Christmas Teacher Interview: Hugh Dellar
It has been a wonderful year here at ELT Experiences and what better way to celebrate Christmas, than a special interview with a highly recognised teacher, author and fellow blogger: Hugh Dellar. I first met Hugh at a BELTE Conference in Brighton a number of years ago and where he was giving a talk on the use of translation in language teaching. It was a very engaging discussion with some practical ideas to incorporate inside the classroom – some of which I have used in the classroom. If you look at some of the more recently published material authored by Dellar, you will see his influence of translation and language learning within some chapters of “Outcomes“. Anyhow, this month’s teacher interview is with Hugh Dellar. Let’s start!
Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at University of Westminster, London. He has been teaching since 1993, predominantly in London, but spent three years in Jakarta, Indonesia. He gives teacher training and development talks all over the world. He is the co-author of the Outcomes and Innovations series, both published by National Geographic Learning, as well as the online teacher development course, Teaching Lexically. Along with Andrew Walkley, he is also the co-author of a forthcoming methodology book, due to be published by Delta Publishing in 2014. He blogs regularly at www.hughdellar.wordpress.com, is on facebook at: www.facebook.com/hughdellarandrewwalkley and is also part of the team behind the ongoing Exploring Frequent Words in English series on YouTube.
- Could you tell our readers how you got into English teaching?
It was a lucky accident, to be honest. I did English Literature at university and graduated in 1991. I was singing in a band at the time and we were making just about enough money to scrape by on, though I was also doing all manner of temping work (building sites, factory work, all sorts). My band died a death in early 1992 (though we’re now playing together again after a twenty-year hiatus!) and I was sort of drifting around wondering what on earth happened next. I decided that I’d like to get out of London and go see the world, so I got a job in a pub, worked six days a week, twelve hours a day and saved up a few grand, planning to go off round the globe. After six months of doing this, an old mate of mine who I knew from being around the music scene in my teens arrived back in London for a week and we went out for a drink. He had traded in working in Our Price music stores for the life of a peripatetic EFL teacher and had been off in Iran, Ethiopia and Indonesia. He asked me what my plans were, and after I explained the plan, he suggested teaching. I said I hated teachers and he retorted that this was the best possible reason for becoming one! Sold on this twisted logic, I enrolled for a one-month CELTA course at Westminster College and in April 1993 entered our noble profession.
- What advice would you give to teachers who would like to travel and work abroad?
If you want to do it, go do it would be my basic advice! You’ll have an amazing time, though it may also sometimes be hard and full of steep learning curves, both in professional and personal terms, and it’ll change you in all manner of positive ways. I literally picked a country I knew almost nothing about before I went there – Indonesia – and hopped on a plane and turned up. In retrospect, I’m not sure this was the best way of doing it, and I guess doing a little bit of research in advance (much easier now than it was then, of course!) both about the city / country you want to go to and also about the school would be sensible. What else? Get networked in before you leave. Find out about local teaching organisations. Add local teachers on Facebook if you can. Find other local like-minded people. But if you’re a young teacher and web-savvy, you probably know all that already. Read as much as you can in advance, ground yourself in the core literature of the field, but then just GO! Be prepared for all manner of madness: you will meet weird characters, you may well be faced with odd moral quandaries, you may go off the rails on occasion – and you’ll certainly know people who do; you may find your teaching situation less than perfect sometimes, but you’ll have the chance to learn a new language – seize this! You’ll have the chance to learn more about another country and culture and you’ll learn huge amounts about yourself. I envy those yet to experience the great rush of it all!
- There are assumed differences between English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English Language Teaching (ELT). Would you be able to explain the differences between EAP and ELT that you have experienced?
Having taught both, I often think the differences are overemphasised personally. I guess the big difference is that there still tends to be a greater focus on skills in a broad sense within EAP: referencing and quoting skills, note-taking skills, summarising skills, argument and discourse structuring skills, and so on. I don’t see these skills as existing outside of language, and simply see these as areas that can be explored and explained in conjunction with a focus on the language that might best help students realise these skills. EAP practitioners can sometimes be fairly dismissive of EFL, seeing it as simply trivial chat about hobbies and food, but at heart both areas are – or should be – about the development of language. I worry a lot about the new generation of kids coming into British universities who’ve basically not learned any General EFL, but have been obsessively groomed towards getting IELTS 6.0 and entry onto a foundation course. They arrive being able to churn out weird variations on basic templates, but totally lacking the kind of social, everyday language they’ll need to survive during their time abroad, let alone to socialise and make friends. Personally, I think it’d be good if EFL incorporated slightly more of a focus on academic language, and if EAP recognised that students don’t only need to perform academically, but also have to live! I’d also like to see an end to the nonsense of ‘teaching critical thinking skills’ that you sometimes get in EAP. I find this whole discourse often tends towards a kind of anti-Asian racism and is predicated on very dubious claims. If you want to raise awareness of discourse features and genre norms, fine, but let’s be honest and make it clear that this is all we’re doing! In my experience, a lot of my Chinese students have proved quite capable of having some very critical thoughts about some of the critical thinking exercises they’ve been asked to do over the years!
- What makes the perfect learner?
Didn’t they tell you? Only the Buddha is perfect! I don’t believe in the perfect anything, so I’m the wrong person for this question. I think any learner can become a better learner, though, and that teachers have a real role to play in fostering this. Students need to accept responsibility for revising and recycling what they study in class and need to have good ways of doing this, whether that be using vocabulary cards or apps that help with this or whatever. Teachers need to advise them on how best to do this and to have their own opinions about how best to revise – as well as to test and recycle in class as much as possible. Students need to understand that language is more than single words and grammar structures; they need to be adept at recognising words that go together and they need to have a system for noticing and recording new items they meet. They need – perhaps above all – to read as much as possible, ideally books which are graded and written for learners at their level. They need to practise speaking when they can, they need to not worry too much about making mistakes and they need to be good at focusing and prioritising their time. Oh, and they need to be be aware of the fact that it’s a long, long road and that they will almost certainly never get to the end of it. And, as I said, we need to guide them through all this, advise on how best to study outside of class, warn off certain habits and encourage others.
- With a recognition that English is used as a Lingua Franca between different L2 users, is there a growing responsibility for teachers to better equip language learners being able to translate or interpret?
I think teachers have a basic responsibility to foster linguistic awareness and this inevitably impacts on how students view translation. Students will inevitably translate from L1 into English, and most students come with an assumption that a word in L1 equals a word in L2, which any teacher worth their salt knows is rubbish. We need to constantly make students aware of collocations, chunks, fixed expressions and the like, and to use translation of whole sentences from English to L1 and then – crucially – back into English – as a way of making students more aware of the way the patterns in different language differ. This is something I’ve blogged about a bit myself and something we’ve tried to encourage in OUTCOMES as well. Ultimately, though, we also need to recognise that if students don’t know the most normal, natural way of expressing an idea then they’ll be forced to fall back on translating word by word from L1. In short, the best way we can help students translate better is to teach more common and useful language.
- What is your opinion of standardisation and assessment in language education?
I’m a big fan of the Cambridge suite of exams. I think that if someone has passed FCE, say, or CPE, they’ve clearly attained a certain level of competence and have been benchmarked in an appropriate way. I like the fact these exams are tests of whole language: basically, the more language a candidate knows, the better they will probably do. They’re NOT tests of discrete grammar items or single words. I’m happy that they’re still the main way we assess and define competence at the moment, though I note that Pearson are gearing up for an assault on these exams as they launch their own alternatives, which they’re branding as the only real exams calibrated against the CEFR.
In terms of classroom levels, I think the way most published materials has been measured against the CEFR has been very cynical and all too often has little to do with what the CEFR actually says about outcomes and desirable goals. I understand why this happens, but don’t think it’s something teachers should be uncritical of. I also think the CEFR in itself is problematic in a world in which we tend to think of levels as things that can be packaged up and sold as fixed-hour courses that students can move through, as some levels of the CEFR clearly require more time than others, whilst something like C2 remains essentially unobtainable even for many natives!
- In your opinion, what is your favourite method of teaching?
Given that my co-author Andrew and I have a book coming out soon on Delta Publishing with this title, I’d have to say Lexical teaching, obviously! However, I’m old enough to know that there are many routes to the same destination and certainly don’t believe I have a monopoly on truth. In the end, I am in favour of any teaching that provides an input-rich environment for students; that has a principled approach with regard to what input is chosen, when – and why; that engages the whole person and allows space for learners to express their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas; that develops linguistic awareness; that recycles and revises input; that doesn’t posit structural grammar as the be-all-and-end-all of language learning; and that brings the world to the class, and encourages students to see how what they’re learning is connected to the wider world. Do all of this and you’re almost certainly teaching well.
- What advice would you give to language teachers keen to get involved in EAP?
Same advice as I’d give to anyone who’s keen to do anything, really: if you want to do something, go do it and see how you get on! If you’ve only ever done EFL, it’s always good to branch out and try other areas of language teaching, whether that be IELTS classes, ERAP, Business English, other ESPs or whatever. EAP is a growth area as British universities increasingly turn to overseas students. We’ve ended up with a situation in the Uk where not enough home students can afford to go to university any more and foreign students are being targeted to fill that gap. Given this, EAP experience makes you more employable and more likely to find a permanent and relatively well-paid post if you’re looking to settle back in the UK.
- What is your opinion of technology in the language classroom? (Is it really a benefit for the teacher and/or learner or is it a glorified toy?)
That’s a big question – and not an easy one to answer. I suppose my main concerns about the use of technology in class are (a) that it’s often used simply for the sake of being seen to be using technologies. I think actually things like the British Council inspection criteria exacerbate this as they sometimes lead to comments on how little technology they saw in use, with the implication being that this is a bad thing. Conversely, it also suggests that technology in and of itself is somehow inherently good. As such, it’s not great surprise that many lessons that do integrate tech do so for such spurious reasons as ‘students expect to find technology integrated’ or ‘they all live watching YouTube, so I thought I’d use a YouTube clip. This often leads to (b) lessons without a clear language focus or without a clear sense of how the input delivered via technology helps students achieve particular pre-defined outcomes and (c) courses as a whole losing coherence and becoming little more than strings of bitty, unconnected self-made one-off lessons. That said, outside of the use of YouTube, the occasional PowerPoint and some centres enforcing IWB use, I’m not convinced that most teachers do actually use that much new tech in class. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it increasingly hard to keep up with what’s out there and I worry that the time teachers have available to focus on and learn more about the basic core of what language teaching is about – the teaching of language – is increasingly being eaten into by a voracious hi-tech industry keen fir teachers to opt in and thus boost their profits. Having said all of that, though, I think there can obviously be some benefits to the utilisation of tech tools, but only really if their use is based on and informed by greater principles of language and learning. The main area I see tech as benefiting is the world of homework. There are some really great and useful things you can do with a simple user-friendly site like Vocaroo, for example, and just being able to email while classes links to articles or videos connected to stuff that came up during a particular lesson is wonderful. So to finish by returning to the question: I’d say it can sadly all too often be the latter, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as its use is principled, it can also be the former, though this may have particular pertinence to out of class study.
- Finally, what teacher-related New Year resolutions have you set yourself for 2014?
Blimey! Not sure I’ve planned that far ahead yet. I guess in teaching terms, it’ll be to get a bit better at using phonetic symbols a bit more consistently as part of my boardwork – it’s been a weak spot for way too many years. I also aim to keep up with the tech stuff that’s coming out, as best I can, and to see what might actually really be useful as opposed to simply hyped!
In writing terms, we’re working on a second edition of OUTCOMES, and also on a methodology book called TEACHING LEXICALLY. We’re also involved in the design of a new app as well, but more on that once it’s ready.