A Great Day!

 6th January 2014: Teacher Training Day at MMHS

 The new Head (former Deputy) happily recognizes the centrality of BtL to the learning ethos of the school. He allocated a whole day’s in-service training to making the eighty odd staff of the school aware of the remarkable success of the course in the English Department in 2012-13. Hopefully, they would begin to explore how BtL could help them in the teaching of their own subjects. Continue reading

Chris Kennedy: Learning English in a global context*

In the twenty-first century it is clear that English is the uncontested world language. Although Chinese is spoken as a first language by the largest number of people, English is much more widely spoken as both a first and an additional language. For instance it is one of the four official languages of India. In this paper Kennedy points out that the spread of English is associated with the rapid globalization of economic and cultural activities and discusses some of the implications of English having become the world language.

It is no longer easy to recommend that learners aim to acquire a clear single standard of spoken English. There are several varieties of standard English, even among native speakers – Australian, as well as American and UK English. In addition, many different varieties of spoken English have developed, especially in Africa and the Far East, which are heavily influenced by the phonetics, grammar and vocabulary of the local areas.

I came across the difficulty of teaching a standard variety twenty years ago, when I was part of a team of linguists and teachers writing a textbook for secondary school pupils in a newly independent Namibia. The teachers wanted exercises on pronunciation on tape as part of the course and I found myself organizing this. We used the Namibian teachers as the informants and, of course, they spoke the South African variety of English, which makes no distinction between “set” and “sat”. There was horror among the linguists when we played this tape back to them. What were we to do? The problem remained unresolved.

*Chapter 8 in Introducing Applied Linguistics ed. Susan Hunston and David Oakey



Introducing Applied Linguistics

Susan Hunston and David Oakey:Introducing Applied Linguistics: concepts and skills (2010)

This is the book that my friends and I are studying at the moment. Our idea in reading it is to bring us up to date on what is new in Applied Linguistics.

One chapter follows nicely on our study of Michael Hoey’s Lexical Priming: namely, the use of a corpus. A paper by Svenja Adolphs: Using a corpus to study spoken language delighted me  by its description of what is to people of my generation the extraordinary use of “like” in the informal conversation of young people. It is in fact a discourse marker introducing direct speech (the oral equivalent of quotation marks). I wonder where that came from.

Michael Hoey: Lexical Priming

We have now reached the end of this fascinating book, which proposes a new description of the way language works. It is based on the new information offered by new technology – the huge databases of authentic language offered by computers and their ability to analyse them.

This enables Hoey to question fundamentally the grammar-dominated model of language put forward by Chomsky. Hoey argues that the meanings of language are built up, not primarily from grammar, but from semantics. This he describes systematically, using as evidence the information and analyses derived from these databases. Chomsky’s model, by contrast, has never been supported by evidence. Continue reading

GCSE reading (French) continued

This is a very odd piece of writing. For a start, the title is Mother’s Day, but without explanation the first sentence introduces grandmother’s day. Further, the passage is paragraphed incorrectly. It is organised: introduction, history, dates in different countries. Here is the text uchanged except for proper paragraphing:

6 Mother’s Day

For several years we have had a special day for grandmothers in France. It is a way of showing them that we love them. It is much the same for mothers. There is a special day to thank them for all that they do for us.

It is far from being a modern day. The Greeks and Romans had a ceremony every spring to honour the mothers of their gods. In the nineteenth century the Emperor Napoleon had the idea of honouring mothers who had a lot of children. It is only after his death that his idea became a reality and that these mothers have been given a medal. During the second world war France suffered greatly and lost a great many of its young men. That is why Mother’s Day as we know it was set up.

Mother’s Day is always on the fourth Sunday in May. In the United States it is on the second Sunday in May, and in England they celebrate Mother’s Day in mid March. In Germany mothers do not work on that day, so fathers and children do all the housework. In restaurants in Spain they give mothers a flower. In Canada it is a tradition for little children to give their mother a present they have made themselves.

The text still does not make any kind of sense. It is a collection of random facts about Mother’s Day without any obvious reason for writing it (hence for reading it).

Michael Hoey’s work on discourse structure offers a framework for showing up the inadequacies of this text. It is taught in Book 3 of Breakthrough to Learning (Part 2 of the Fasttrack) to enable students to grasp the structure of written texts. Texts are not mere collections of words and grammatecal forms: they have to make sense at the higher level of discourse. For example: problem / solution, general / particular, compare / contrast, time sequence.

Mother’s Day does not conform to any meaning structure at this level. It would be possible to compose texts on this subject, with no more advanced vocabulary and grammar than the original, but which make sense. For example, in the text below the basic structure is general / particular. Note that the only “new” words to be taught are for example, which is recognisable enough!

(to be continued)


GCSE reading comprehension (French)

I’ve been working on a problem raised with me by the Head of Modern Languages at MMHS. He is using the Michel Thomas teaching programme, which has transformed the take-up and the success of Modern Languages learning in the school.

The more advanced part of the GCSE reading exam consists of passages in French with True/False answers in English, thus ensuring that reading comprehension is not confused with writing skills. The teacher had been disappointed that his pupils had been unable to guess unknown words from (a) the context and (b) the fact that the words are cognate with English. He gave as an example climatisation, which means air-conditioning, which they could not guess (a) from the context of amenities in a hotel and (b) its relation with English climate/acclimatization. Continue reading

BtL and Science (conclusion)

Book 3 of BtL (and Part 2 of the Fasttrack) teach the discourse structures described by Michael Hoey in his 1983 book On the Surfact of Discourse. Earlier blogs have applied two of these discourse structures – Compare/ Contrast and General/ Particular (= Abstract /Concrete) to a GCSE paper in Science.

Hoey’s third structure (first in his book) is Problem/Solution. This has an important place in scientific thinking:


 This structure comes into Science through considering the application of scientific knowledge to practical problems. This demands concrete not abstract language. Continue reading

BtL and science (continued)

This is a continuation of last week’s blog giving the results of an application of the discourse structures in BtL to a Science  GCSE exam paper:


The crucial idea tested in this exam is the concept of variables.

The work on abstract language in BtL culminates in teaching the concept of variables (from Book 2, chapters 14 and 22; FT, chapters 18 and 19). Continue reading

BtL and Science at MMHS(continued)

The following is the first part of some work I did with the Science Department at MMHS:

How BtL feeds into Science teaching at MMHS

(based on an analysis of the language of an exam paper:

GCSE June 2013 Science A SCA4P/PU1.2)

 I have used the frameworks taught in Book 3 of BtL (Part 2 of F/T). For the purposes of this discussion General/Particular is the same as Abstract/Concrete. Continue reading