MICHIGAN ELT author Thomas Farrell reflects on “Reflecting on Teaching the Four Skills”

by Claudia Leo on August 14, 2013

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What type of ESL teacher would benefit the most from using Reflecting on Teaching the Four Skills: 60 Strategies for Professional Development?

Novice ESL teachers will benefit most because the book attempts to condense a lot of somewhat conflicting information they may have received during their teacher education years. It also provides some strategies that they can employ quickly while at the same time offering some words of caution to get teachers to reflect for action. That said, the book is also a very useful refresher for experienced teachers as it provides a useful summary of the four skills and these experienced teachers can compare what they do now with the classroom applications and see if they want to experiment. Thus by reading the book they can engage in their own reflections and sense of renewal as an ESL teacher. Of course they do not have to read the whole book in order of the presented chapters as they can dip into sections they are interested in reflecting on. I also think the book is of interest to administrators because they can gain some idea of the complexity of teaching the four skills and that teachers of ESL do not just go in to a classroom and speak!

What strategies does the book offer to help ESL teachers teach more effectively?

One of the main reasons I wrote this book is because there is no coherence in the research development in any of the skill areas of reading, speaking, listening and writing. It seems to me (and even more so after researching and writing this book) that within some of these skill areas some academics are trying to build their own empire within a very narrow area of research (note I did not say ‘practice’) and for the purpose of publishing rather than translating it into what real ESL teachers on the frontline lines can use in their classrooms. So what are teachers to make of all this bewildering research? I hope some of the strategies I presented in this book can give teachers in the trenches some coherence into the particular skill area (and associated assessment of these skills) so that they can also think about ‘translating’ theory to practice. They can also consider how their practice can be in turn ‘translated’ to theory!

Speaking of strategies, which ones did you rely on as a young language educator without having the experiences to reflect on? What main piece of advice would you give novice teachers in terms of professional development?

When I started as an ESL teacher (in Korea!) over 35 years ago, TESOL was so young as a field and profession and I had no real guides about how to teach except I was a qualified teacher from Ireland. I used my knowledge of teaching in general and my knowledge of how to interact in a classroom to get me through the idea of how to teach ESL. I then theorized from my own practice. This is what I would advise novice teachers to do as well: reflect on their teaching as they cannot learn all there is to know in their teacher education courses. They will need to be able to tolerate ambiguity while they are in the classroom, and develop their own teaching style, and try to learn about their students’ needs, their school’s needs and how they can implement all this into their own style of teaching. All of this is not easy for novice teachers in their first years so I hope this book helps them reflect. I also would advise novice teachers to ask their more experienced colleagues for advice as this too can help. Perhaps they can get a peer coach, or engage in team teaching or the like to develop their practice. Teachers talking to each other about their practice is very important yet it does not happen enough.

“Reflecting” is a key concept in the application of your book. How can teachers best reflect on their in-classroom experiences to improve their teaching style?

Yes, reflection is a key concept in this book and in most of the work I do. However it is a word that is used easily by many in education without much thought (ironic I think!) about its meaning. When I talk about reflection I consider it more than just thinking; it involves teachers systematically gathering information about their practices and using this information to make informed decisions about their classroom practices. They can record their classes, writing a journal, get a critical friend to help them reflect and so on. I have written extensively on this topic beyond the current book if readers are interested.

The book’s scenarios offer examples of actual experiences of language teachers from around the world. How did you collect these examples?

I have been at this for over 35 years and I always reflect myself on my work and what I see when I am invited to colleagues’ classrooms, talk to other colleagues and listen to colleagues as they reflect. I always write summaries or the like after and have collected these over the many years. Some I have used and some I still have from my travels and my own teaching in Ireland, Korea, Singapore and Canada.

In what ways can teachers help each other by sharing their own classrooms experiences? Would you encourage them to gain knowledge this way?

Teaching is such an isolated job with one teacher and any number of students in a room with a door that is usually closed. Many teachers may be too exhausted to talk about their work after a long day in the classroom. However, as I discovered when I was an ESL teacher, talking to other teachers about my work is empowering because it gives you not only affirmation about what you are doing but also the joy about sharing knowledge about what we do. When I was a young teacher I thought I had to teach a particular way but what was most important was for me to find my own way of teaching that still provided opportunities for my students to learn. This is the difficult part of our work and it is best shared with other teachers. Reflective practice can help a teacher get to know themselves and who they want to be as a teacher.

The approach to language teaching has changed considerably over the decades, what’s the importance of professional development particularly in language teaching?

Approaches to teaching no matter what discipline we teach in will always change as we develop new ways of thinking and even new technology, and this is good. This makes professional development even more important for teachers. I have spent my career encouraging teachers to reflect on their practice as part of their professional development because reflection means that we are never satisfied that we know all there is to know about teaching and that we are always learning and adapting to our surroundings and our students’ needs. For example, if I teach the same class in the morning and the afternoon to different students it is not the same as I am not teaching the material; I am teaching the students and this makes all the difference. I think if educators consider that we teach students rather than material then we will always want to keep up with developments while at the same time renewing ourselves as teachers through reflective practice. I hope this book helps in some way too!

Click here to read a recent review of Reflecting on Teaching the Four Skills: 60 Strategies for Professional Development on eltnews.com ELT Book Reviews.

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