So many Englishes webinar: Q&A

In this blog post, Karen Spiller follows up on some of the questions that were left unanswered in the Q&A section at the end of the recent joint TESOL Association MWIS and MaWSIG webinar: So many Englishes! What does this mean for writers and publishers? The webinar was co-presented by Karen Spiller and Sherrise Roehr on 17 July 2019. You can find a recording of the webinar on the past events page of the MaWSIG website.

Are there ever challenges with copyrights when designing textbooks [that use real-world materials]?

Yes; you need to clear permission in the usual way by contacting the copyright holder, and making sure that you get permission to use the copyright material for all the formats, territories, languages, editions, etc. that you need. Of course, it’s much simpler to use only material from sources that you know will give you permission (e.g. photo agencies, such as Getty or Shutterstock, or certain newspapers/other publications), but if you restrict yourself in this way, you might be missing out on some great authentic material. If you do decide to track down more obscure copyright holders, e.g. individuals or small companies, there’s often a lot of detective work and legwork involved. The timing is also important and it’s essential to find out whether you can use the material (or not) early on in the writing process. It can be very frustrating for authors and publishers to design a whole lesson around a text or a photo and then find that they can’t use it.

Is mixing real-world and made-up always bad? For example, if I have invented characters in my storyline, but they talk about real films based on Shakespeare’s plays, would that necessarily be bad?

In the example you give, no, it isn’t necessarily bad, as it will be clear to the students that your characters are fictional but the content of their discussion isn’t. The question I think you have to ask yourself as writers and publishers is, ‘Am I trying to pass off something as true which is actually made up?’ If you are, then it’s a form of deception. If your message to students is that your book contains real-world material and that they’re going to learn about the world at the same time as they’re learning English, you have to be really careful about this. Your message can’t be: you’re going to learn about the world at the same time you’re learning English but some of it isn’t true (and we’re not going to tell you which bits)! So, it’s important to make it clear what is or isn’t factually true. For example, if you write a conversation between Elena from Argentina and Hans from Germany, and don’t give them a backstory or try to authenticate them in any way, I think it’ll be clear to students that they’re not real people and you’re using them as voice pieces. Equally, if you use a real story or real data and then want to create a related text (e.g. a report or a review), it must be clear to the students that this is something the textbook author has created, and isn’t part of the original source material. If that isn’t made clear, the ‘made-up’ part is given the same level of originality or authenticity as the real material, and this is misleading.

Should we use global Englishes as real-world input? Even though this may negatively affect testing outcomes?

We have to be realistic about what our teaching objectives are. So, if you’re teaching to a test, and that test never includes any non-native speakers (NNSs), or non-standard accents, then you might think it’s a waste of time to include global Englishes in your teaching materials. However, in the long term, if your students need to speak English in their lives/work, it will probably be to communicate with other NNSs. So I’d argue that even if your short-term objective is to get students through an exam, exposing them to global Englishes will have been useful from a practical point of view. One way to justify including global Englishes in the materials you use for exam preparation would be to talk to students about what their language needs will be after they’ve taken the exam, and help them see the usefulness of being exposed to global Englishes.

Aren’t accents a bad thing in normal English classes? Why, then, are we teaching problematic accents to foreign language students?

I agree it doesn’t make sense to teach accents to students with the objective of the students reproducing the accent. That shouldn’t be the aim. But by including in ELT materials input from NNSs of English who have their own accents, we’re teaching students the following things:

  • Not everyone you speak to in English will use the kind of standard English or General American that is exclusively taught in many ELT textbooks. Exposure to non-standard accents will give students practice in understanding lots of different speakers and will develop their listening comprehension skills as well as their accommodation strategies. As Xavier Munoz said in the webinar, ‘using English is also about using accommodation strategies – how to negotiate meaning. It’s not just grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation.’
  • It’s motivating for students to see that other NNSs with accents can communicate perfectly well in English. By sending the message that you don’t have to sound like a native speaker to have a proficient/native-speaker level of English makes achieving a high level of English more attainable.

So, it’s important to provide help in dealing with accents. As Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson said in How To Write Pronunciation Activities published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer, the more you know about who your students will be interacting with, the more focused you can be at looking at specific features of accents and pronunciation. Research by linguists such as Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro has shown that accent and intelligibility are not the same thing, and that the expectations and experience of listeners themselves have a large role to play. For example, one accent of English in the UK that is widely claimed to be ‘incomprehensible’ is that of Glaswegians (confirmed by Eva Owen, who said, ‘I remember meeting a woman with a thick Scottish accent years ago and I had major difficulties understanding her English at first!). Visit Glasgow with no former experience of speakers of Glaswegian English and you’d be forgiven for asking people to repeat things occasionally. But of course people who have lived in Glasgow for a while don’t have this problem. Their experience affects their expectations, which in turn affects their ability to understand the speech of Glaswegians. Visit any place or interact with any speaker with an accent that is totally new to you, and it might take you a little while to tune in.

If 80% of English speakers are non-native, why is there a focus on American and British English in ELT publishing? To me that doesn’t represent diversity.

Interesting! I think that if two NNSs are talking to each other and are having communication problems, they’ll probably repeat what they said, and try to sound more ‘standard’. This is one of the advantages of having a standard. However, as we know, it’s common for NNSs to understand other NNSs more easily than native speakers. As Peyman Bohlori said in the webinar, ‘I once had a person from southern US speak to a person from northern UK. Neither seemed to really understand each other!’ One of the areas we need to think about carefully when we’re creating ELT materials is whether some of what we teach actually makes it harder for a NNS to understand another NNS. For example, there is considerable emphasis in coursebooks on weak forms and vowel quality and yet, according to research, these features aren’t crucial to intelligibility. However, the research does show that consonants, consonant clusters, nuclear stress and vowel length are all crucial. So it’s ironic, isn’t it, that a lot of pronunciation syllabuses are helping students sound like native speakers, which, in turn, will probably make them less intelligible to other NNSs, who are the people they’re most likely to be interacting with! This doesn’t mean that you should never include those features that don’t help to make a NNS intelligible to another NNS (these are features such as intrusion, elision, weak forms, assimilation, etc), but it makes more sense to include those to develop learners’ listening skills, not their speaking skills.

How is a ‘real-world approach’ great for a values syllabus?

If your real-world materials are showing that people’s lives and customs around the world are sometimes different and sometimes the same, then this is great for encouraging tolerance, embracing diversity, awakening curiosity, etc. Your activities can draw attention to this so that students see that there isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong way of doing something. For example, one of the video strands in National Geographic Learning’s new primary course ‘Look’ takes sixteen children whose families are from different countries around the world. In each video, a selection of the children are asked the same question about their everyday lives. Their answers give us a glimpse into that child’s life – sometimes their answers reflect aspects of life in that country and sometimes their answers just reflect the personalities of the children. Both types of answer help our students understand that the world is diverse and fascinating.

Let me give another example: if real-world input is based on people who have achieved something great, you can draw attention to the challenges they’ve faced and not just focus on their ‘greatness’ or particular achievement. By focusing on the person and telling some stories about their challenges, you can show them as human beings and make them more relatable. So, a student might say, ‘Wow, that guy had a lonely childhood, but look what he went on to achieve – maybe that could be me in the future.’

Karen Spiller has worked in the ELT industry for more than 30 years. Her first few years as a rep (OUP and Heinemann) in Spain taught her what teachers were looking for from their ELT materials. She then put this knowledge to work at Macmillan, where she published best-selling titles for global markets. In recent years, working as an independent publishing consultant, Karen has commissioned and developed numerous ground-breaking British English global titles for National Geographic Learning, including Life, Outcomes, Keynote and Look. Karen is also the co-founder of two innovative companies operating in the ELT publishing industry: firstly, ELT Teacher 2 Writer, which publishes books and runs training courses that help teachers and writers perfect their writing skills; secondly ELT Publishing Professionals, a dynamic online directory of freelance professionals with powerful search tools to help publishers find skilled freelancers with the right experience for their projects.

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