40 years TESOL Greece

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Mandates, Myths, and the Bananarama Principle

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto holds a US English teaching license and an MATESOL, and has taught Language Arts, ESL, and EFL. Barbara is co-author of one of the world’s best-selling coursebook series for children learning English, Let’s Go (Oxford University Press), co-author of the online course, English for Teachers (International Teacher Development Institute), and author of the chapter, ‘The role of technology in early years language education’, in Early Years Second Language Education (Routledge, 2015). She is an English Language Specialist with the United States State Department, and is Course Director for International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi.pro). Barbara has been invited to give keynote and plenary talks at a number of international conferences, and has conducted teacher training workshops in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. She has conducts courses and teacher training online. Her webinars are always popular with teachers around the world.

Teachers of our youngest learners face some of the biggest teaching challenges — inadequate professional support and training, government mandates based more on wishful thinking than research, and parents who enrolling their children in English classes at younger ages than ever before. We’ll look at research and classroom practice around the world to see what actually works, what doesn’t, and why successful foreign language education for children should matter to all teachers.

Barbara's Interview by Margarita Kosior

The title of your plenary is “Mandates, Myths, and the Bananarama Principle”. Could you give us a foretaste of what mandates and myths you will be referring to, and reveal what, if anything, the pop group Bananarama have to do with ELT?

Mandates come in many forms, but the ones that affect our profession most directly are typically those that determine at what age schools will offer foreign language classes, which teachers are qualified to teach these classes, and how progress will be assessed. Mandates can come with funding, but more often they don’t. Without the money or training, mandates become more like wishful thinking than anything. And often, the reasoning behind mandates is based on language learning myths like ‘children are better language learners’ or ‘native speakers are better language teachers’ rather than on research. The Bananarama Principle is taken from the lyrics to one of the group’s more obscure songs. The lyric is “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. They weren’t singing about effective teaching in ELT, but I believe the principle applies.

In your plenary, you will be talking, among others, about some of the biggest challenges when teaching the youngest students. How young are the “youngest learners” that you will be referring to, and in which areas do you think teachers of (very) young learners need support and training most?

Around the world, children are starting English classes at younger and younger ages. The number of students in the 6 to 12-year old range still outnumber students in younger ages, but the younger age group is growing each year. A lot of the growth is driven by parents who want to give their children a competitive edge in the future. If parents are willing to pay for classes for 3-year olds, schools will provide them. There is little training and support for teachers working with young learners, and even less for teachers working with very young learners. Schools often put their least experienced teachers in their young learner classes, so it becomes a sink-or-swim situation. Teachers need support in understanding child development and behavior, to learn what are reasonable expectations, and what are not. They need training to learn how to create language learning programs and lessons that are appropriate for the age and developmental level of their students. Ideally, inexperienced teachers would have a chance to observe and be mentored by a more experienced teacher.

Opinions vary regarding how early in life children should start learning English. On the one hand, “children are like sponges”, as the old saying goes; on the other hand, recent research indicates that earlier does not necessarily mean better. Despite this ongoing debate, the dramatic rise of Early English language programmes is a discernible trend in ELT in recent decades. Do you believe it’s justified and brings the expected outcomes?   

Children as sponges is actually one of the myths I’ll be addressing in my plenary. The quantity and quality of language input affects the rate of language growth, and it’s hard to provide enough of either in English classes. Part of the reason that young children seem to pick up language so easily is that we don’t ask them to do very much with the language they’ve learned compared to what we ask older learners to do. However, research isn’t the driving force behind the increase in Early English language programs, and even if research shows that older is better, we’re still going to see classes for younger and younger children because of market demand and government mandates. This doesn’t mean that offering Early English programs is a bad thing. Learning that people have different languages, accents, and cultures is a very good thing, I think. Whether programs are justified or bring expected outcomes depends on whether our expectations are appropriate for the ages involved.

In your opinion, what is an indicator of a successful lesson with (very) young learners?

One of the simplest indicators is listening comprehension. For 3 and 4-year olds, being able to listen and do something — point to an object when you say the object’s name, find something green when asked, interact with a story when you read aloud, or follow classroom instructions given in English —  shows that they understand what you’re teaching. Using the language they understand to answer questions, to play games, or to sing songs are all indicators of success. However, even if a child does a fingerplay or gestures as others sing a song shows that they’re following. Verbal skills develop at different rates even among children in the same age group. Children aren’t always articulate in their first languages at this age. If you ask a question in English, and the child responds correctly in Greek, that is also an indicator of success because it means the child understood your question. Basically, if very young children finish a class as happy or happier than they were at the beginning, and are excited to come to the next class, that’s success.

The gap between research and teaching often seems very large in ELT. Do you believe every teacher is or should be a researcher, and that every researcher should be an experienced teacher?

Classroom teachers are informal researchers, even if the extent of their research is discovering what works best for their own learners. It would be great if teachers who wanted to conduct more formal research had support and training (and time!) to do so. Most academic researchers in ELT have classroom experience, even if they’ve been out of the classroom for a while. Much of what we do in the classroom now is influenced by Stephen Krashen’s work with comprehensible input and affective filters, and Annamaria Pinter is doing some fascinating work, including children as researchers. Neither are classroom teachers, but the rest of us can benefit from their research. We can learn a lot by listening to both classroom teachers and academic researchers. We could learn even more if there were better communication between researchers and classroom teachers. Teachers generally have limited, if any access to journals where research is published, making it difficult to learn about new studies, and to try new ways of teaching that are supported by research.   

Do teacher communities ultimately assist language educators, and how can language educators make the most of them?

It depends on the teacher community, I think. When communities have active members who contribute and collaborate, they are remarkable resources for everyone. When members stop participating, then teachers begin feeling dissatisfied. Even with vibrant communities, it’s impossible for any group to meet all its members’ needs. That’s one reason we end up with a variety of teacher communities. The best way to make sure that a teacher community meets your needs is to become involved. Actually, that’s also the best way to make the most of any group. Jump in and participate. Connect with teachers who teach in similar contexts, because we can learn from people who are perhaps teaching the same thing in a different way. Connect with teachers who have very different experiences because we can learn from people who are teaching in different contexts, or teaching different learners. Volunteer as your time allows, present at conferences, become a leader. It sounds simplistic, but generally the more you give, the more you get in return.

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