A slow (but steady) learner

I came across heads and tails (here or here if you scroll down the page slightly) in Materials Development in Language Teaching when I was reading for a Masters assignment and liked them on sight (with that same jolt of recognition and delight I’d had when reading about some and any and how the choice wasn’t actually a matter of questions and negatives, but of expectations and limits). How could I have used something all these years and just not noticed they were there in my speech ? At that time I was still teaching the big university classes, it was the beginning of the year so they were low level and I thought I might introduce heads and tails later when they got to a point where they could cope and were looking for shiny new things. Then as the year rolled on I forgot.

A couple of years later, changing the Delta around so it could be served up in Modular form meant we had more scope to fit things in and separating the Modules made me aware of the difference between the more practical feel of Module Two and the bent towards underlying theory for Module One. One of the slots I put together for that first Module One course was called speaking and one of the things I fitted into it was features of spoken language as opposed to written (there had been a nod to this in the old integrated course, but now there was time to look at it a little more carefully). On the list of features that one activity draws attention to is heads and tails, and as it is a feature that people seem less familiar with it is the one that gets queried most often. There are examples on the list in the answer key, but as it is new teachers often want to talk about it a little more (some with the same glint of recognition I felt and some to deny it exists at all or is ‘good’ English). This sense of slight controversy made me see that it also had potential as an ‘issue’ for Paper Two Task Four. That task is always about ‘issues’ in language teaching, but people have trouble seeing at first how widely those can be spread and the sort of things that can be included, so we try to flag a variety of potential ideas up as they arise.

The original edited chapter in the Tomlinson book having laid out what heads and tails are, gives some examples of materials they were trialling for tails, touches on whether spoken data should be cleaned up or not (and the whole authenticity debate) and also on whether this is something we should be teaching or not. That appealed and I built it in as part of the speaking slot – if the teachers were asked to discuss whether we should be teaching this feature or not, they had to clarify among themselves what it was. It is usually an easy debate to get off the ground in that people see it as an ‘extra’ thing they will have to pack into classes and courses they already feel are too demanding and I often fanned those flames (if they needed fanning), remembering the chapter talking about what was actually there. They highlight the fact that heads and tails are prominent in natural spoken English, that materials are all too often stilted and very unlike anything real people actually say and they even agonise gently about the fact that the materials they are presenting to teach the feature have been slightly cleaned up from the original utterances to make it easier for learners to cope with them. I say all this in mitigation of the fact that they also say something else important, but I just didn’t notice it then, though I can see it plainly now on re-reading.

And so it stayed, with my brief excursion into trying to get a debate about heads and tails going happening a couple of times a year when I did that input session, mostly with teachers concluding that it was quite interesting, but a step too far unless you had learners with a great deal of time and attention to spare.

But in the course of creating a session on ELF for Module Two (as part of on-going revamp and reshape work on the Modules), I read a lot. It seems that is thing that makes me read most – putting myself down for a session I haven’t done for ages or have never done at all makes me go back to the books and check out what I remember, where I got it from, what (that I can access) has been written since. I wish I could work out a less stressful way to do it than the pressure of knowing you will be shortly be getting 25 people to work their way to some roughly planned conclusions, so if you don’t remember, know why or still have the general patter to back up the ideas and conclusions you originally thought were a good idea then you had better come up with some new ideas or activities fast. It is an effective motivator to read though. So having decided last December that ELF would pick up on some useful threads that didn’t fit anywhere else, last week I skimmed, scanned and generally raced my way through a couple of books and several articles on the subject. As I moved from Mark Powell’s very funny diatribe on why we should be teaching them English just in time, not ‘just in case’ and the powerfully convincing ideas that in the international arenas of business and of academe, what mattered was whether your idea was clear and comprehensible, not whether you had or had not remembered the third person ‘s’ or not, a theme emerged.

I’d started from business English as that is what I teach more of and where I thought it had all originated. An article by Cogo and Dewey about efficiency of communication in ELF lists the features they found to be most common and talks about why they think the feature is efficient. One of the last things on one of their lists is:

Increased explicitness, e.g. how long time in place of how long

That was the moment that the other shoe dropped for me. I’d have tried to correct that. I probably have corrected it many times over the years as it is a really common error among my business learners (my very pragmatic, working business learners who are usually operating in an ELF environment). Why do I correct it ? Because it is non-standard (in comparison to my NS English). Why do they use it ? Well there could be an element of direct translation, but that comment from Cogo and Dewey is the telling one – it is more explicit. It is actually more sensible than my corrected version. It doesn’t interfere with the meaning at all and in fact it makes that meaning clearer (in case anyone in the room isn’t quite up to the level and doesn’t understand ‘How long’). And then I read a piece about ELF in academia by Maurenen which mentions heads and explicitly states that as a feature ‘it is likely to facilitate comprehension by helping ensure that speaker and hearer have the same topic in mind’. So some years later I suddenly realise that this isn’t an extra, add-on thing higher level learners might like to know. It is a highly practical tool that I should have started promoting long ago and unlike dropped ‘s’s or How long time it is in fact standard and efficient. It is going to be a while before I run that session again (and this time try to provoke indignation by advocating teaching heads – the ELF session led to far more heated reactions that I usually get from Delta teachers and I hope sent people away thinking, if only trying to think up ways to show me why I must be wrong). Meanwhile I am just itching to try teaching heads to some pragmatic language learners to see what they do with them … how soon can I work it in with what we are doing without it feeling too random to them…

Carter, R., Hughes, R. & McCarthy, M. 1998  Telling tails: grammar, the spoken language and materials development. In Tomlinson, B. (ed) Materials Development in Language Teaching  CUP pp.67-86

Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2006). Efficiency in ELF communication: From pragmatic motives to lexico-grammatical innovation.Nordic Journal of English Studies, 5(2), 59 – 94

Mauranen, Anna (2010) Features of English as a lingua franca in academia. Helsinki English Studies 6, 6–28. HES Special Issue on English as a Lingua Franca: Anna Mauranen and Niina Hynninen (eds).


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