Dec 1, 2013

Going experimental at TESOL France

A summary of the TESOL France’s  32nd annual colloquium  which took place in Paris between 22 and 24 November 2013.

ELT conferences often have a title or theme with various presentations loosely related to it. TESOL France’s annual colloquium held in Paris in November isn’t one of them. However, this year’s colloquium, my third, had an underlying theme for me – experimental practice. Here are highlights of some of the sessions I went to.

What do you need? A bit of TPRS, perhaps?

After this year’s unusual opening on Friday - instead of a traditional opening plenary the organisers decided to experiment with a brief welcome address by the chair of TESOL followed by mingling - the first session I went to was Judith Logsdon-Dubois's on TPRS. I had virtually got to know Judith through Twitter and her comments on this blog, but TPRS turned out to be not quite what I’d expected. It is not a twist on TPR (Total Physical Response), an “alternative” ELT approach of the 1970s inspired by Krashen’s theories. TPRS stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, which is again strongly influenced by Krashen’s input hypothesis. Just to remind you, according the input hypothesis we acquire language when we receive a lot of comprehensible input, i.e. input which is just above the current level of our language competence.

After briefly outlining Krashen’s model of language acquisition - it was interesting as we had just covered Krashen’s five hypotheses with my students on a SLA course I'm teaching - Judith demoed a TPRS lesson with the participants taking on different roles. I was given the role of a structure counter and had to count the number of times the target structure occurred in the lesson - whether in the teacher’s input or learners’ production which of course, in accordance with Krashen, was not forced. The chosen target structure was I need + noun phrase (NP) and its variations (do you need...what do you need etc.). Need + NP poses a difficulty for French speakers as the equivalent idea is realised in French by the verb "have" + noun: avoir besoin de (I have the need for).

I counted 39 occurrences which Judith admitted wasn’t enough for acquisition (subconscious acquisition as opposed to conscious learning in Krashen’s terms) to take place. In TPRS a target item or structure has to occur 70 times! Hmmm I wonder if there is research to support this figure but TPRS is something I’d definitely like to experiment with, especially with lower level students. To find out more about this method, check out Judy's blog:

Dipping your toes into something new

Mike Harrison started his Saturday morning session on experimental practice by asking us to close our eyes and take a mental screen capture of a recent class we taught. We were then instructed to go through a series of modifications by zooming in and out of the image, putting ourselves in and taking ourselves out of the picture, reducing the light and making the image clearer - Mike is a great believer in using images in ELT.

Mike Harrison in action.  This room was assigned this year
to all my favourite presenters  (including myself)

After clarifying what experimental or exploratory practice means, Mike shared the results of a recent poll he conducted in the IATEFL group on Facebook to see what methods teachers have experimented with throughout their career. Task-based language teaching (TBLT) came at the top of the list. Mike’s main message was that teachers – whether novice or seasoned – should constantly push themselves to try something completely different. Some of the ideas he elicited from the audience included:

- Keeping a journal: when you embark on an experiment, jot down what you think is going to happen and then see what really happens
- Ask students what they would like to do differently
- One idea (which came from Rakesh Bhanot) was regarding attending conferences: try going to the most “unlikely” sessions (not the stuff you are normally interested in) – this is what I certainly did at TESOL France this year.

It was an engaging session that really made us think and Mike’s Power Point with minimalist, impactful (yes, I said it!) greyscale slides made me green with envy!

Welcome to the jungle

After a comfortably long lunch break (they always are at TESOL France) funky jungle music greeted us upon entering the same room for Christina Rebuffet-Broadus and Jennie Wright’s session Walk On The Wild Side: The Experimental Practice Jungle. Their workshop picked up where Mike left off and was practical, entertaining and heavy on audience participation. We were divided into groups and asked to experiment with the methods we were the least familiar wish, such us CLIL, Flipped classroom, Dogme, Translation 2.0 (a revived interest in Translation in ELT)

The presenters confessed that their session was also in a way an experiment before presenting their new book on the topic which has just come out on theround.

Body talk

Although it may not seem immediately obvious, Scott Thornbury's plenary The Learning Body fit nicely into the experimental theme. Starting with a philosophical premise that mind and body are all one, Scott extended it to language learning showing how the mind is:

  • embodied - metaphorical language we use is closely linked to our physical experience of the world, e.g. the choice of particles in phrasal verbs: things are looking UP, grow UP,  prices went UP etc.

  • embedded - how language is embedded in the physical world, i.e. it is developed, applied in and adapted for context, e.g. how by “mirroring” other people we accommodate to our interlocutors and adapt our language accordingly, e.g. I switch between “flat” and “apartment” depending whether my interlocutor is British or American

  • extended - our body is used to help us organise our thoughts, for example, we use gestures when we talk on the phone although our interlocutor cannot see us, which goes to show that gestures are not accompaniments but rather components of speech.

Interestingly, IELTS candidates tend to score higher on the speaking test when they use more gestures.
Scott Thornbury (sorry, couldn't get all of him)
using gestures at his plenary talk
Also, contrary to the recent trend of plenaries at ELT conferences leaning more towards entertaining rather than educating, this talk kept the balance right. It was thought-provoking and informative. In addition, it was delivered with Scott’s signature wit and accompanied by aptly chosen video clips and insightful quotes ranging from Descartes to Mae West.

Overall, a very satisfying conference again - my third and I thought, probably, last year in a row but then I found out that next year's one falls on my birthday again - like last year!


  1. Thank you for the nice review, Leo. The number 70 is a rough approximation. It's impossible to say exactly how many repetitions are needed for any one struture and for any one student, since the circumstances will influence how quickly the structure is acquired. If a beautiful girl smiles and looks you in the eyes and says, "I love you," once is probably enough to acquire that structure. "Will you do the dishes?" is a structure that requires many more repetitions than 70. Seventy is not a magic number. Wouldn't it be wonderful if teachers could say, "Well, I've said that word 70 times, so all my students know it now"? The specific number is just a rough rule of thumb. Experienced teachers know that students need a lot more than they usually get, that some students will catch on before others, that some students are more attentive (actually listening to the repetitions) than others and that acquisition also depends on how interesting the lesson is, or how vital the message is. You've given me a good idea for a new post on my blog. Keep your questions coming!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Judith
      I was just wondering where this figure came from because for new vocabulary items, for example, the figures that are usually bandied about are 6 to 16 times, something I raised doubts about in one of my articles a few years ago:

      There are many words in various languages I learned from just one exposure when they occurred in meaningful context (what you would probably call "compelling input"). And I am sure all of us are familiar with the phenomenon when we come across the same word over and over again and can't remember what it means. I've often had to look up the same word to the point where I remembered where it was on a page in a dictionary (yes, it was in THOSE days!) but still couldn't remember what it meant.

      So how many encounters one needs is a tricky question. I'd argue that the act of producing a word triggers remembering it but then you'd probably disagree - coming from Krashen's perspective - that output should not be pushed :)


  2. There is nothing wrong with spontaneous output, or output when the affective filter is very low. I would guess that people who seem to have a "gift" for languages enjoy trying to speak them. It's the meaningful context that lets us remember / acquire a word.

  3. Personally, I thought your presentation was the best one I saw!

    1. Betty, thank you very much. Comments like this make one feel that the effort put into a presentation has paid off.

  4. I think speaking a language is as important as writing it, or in whatever you do, do your best. Although it may take time to perfect speaking English, it is best to try it without the "bahala na" way of thinking.

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