IATEFL 2012: Indeterminate articles and unaccountable nouns

Just got out of a presentation by Jo Gakonga on a pre-CELTA/Cert grammar course.  It’s been designed to get native speakers up-to-speed with the nomenclature of language systems.  (The title of the talk was a couple of examples of trainees’ attempts at using grammar metalanguage!)

She started with a few quotes and citations:

“Good knowledge about language does not necessarily indicate an effective teacher.” (Bartels, 2005)

Note: Jo does not think this is all a language teacher needs; but it is certainly an important part.

Difficulties caused by a teacher’s weak language awareness

– inability to anticipate learners’ problems

– inability to plan lessons at an appropriate level

– trainees can’t deal with learner errors or inquiries

– may lose confidence of learners(after Thornbury, 1999)

Essentially, the message is: you don’t have to tell learners everything you know about language, but you have to be prepared to answer their questions.

And here’s how the rest of her talk went:

The further we go down the road of communicative teaching, task-based learning and Dogme-style practice, focusing on emergent language, the more important language awareness is on the part of the teacher – we have to be prepared to deal with what comes up.

Jo notes that there are lots of great books available – Swan, Parrott, Aitken, for example – but the problem for a lot of trainees is, if you start from a very low base, such books aren’t always actually that accessible.  So she sometimes recommends Murphy (despite people’s common objections to this!) because at least it’s easy to understand and fairly straightforward.

All of this brought Jo to contemplation of an online course offering.  Some centres run these courses for trainees pre-CELTA, but it’s not always organisationally, logistically, operationally possible.  Virtual classrooms seemed to offer a potential answer to this problem, so she designed and piloted one.

An assumption behind the course:

Collaborative learning in real-time is best.

The course involved:

– parts of speech

– verb tenses

– voice (active, passive)

– some ‘tricky’ things like perfect tenses, modals, conditionals

The pilot consisted of online classes in real-time (Sunday evenings, UK time) using Elluminate (virtual classroom software).  Participants (pre-CELTA/Cert trainees) can see and hear the teacher (Jo) and can – theoretically – participate themselves, though the more people interacting and using webcams, the slower the service.  So generally, they replied to Jo via text chat.  Each class was recorded and saved online on a Moodle site.  As well as the lessons, there were quizzes to consolidate learning after each lesson, and a forum with a weekly task to complete.

Jo reminds us that the course was not the be-all and end-all of the trainees’ introduction to grammar.  It’s just a start, and it makes reading all those afore-mentioned grammar reference books much more accessible and manageable.

Back to that assumption from earlier:

Unfortunately, in the pilot scheme, the live on-line classes didn’t attract trainees!  70 people signed up – only 6 ‘came’ to the lessons!  But interestingly, plenty accessed the recordings of the lessons.  Perhaps time zones were an issue; perhaps people were busy with other commitments; perhaps they were just too lazy to attend – one trainee commented that it’s too tempting with free (as the pilot was) online classes to just miss them if you have something else you want to do.

So, it turned out that the recordings were really much more popular than live online lessons.

Some lessons learned: students seem to prefer the recorded teacher to the real teacher!  They like to watch it at their own speed.  They can play it, pause it, go back, make notes, and so on.  They don’t feel that they might be holding up other students in the live lesson with their (silly) questions.  They also feel they can think more clearly if there isn’t someone breathing down their neck, effectively surveilling their learning.

So after the pilot, Jo abandoned the live lessons and went directly to recorded presentations.  They were shorter (about 40 minutes as opposed to 1.5 hours) and were very well-received.

She shows us an example video in the conference session, which she made with Camtasia software.  The audio description to the video is slow and clear, with the accompanying being simple slides incorporating examples and rules.  Students are invited to pause the video to think about questions she poses and do occasional simple tasks.

So the new course includes video presentations rather than live lessons, still includes quizzes and useful websites, as well as a forum for participants to discuss issues in more depth.  Trainees have two months’ access, so they can do the course before their certificate course and then refer back to it during the course.

One person who piloted the new (and current) version of the course commented:

“Above all, I feel in control of my learning.”

My overall verdict: Jo’s description of the aims of the course, and her demonstration of it through an example video, have convinced me!  I think this would be a very useful short course for pre-CELTA/Cert trainees who are thoroughly fluent in English but don’t know any of the metalanguage to describe what they’re using so proficiently (as is so often the case with native speaker trainees).

Her website is www.elt-training.com and you can try out one unit for free and see if you want to join the course.

If you decide to take it up, it’s only £20.  That seems reasonable to me, given how much trainees are going to spend on their pre-service training course anyway (usually around £900-£1000).  If they’re going to buy a handful of textbooks (often not far off £20 each anyway!) to help them through the course, then – as I’ve often found – have barely any time during the course to refer to them, I’d argue their money is better spent on a course like this to prepare them before they start their input sessions and teaching practice.


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Hi Laura – I’ve just come across this by coincidence and wanted to thank you (very belatedly!) for such an accurate and positive write-up 🙂 All the best, Jo

    • My pleasure, Jo! That conference session is one that has actually really stuck in my memory, of all the many I’ve seen. Hope you’re still doing those courses – they seem like a great idea to me!

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