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August 8, 2013

Dilemmas in Teaching English

So you are looking for something different? Tired of reading "how to teach English" but concerned about your language classroom?

Dorothy S. Messerschmitt and Johnnie Johnson Hafernik have partnered to develop an exciting addition to the ELT literature. Their approach -- using case study to stimulate reflection on ethics in teaching – is guaranteed to get you thinking (if you can just get past the introduction!).

The cases are not the answers, but the beginning of study

Dilemmas in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages: 40 Cases is far more than just 40 cases. In fact the cases are very short -- each less than 500 words. As with any good casebook, the cases are not the answers, but the beginning of study in individual units themed to various issues teachers have encountered. These cases were real (names and circumstances have been modified).

Plan of attack
While the cases could be read in class, the authors recommend pre-class reading and reflection, then group discussions. The language is reader-friendly, units are independent and average 5 pages in length, making this book flexible enough to fit almost any group of readers.

The authors take a wide-view of ethics: rather than rules and prescriptions, it is the questions of social responsibility faced by teachers and administrators. No need for hesitation, let's get into it!

Book structure
Messerschmitt and Hafernik have built dozens of tasks following each of those 40 cases. The Questions for Discussion are fairly simple and based directly on the material presented, such as How do you think (A) feels about this, or feels about (B)? What more facts would you like to have? What can (A) do now? Is this teacher's policy fair? What other options are available? This section does an excellent job warming the reader to the topic.

The next section in each unit is Extending the Case. These are single paragraph mini-cases with different situations and specifics complimenting the main case. Go back to the unit title and the connections can be made, but without that hint it's not always obvious. These two or three mini-cases per unit provide a good challenge, taking the reader into deeper thought.

Reflection as a core value
The Questions for Further Reflection are surely the book's raison d'etre, tying a bit of theory, modest research assignments (e.g., write a definition of academic integrity) and some deep personal values into meaningful reflection. Here is where self-study would be a disadvantage for readers. Sharing reflections with peers would greatly enrich the experience.

Readers are invited to personalize the issue, often in a professional setting

Next comes Delving Deeper. This is the best of the book. Readers are invited to personalize the issue, often in a professional setting. Write a policy, define your beliefs, etc. Again, sharing with peers would add much to the process.

The last three sections for each unit are Resources, Resolution, and My Thoughts on the Resolution. Resources are things you might read to learn more on the topic, including books, journal articles, various multimedia, and websites. Adding multimedia (DVDs, websites, etc) is a nice feature. Resolution is a short summary of what really happened in the case. Often quite disappointingly. The My Thoughts section is a small box reserved for the reader to respond to that resolution. (Oh well, real cases, with real teachers, real humans.) But as the authors note in the early pages, some dilemmas have no good solutions, and some dilemmas are never resolved satisfactorily. The paragraph-sized empty box feels strange here, considering there was no space for notes after all the reflective questions earlier in each unit.

Disappointments
If you like case study, you’ll love this book. There are no negatives here, but several disappointments. They promised us a matrix of themes for the cases. Instead we get a second table of contents with various topics listed for each (semi-colon delimiters work in Excel, not on a printed page!). The book ends with a down-note -- the part-time instructor repeatedly fails in efforts for full-time employment. Since Messerschmitt and Hafernik tell us the cases are independent and only in loose order (from the classroom to broader issues), couldn't we have ended with a feel-good?


Messerschmitt and Hafernik’s Dilemmas in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages: 40 Cases is an excellent resource for a discussion circle of teachers as well as for pre-service or in-service students or trainees. The cases are premised on North American post-secondary multicultural classrooms, but most are readily transferable to EFL environments where students share a common L1. There are a number of culture-conflict cases that may not be so important where the teacher shares the learner's L1, but still raise awareness of cultural differences (say, between the shared L1 and the target L2).

These cases are a great springboard for discussions, and from that perspective many of the units could be used in a content-based language practice course for pre-service English teachers in EFL lands.

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