me in this fact and possible career that got tucked away in the back of my mind.
Coach Boucher was certainly an inspiring guy for me. I was always impressed with what seemed to be his principled take on life, strong will, honesty and care for others. These are all qualities I believe are worth aspiring to. In addition to being a good role model and a good person there is one more way he was a source of inspiration for me.
Aside from the Rec-Specs and the combination of patience and fire there was something about this man that seemed strange at the time. It took a few question sessions at the back of the bus before we finally asked him about his license plate. It had just one word: Empathy. We even called him “Emp-ah-theee!” as a nickname behind his back. It seemed like a weird thing to have as a license plate. Especially, you know, to go through the process of picking it out specifically and actually paying more for it. So we finally asked him, “What is up with your license plate?” He took a measured breath and said, “Well, I think that we don’t have much of a chance to communicate with most people we ever, or actually never even meet. Like people we see or drive by. We never get a chance to say anything to them. This is the one word and idea I want to share with other people in that short moment they see my plates. I think it is one of the most important words out there and I want to share it. Maybe this little bit can help. Maybe it can give someone something to think about. Maybe it can make the world just a little bit of a better place.”
I wish I could say that 17 year old me was suddenly and immediately inspired by this explanation and that it changed my life then and there. I wish I could say that but it is not really the case. Coach’s message took a lot longer to sink in and I am not sure it fully has yet but the man and his license plate are two things that come to mind when I think about the word inspiration.
Are you in a band? Are you a model or something? Do you want to be? Otherwise, why are you using the word “gig” to talk about a teaching job?
- Is it to sound cool? (NB: It doesn’t sound that way to me)
- Is it to sound casual and footloose (not to mention fancy-free)?
- Is it to sound like you are in demand?
- It is to give an entrepreneurial (edupreneurial?) spin to the act of teaching and creating a schedule?
Actually, sorry. This post is not about you and your word choices. It’s about me and my allergic reaction to this word. The post is truly about me trying to work out why the word elicits a strong negative reaction from me.
So, no disrespect to everyone out there hustlin’ and arranging side hustles. I don’t like the word is all. Why not? I’d like to offer a few potential reasons this term grinds my gears. Here they are in a convenient list:
- I might have touched upon it above during the interrogation above but I think the problem is that it sounds so casual to me. It doesn’t strike me as a professional term for professional educators.
- It sounds incongruently cool for teaching.
- It also sounds like the most important thing is the conditions like pay and time of day. While these are of course important I feel like it doesn’t account for other factors like student motivation, for example.
- I think the first time heard this term used in this context was at the dawn of the millennium in Northeast Asia and the first few people I heard use it like this were dickheads.
- The braggadocious bros mentioned in point 4 were always blathering on ‘bout the sweet gigs they had. It was tiresome (which doesn’t mean that I never participated in such talk).
- It’s also sort or boring. As a true EducaTOR, I’d prefer to hear more about reflections on teaching and lessons learned from that. I’d like to hear about challenges and solutions. I’d like to hear about students’ successes. There is so much to talk about.
If I’m being honest, I think part of the reason I didn’t like this word at first is because it made me a bit sad to realize I’d escaped or avoided various rat races in my home country only to be in a new one in foreign land. Thus, this one word, gig, conjures up a lot of feels for me.
Please note (especially before commenting) that this post is partially but not entirely, tongue-in-cheek. The man, Andy Allen, said he’d like to see some “You know what grinds my gears’ style” in my social media content. This is fulfilling that suggestion/request but it’s truly something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I don’t like the term gig in this context but in reality I am less judgy of those who use it than this post would suggest. I think people can use whatever terms they damn well please.
I should also mention that I’ve held this negative feeling about the term gig long before I even heard the term “gig economy.”
Other things on my mind as I muster up the courage to hit publish are “Maybe there would be less talk of gigs if there were more steady jobs” and “Maybe the bigger problem here is not the nomenclature.” I will leave that to others for now. I fully understand that being mercenary is often a requirement.
I also realize that this might be very much a “white person in Asia” thing and thus not applicable to most readers.
I do feel a bit better after writing about this. It’s sort of cathartic.
Thank you for reading. Please stay tuned for this upcoming and ongoing series. I’d love to know your thoughts and feelings on this word as applied to what I’d call “teaching jobs” or “private lessons.”
Hello! Long time no blog. I think I found a nice way to get back into it. That’s through an email from a former student. This student is fantastic at English (as we’d expect since she’s a translator.). Jenny (not her real name) was a very strong and memorable student even among future translators/interpreters.
She wrote the following:
…I guess my question is what is the best way to improve my fluency and my speaking skills.
One moment I had it and the next it was gone. I was online on a bench in a shopping mall in a foreign country without a care in the world. I cannot say it was stolen but I suspect it was. As I left the bench I put my phone in my back pocket for some reason (I usually keep it in the front pocket) and then realized about 20 minutes later it was gone. I checked all the locations I’d recently been and even did some searches on Google for it. The phone was turned off by the time I was able to search for it. Perhaps by then it was gone for good and already destined for re-sale.
Losing a phone was not a completely new experience for me. In my 20s (and early 30s I suppose) I lost and broke a fair few phones but this was my first experience with this in a while and my first experience truly losing smartphone (as opposed to just misplacing it, or leaving it in a cab and paying an extortionate price to get it back).
You might be wondering, dear reader, why I’d choose to tell this (mostly uninteresting) story on what is ostensibly an English teaching blog. There is a connection. But first a bit more background information…
In the past few years I’ve really started to enjoy taking walks. Armed with a podcast or three I love to walk around Seoul. The mighty Han River and local mountains are among my favorite places for a nice walk. Seoul is a great place to walk when the weather (and and fine dust level) cooperates. A late afternoon walk after classes is a cherished activity and even something of a routine for me. Listening to podcasts (mostly about the NBA and politics) gives me a chance to relax and sort of tune out and zone out.
In the days immediately following the tragic loss of my smartphone I still went on the walks. I simply walked without any sort of additional entertainment. Something interesting happened without the smartphone and podcasts. I thought about my classes more. I thought about my classes more deeply. I gained some insights I suspect I’d have been unlikely to get had I been listening to commentary about the latest outrage from the White House. It was interesting to note the difference in what I thought about as I walked.
I didn’t actually make a conscious effort to think about class and students but it naturally happened without the “distraction” of the podcasts. I just sort of replayed scenes from class and freely followed my train of thought which often landed me in my classroom. I don’t have any clear evidence that this was helpful for my actual practice of teaching but I did feel that I was a bit more in touch with the choices I’d been making in class and the responses these choices garnered than usual. I felt like this unstructured time with no planned distractions was helpful for me.
A similar (and more troubling, perhaps) realization I had without the smartphone came while waiting for the elevator to go to my office (hey, give me a break it’s on the 10th floor). Instead of checking Twitter or the news or Facebook or email or whatever else I just stood there. I was forced to
impatiently wait for the elevator and my mind tended to focus more on what had just happened in the class I had just scurried away from. Removing the distraction of having the entirety of humanity’s knowledge in the palm of my hand gave me some fleeting moments to freely ponder my classes and my teaching. I can’t say this completely transformed my teaching. All I can say is these moments did provide me with some chances to think about class when it was still fresh in my mind and these chances might not have come had I been playing around with phone.
I am not sure if this allegory counts as “one weird trick that will transform your teaching” but I will almost certainly promote this post on Twitter as such. I sincerely hope it was mildly interesting or at least gave you a chance to think about the role modern technology plays in our lives. I find myself wondering about how random experiences can impact our teaching or at least our thoughts about teaching (or our thoughts about our thoughts about teaching). Thank you for reading, especially if you are waiting in line.
- This tale comes from late summer and early autumn 2017. I have since acquired a new phone. Donations still welcome. Expressions of pity or sorrow not needed as I have already gotten over the whole thing.
- An interesting aspect of writing this post so much later is the obvious point that I could still just choose to take a walk without my phone or could just choose to not listen to a podcast while walking. This has not been a common choice. It only happens when my phone battery is low.
- I can say that I have been more conscious about not immediately opening my phone any time I have to wait for something and trying my best to persevere through moments of boredom and waiting by occupying my mind in other ways. That said waiting for the elevator or for students to take the elevator up 2-3 flights of stairs can get boring at times.
- When I say “foreign country” above I mean not the nation of my birth but also mean not the country I reside in. I suppose I also mean it’s a country I am not so familiar with and don’t speak the language(s) of.
- Even though it was unsuccessful the google search (for Android phones) is pretty cool. I just typed in “Where is my phone?” and the overlords over at Google where able to tell me exactly where my phone had been last used. It turns out it was last used by me in the aforementioned mall but it was somehow good to know. I also managed to delete any information on my phone via my Google account.
- Do check out John Steele Photo as there are some great shots there, many from the fine city of Seoul. Special thanks to John for graciously sharing the photo above for this post.
When Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd ) sent me a DM asking if accepted guest posts I jumped at the chance. I appreciate him taking the time to share the post! I was quite familiar with his writing from places like the New School’s Uncharted TESOL blog, TESOL International’s blog and TEFL Equity Advocates I knew about Rob’s work as founder of Ginseng English . I’ve since learned that Rob is co-chair of the Adult Ed Interest Section at TESOL. I think Rob really needs to get his own blog but for the meantime I am happy to share this thought-provoking post. Over to Rob…
There’s a brilliant scene in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which, after eons of computation, a city-sized supercomputer spits out the answer to Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That answer is 42. This is a comedy joke.
Well, ELT is a microcosm of the galaxy itself, so it’s only fitting that we have our own answer to the Ultimate Question of ELT. Turns out it’s, eh, roughly an 80:20 ratio. Yeah, you can go ahead and cancel those conferences and call off the research studies, cuz we got it figured now. It’s, uh, roundabout 80:20.
“Is this not the most important question in ELT?” asks Geoffrey Jordan.
Y’all don’t worry: I can field this one: No. Fuck no.
No, this is most the fuck certainly not the most important question in the field of English language teaching. If the answer to the most important question in the field of English language teaching were a number, then Christ Almighty have we been doing it wrong.
End of blog post.
Oh, you want I should elaborate? No worries, I got you.
Firstly of all, this question of a specific ratio of student talking time to explicit instruction is entirely meaningless until you specify the learners and the context. Let me share a few learner profiles from my experience to illustrate.
Profile 1: Me. I spent a year in Taiwan, surrounded by Mandarin. My motivation was high. I had plenty of free time to study and a background in languages. I read a grammar textbook, talked with my coworkers every day, paid careful attention to text in subway signs and advertisements. By the end of a year, I could use the language to meet all my daily needs and could make complex sentences, though my vocabulary was limited. If you’ve got a classroom full of students like me, in an ideal context like that, the proportion of explicit instruction that the classroom full of mes need is asymptotically approaching 0. What students like that need is as much interaction and comprehensible input as you can give them.
Profile 2: In a recent job, I ran a program serving adult immigrants, most of whom fit a very different (but much more common) profile. They mostly came from rural areas and had on average a 6th grade education. They worked 50+ hours per week, had kids, and our program was only 7.5 hours per week. Most had been in the US for several years before finally being admitted to our program (see The ESL Logjam) and in the interim most had learned enough English to easily meet their daily needs. They field your questions without trouble. They can tell you about their plans for this weekend or the problems they had with the clerk at the DMV two weeks ago, yet the English they use to express these ideas is riddled with errors, many of which are fossilized. When describing complex scenarios, they still manage to be highly communicative, using pidginization strategies to get their point across. These are talkative students. Give them the entire period to talk, and they’ll do so enthusiastically. In fact, when they have the chance, many to the free conversation sessions at the local library. Do these students—whose English already meets their communicative needs, who have ample access to CI outside of the class, who because of their shared linguistic backgrounds and learning contexts share mostly the same fossilized errors—do they need the same proportion of student talking time to explicit instruction as students with different backgrounds and learning contexts?
Profile 3: How about highly educated, low-motivation multilingual students in a 30-hour-per-week, target language-embedded academic IEP?
The conclusion that the Perspicacious Reader will no doubt come to is that, no, students of different backgrounds, in different learning contexts, do not have the same needs, and this most certainly applies also to the ratio of student language use to explicit instruction. Students with more L1 education, metalinguistic awareness, motivation, and study time outside of the classroom need less explicit instruction. Those with limited literacy, time, motivation, with lots of fossilized errors, need more explicit instruction. If those students have access to a teacher for only a few hours per week and access to comprehensible input every waking hour, that ratio might be dramatically different.
Now let me be clear: My beef is not with The Big Important Question itself. I’m familiar with the Question, as well as the proposed big important 80:20 answer. In fact, I have recommended this ratio to my teachers at times and used it as a benchmark for objective classroom observations. It’s not a bad question. But treating it as though it has some grand importance is just silly. A reasonable re-framing is this: the amount of student talking time should generally far exceed the amount of explicit instruction. The main import of this precept is that it can have a corrective effect on the novice teacher who fancies himself a lecturer.
The ratio itself is meaningless. A 10% difference in what you do during your teacher talking time or how you structure student talking time can be far more consequential than a 10% variance in the ratio of teacher talking time to student talking time. All other things being equal, a student in an 80:20 class 9 hours per week is still going to progress slower than a student in a 60:40 class 30 hours per week.
I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots. But I’m guessing most of the big questions will be qualitative and situated: What should we be doing, how should we be doing it, how is it getting these learners from where they are to where they want to be?