An interview with eltforum.sk plenary speaker: Penny Ur
Part One – by Tatiana Nováková
When teachers start to teach, they’re young and fresh, and mostly full of ideas and ideals. They feel they can change the whole world, or at least their students. Yet they soon discover that being a teacher doesn’t only mean teaching students, but learning from them at the same time. Professor Penny Ur OBE – ELT teacher/teacher trainer/author/speaker, recipient of an OBE from the Queen of England for her services to English language teaching, and one of this June’s plenary speakers at the ELTForum.sk – shares some of what she’s learned over the years.
SCET: As a renowned ELT expert, author and teacher trainer, you are an inspiration to teachers all over the world. You have also earned the respect of other ELT experts and teacher trainers. We’d like to know who or what inspires you, and why?
Penny: I think it all started when I began teaching classes of unruly children and teenagers in Israeli state schools. At first it was really tough; and then, gradually, I began to get good at it and enjoy it. What I particularly enjoyed was the discovery of what works and what doesn’t, and why. What kinds of activities get students interested and eager to participate? What grammar practice activities actually work and what doesn’t? What is the underlying ‘practical principle’ for this particular teaching/learning? And so on. Each such discovery got me excited and wanting to share with other teachers: hence the articles, at first, and, later, the books. It’s the excitement of professional development and discovery that inspires, and that comes directly from the interaction with students in the classroom.
SCET: You’ve said, “Everyone needs to know English to advance, communicate and achieve things beyond the everyday tasks.” In your opinion, which is more important: communicative efficiency (getting the message across) or correctness?
Penny: Well, put like that, I have to say ‘communicative efficiency’. It’s no good speaking or writing correct English if you aren’t getting your message across! But I still think there is value to correctness, not only because it makes the message clearer, but also because it makes the discourse more ‘comfortable’ for the reader or listener to access, raises the confidence of the speaker or writer, and is likely to increase the respect in which the speaker or writer is held by his or her audience.
SCET: Nowadays, children are more and more often called digital natives and, as teachers, we’re often told we need to ‘go digitally native’ ourselves. How much of a fan of ICT in the classroom are you? How do you integrate technology into your lessons?
Penny: I use ICT a lot in my classes: a Moodle website through which I communicate with students and receive, comment on and grade assignments; email to communicate with colleagues and students; PowerPoint to present new material. But I’m not a ‘fan’, any more than I am a fan of books, or pencils, or television. I use it because it helps, and where I think it makes a substantial contribution to learning and teaching, not that I think it is valuable or admirable in itself.
It worries me that a lot of people in the field seem to think that using technology is a virtue in itself, regardless of the quality of the learning to which it leads. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Here are some marvellous solutions’…but where are the problems? They’ve got it the wrong way round. I remember seeing an enthusiastic presenter showing how students can do gapfill exercises on the interactive whiteboard. But a gapfill is a gapfill is a gapfill… The question is how much are they learning from the procedure as a whole?
SCET: I once saw a funny T-shirt designed for teachers with this on it: Keep calm and pretend it’s on the lesson plan! Have you ever been in a situation in the classroom when things did not go the way you had planned, hoped and wanted? What did you do?
I can’t remember a particular incident, but it has surely happened lots of times – so many that it’s almost routine. I always plan my lessons, and mostly they go 90% according to plan, but never 100%, and often a lot less than 90%! It’s a question of keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the students, and taking rapid on-your-feet decisions: shall I stop this activity which is going wildly wrong, or not? Shall I go with the idea that a student has suddenly raised, and postpone all the other things I’d planned…or not? There’s no rule here. You get, after a while, a ‘feel’ for when it’s a good idea to abandon plans and go with the flow, and when it’s better to resist the temptation, and continue with your program. I remember reading research by Tedd Wragg on ‘the good teacher’ in the eyes of students. One of the statements they were given was “This teacher will change the lesson and do something else if that’s what the students want”: they defined this as a characteristic of the bad teacher. Thought-provoking!
Prof. Penny Ur OBE was educated at the universities of Oxford (MA), Cambridge (PGCE) and Reading (MATEFL). She emigrated to Israel in 1967, where she taught English for 30 years and still lives today. Now retired, she has taught from primary all the way up through postgraduate, the latter at Oranim Academic College of Education and University of Haifa. Prof. Ur is interested in all aspects of language-teaching methodology, but in particular issues of fluency and accuracy in language teaching, language-learning activity design and the implications for teachers of the development of English as a lingua franca. She has presented papers at various English teachers’ conferences worldwide, published a number of articles and books with Cambridge University Press, and was for ten years the editor of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series. Her books include Discussions that Work (1981), Five-Minute Activities (co-authored with Andrew Wright, 1992), A Course in Language Teaching (1996), Grammar Practice Activities (2nd Edition, 2009), Vocabulary activities (2012), and A course in English language teaching (2nd Edition, 2012).
About the interviewer: Tatiana Nováková is an English teacher (although she prefers the term ‘coach’), PhD candidate (focus on grammar acquisition in young learners) and instructor at the Faculty of Education, University of Presov. She teaches all ages, from kids to young adults and adults (including a special course for moms). She’s an avid Prezi fan, a member of SCET and recently started to blog.