Number one for English language teachers

Tweeting and twittering up in the (word) clouds

A report by Karen Richardson on the 43rd Annual International IATEFL Conference and Exhibition in Cardiff, giving an interesting overview of the themes and highlights at this year's big event.

A report on the 43rd Annual International IATEFL Conference and Exhibition
City Hall and National Museum Galleries
Cardiff, Wales
31 March - 4 April 2009

Buzz-words | Language changes | New directions | High-tech | Low-tech | Social programme | Last words

IATEFL article word cloud

Anchor Point:1Buzz-words

Although it is almost impossible to say what the main topics at such large, diverse, international conference are, there were certain words that kept cropping up over and over again. These included: digital natives, digital immigrants, digital divide, word clouds , blogs, wikis, nings, tweets and twittering.

Anchor Point:2Language changes

Professor David Crystal in his extremely well-attended talk, Keeping your head in the clouds of language change, told us that, "English is changing more rapidly than at any time in its history" and that this is mostly due to the "power unleashed by the Internet". He talked about the practical implications of word clouds (www.wordle.net) which can be used not only for visually spicing up worksheets but also to see what the most frequently used words in a text are (to give you an example this article has been made into a word cloud, above). He told us that new words are not creeping but "running or jogging into the language". More importantly, he explained how new words provide a social comment on our age, e.g. crackberry, which describes an addiction to the Blackberry electronic device, as well as new collocations such as credit crunch, helicopter parents, and happy slapping. He also mentioned some words that have gone out of usage and have sadly been lost to us, e.g. to cast love, to cast water, or to cast a chance.

The topic was picked up again by Michael Rundell in his talk, How many words do you need to know? He spoke about words coming into the language out of necessity; words no one needed to know until we realized that we needed to know them. Words such as appendicitis which first appeared in dictionaries after 1902 when the coronation of Edward VII was delayed due to his appendicitis, and a hundred years later in 2002 the same thing happened with the word metatarsal when the British media became obsessed by footballer David Beckham's metatarsal injury. The message of this talk was that "you can be accurate but not fluent with a small vocabulary and that therefore acquiring a large vocabulary should be the main learning target for all learners".

Anchor Point:3New directions

The onestopenglish, onestopclil and Guardian Weekly CLIL (content and language integrated learning) debate brought a large number of people into the museum's lecture theatre early on Friday morning. The panel of ELT and CLIL experts debated questions such as "Does CLIL complement or compromise English Language Teaching?" All members of the audience were encouraged to contribute to the discussion by giving their answers to questions posed by the panel by means of a hand-held voting device. During the debate, panel member David Graddol posed the question, "How does English fit into our multi-lingual society?" Others talked about English medium education bringing reform in schools around the world and leading to a greater connection between content and language and how CLIL can help overcome the problem of motivating children to learn another language. It was pointed out that CLIL allows "boys to do things with the language" so that they begin to realize that "language is not only for girls or sissies". But change is complex and "parental attitude and understanding" is a key point which can have a great impact on the marks the children achieve in CLIL lessons. The setting up of a buddy-system was talked about to help overcome the problem of finding teachers who are able to teach CLIL lessons but a greater difficulty at the moment is getting governments to commit to long-term programmes. The CLIL debate is continuing online on onestopclil.

Anchor Point:4High-tech

Technology was in the spotlight again later on that day in the Global ELT communication through technology panel debate hosted by Nicky Hockly with live link ups to Jill Hadfield in New Zealand, JJ Wilson in the USA and Jeremy Harmer in Cambridge. Nicky started off by asking the audience to decide whether they thought of themselves as "technophobes" or as "tech-comfy" – most said they were tech-comfy. Although the video links broke down a few times during this interesting session, Gavin Dudeney kept us up-to-date with a second screen showing the "tweets" coming in via Twitter.com from people around the world following the discussion live online. In answer to a question from the audience, Jeremy Harmer said that he sees the digital divide as something "not between adults and kids, but between people who have got it [technology] and people who haven't". This point was emphasized again by Gordon Lewis in his Saturday talk, Bringing technology into the classroom, when he said that "the ability to use broadband is one of the single most important questions" and he advised us all to invest in a good (broadband) connection that can deal with the enormous flow of information rather than flashy computers. He also offered a word of warning when he said that "precisely because our students are digital natives, they don't see using tech tools as anything important".

Anchor Point:5Low-tech

The conference was not only for tech-comfy participants and those interested in and working with technology; there were plenty of other important topics being discussed, debated and described. For example, I attended interesting (low-tech) talks on marking essays, pronunciation, grammatical terms ("What is simple about the present simple?") and ESP topics such as law enforcement and technical English. There were also many sessions dealing with teacher training and development as well as methodologies and approaches. These were often immensely popular; Scott Thornbury and Luke Medding's talk on Dogme, for example, was given to an overfull room, as was another talk titled Teaching tips that stay with us. And late Friday afternoon, in an excellent workshop by Ken Wilson, Jamie Keddie and Hans Mol, we were reminded that we don't actually need many resources in order to turn our classrooms into creative and effective areas of language learning.

Anchor Point:6Social programme

An excellent and varied social programme was provided in the evenings which included poetry, music and dance and, for the second year in a row, Lindsay Clandfield hosted a packed Pecha Kucha evening. This popular event gave the audience the chance to see more of some well-known ELT authors and trainers as they gave us their informal take on ELT. The event was broadcast live on the British Council website and will be available for those who missed it on the Cardiff Online website.

Anchor Point:7Last words

This conference was ground-breaking in many ways as it was not only attended by the 1700 or so people who made the trip to Cardiff, but also by thousands more online and via Twitter. I'm not sure if anyone has a figure that includes both face-to-face and virtual attendees, but it would be interesting to find out. Someone suggested holding IATEFL conferences on Second Life, but I hope that doesn't happen as for me one of the most important aspects of a conference such as this is being able to meet with colleagues from all over the world and exchange teaching tips, discuss topical and controversial issues, and meet up for a cup of coffee during the day or a glass of wine in the evening.

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