The speaking situation: an interview with Dr. Claire Dembry

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For the second instalment in a pair of posts looking at how a major ELT publisher is using research to inform its work, ELTjam sat down for a chat with Dr. Claire Dembry during a coffee break at the Better Learning conference. Claire talked about how the wide-ranging research she was engaging in was impacting the conversations that were taking place around CUP’s products … especially when it comes to learners actually speaking … 

Can you tell us about your role at Cambridge University Press?

I’m the Principal Research Manager in ELT. That involves several things; a lot of it is language research, like looking at Corpora and working out what we can find out from that that will inform our books, courses, or materials. We are also increasingly doing more and more pedagogy-based activities; either running research projects, looking at various different aspects of learning and teaching or working with other people who are doing that, or summarising current research in the field. All of this is done with an aim of getting useful and data-driven information about ELT teaching that can inform the direction of our products; not only the content, not only the language, but also the methodology, the curriculum, teacher support and so on.

Partners and institutions that we work with are always interested in this research, and they want to know that our products are rigorous and research-informed. They might also want carry out their own research with their own students, and on how teachers are working in the classroom. So, increasingly we get involved with them to help set up, run or manage research projects as well.

You recently conducted a learner survey that got 14,000 responses. What was the impulse behind it?

This is a project that we’re working on with Nottingham University around learner motivation. In sports psychology, if you visualize yourself winning the race before you start, it’s been shown to have a positive outcome on your performance. We’re looking at applying that same idea to language learning. Our theory is that, if a learner visualizes themselves as a ‘successful’ speaker of English (whatever that means for them, however that looks), there will be a positive impact on their motivation.

We think that, if we can get learners actively reflecting on what they want to do and what they want to achieve, that this could promote both motivation and performance.

That was the premise, and that largely comes from the work that the people like Zoltán Dörnyei at Nottingham University are doing. We wanted to find out about our learners’ ‘ideal L2 self’; who it was and what it looked like.

We used our survey to ask things like Who’s your role model and why? and What is it about them that you want to be like? and other questions around self-motivation. We also asked questions around demotivation, like What do you find hard? What do you not like? What’s tricky in English?

We also asked some questions around materials and course books, like What do you not like? What do you like? What do you want to be able to say? To what extent do coursebooks mesh with what you want to do?  We’re aware that English language textbooks typically trot out the same topics. There’s usually something about the environment, or sports, for example. It’s quite samey. We wanted to know whether learners care? What do they want to see?

We had no idea that the survey was going to reach so many people. We promoted it via Cambridge Dictionaries Online which has huge traffic.

Because we didn’t anticipate such a huge response, it’s taken a long time to analyze all of the data. One thing we didn’t want to do was to push people in a certain direction with our questions, like, What’s hard in English? Speaking? Writing? Reading? Instead, we just said What’s hard? So, obviously, the responses are quite wide ranging.

As a result, we have hugely detailed information there, but it’s been a massive task to get that into any kind of shape. I think it’s going to be really fascinating to find out what learners actually do, who they want to be and why. What are their reasons and what do they value? How should we as a publisher change our materials based on these responses? What ‘English’ should we be teaching?

What has been the biggest takeaway from that survey?

Across those fourteen thousand responses, learners overwhelmingly said that speaking was the most difficult part of their English language learning. In fact, speaking was cited as a learning obstacle more than all the the other responses combined. It was a runaway winner.

Within that answer, we can break it down even further. For example, the most common issues in terms of speaking are largely related to learners being able to express their ideas. After that, pronunciation is another really important issue. A huge number of learners said that. There was also a large number of responses around paraphrasing and strategies for saying things in different ways.

Is it something particular to English learning or is speaking an issue learners would identify with in L1?

I don’t know. We didn’t test that in the data that we have. It could be that they don’t like speaking in general, but I get the feeling that a lot of the answers were around what they can’t do in English; about expressing themselves.

There is a vicious cycle at play when it comes to speaking. Learners really value it. They rate themselves on how well they can speak. However, the one thing that they need to do to improve that (i.e. practice) they more often than not don’t want to do. Obviously, not all students are like that, but lots of students lack confidence and they find it very stressful.

The question we’re asking ourselves is ‘How do we break that?’ How do we make speaking feel less scary and show learners that they can make the progress that they feel they should make?

Another thing that came out time and time again in the survey was this feeling of judgment, so we’ve really been thinking about what we do in classrooms to get away from that. Our talk at this conference about safe speaking environments was really focused on the classroom and how can we modify and shift things around to make more of speaking. More widely, it’s about bringing ELT back to what matters most – helping learners communicate.

There have been a lot of things to focus on across ELT recently, like the growing impact of digital. When we ask learners what they find hard, however, they don’t say that it’s their teacher wanting them to use an iPad, or work online. I don’t know if that even came up. This isn’t to say that this is never an issue, but what we’re saying is that we need to start talking about students’ needs again, as they perceive them, and how we can address them.

To what degree do you think the culture of assessment within ELT has contributed to that lack of confidence?

It’s difficult to know. I think we talk about learners as if they’re one big blob and everybody’s the same and is doing the same thing. They’re definitely not. I think people who are driven by exams do perhaps go about learning English a different way compared to someone trying to learn English to communicate in a business context, or to get into university, or for their job. I don’t know if I have the answer.

What we’re trying to do is raise awareness. I think a lot of the issue around speaking in classrooms stems from time, or the lack of it. Many teachers that I’ve talked to admit that speaking gets shoved to the end of the lesson as a kind of free-for-all. Some teachers say they sometimes do their marking or their admin during speaking activities. There is so much to cover in an ELT class that things do get squeezed, and it’s completely understandable.

We’re trying to raise speaking as an issue and to ask the question What can we do to change this?

And one approach you’re suggesting is ‘safe speaking environments’?

We’re proposing that one way to tackle the problem of confidence is to make some adjustments to how speaking activities are set up and delivered in classroom environments so that learners feel more comfortable contributing. A part of that involves selecting topics that the learners find meaningful and that resonate, as opposed to generic course book conversational topics. Tasks which students carry out as a group and involve collaboration and cooperative learning are likely to allow the students to lose themselves in the task and almost forget they are learning English because the goal is beyond language and is part of the activity. The aim is to get students to work together to achieve a goal which is not a language goal, it is a task goal, but it has to be achieved through English. We think that this can be achieved with extended tasks that involve problem solving, creating something or group decision-making e.g. creating a playlist for a party they’re having, or buying furniture for their new home with a limited budget.

Clearly related to task type is topic choice – being able to relate to a topic is key to encouraging engagement. We’re also suggesting a more peer-to-peer approach with speaking activities, rather than assuming the teacher should be the only facilitator. Giving learners more opportunities to speak to each other, and to support each other, could help to reduce that feeling of judgement that the survey highlighted. Peer-to-peer interactions also open up far more opportunities to practice within the time constraints of a lesson.

If you work at an ELT publisher and are involved in an interesting research project, get in touch; we’d love to hear about it.

Take a look at Cambridge University Press’ ELT blog for more posts by Claire and the team. Claire tweets @ClaireDembry.


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