Alice Savage

TESOL Chicago: Ideas and Inspiration

multi-modal octopusAt a drama presentation given by Kathleen McGovern at the Chicago TESOL last week, participants created and performed skits that were meant to advocate for a change we’d like to see at the TESOL convention. Many of the groups did skits about the long walking distances. Others advocated for more food by performing dramas about starvation since the convention center was a bit of a food desert.

These were lots of fun to watch, and they addressed valid concerns, but I have to say, I was very proud of our group’s presentation. We did  a skit about having TESOL create a discriptor that would encourage more presentations like McGovern’s. Her Multi-modal Embodied Learning: An Interactive Workshop provided an experiential look at what the language classroom can be. And that joyful approach to learning kind of illustrated the energy of sessions that were a little outside the mainstream.

Specifically, McGovern gave us a mission of advocating for change. Next she gave participant groups a chance to be creative with paper, pens, tape, and spontaneous bursts of collaborative creativity. My new friend Nic from New York proposed that we become a multi-modal octopus, and my new friend Bibi said, “Why not?” We quickly sketched out our octopus costumes, marched up to the front and proudly advocated for more creativity in TESOL. It felt like what the classroom should be, a place for innovation, the exploration of ideas and joy.

Actually, joy was a clear takeaway from Chicago. We did have to walk long distances, navigate a high school vollyball tournament and travel up and down many flights of stairs. However, in many of the sessions, there was talk of the sort of classroom community that McGovern had managed to provide in a cavernous ballroom, a sense that in Earl Stevick’s words, “language is something that happens among and between people.” It’s not about gap fills, grammar boxes, and multiple choice answers. It’s about teachers and students relating to each other through meaningful content.

Several talks were about pragmatics, which can be described as a deep understanding of conversation skills. There are corpus tools such as MICASE that people can use to identify the ways that phrases are used to make moves in interactions, and there are plays and scripts that show what it feels like to manage conversational moves in real life… with intonation.

There were also sessions on connecting students’ classroom experiences to the performance and writing tasks that they’ll do in real college classes and beyond. The panel by Diane Schmitt, Margi Wald, Jan Frodeson, and Gina Benett gave some practical advice for getting away from the five paragraph essay by looking at authentic college assignments. They pointed out that even high stakes college entry tests are being redesigned to value interaction with texts, and how that shift might influence choices we make in organizing language support.

Lucky for us, we got to spend some time with Margi, Diane and her husband Norbert, all of whom have also published widely on the effectiveness of teaching  lexico-grammatical chunks that serve an immediate purpose.


Scott Thornbury had a provocative session on the persistence of grammar. True to his name, he was a “thorn” in the side of the grammar-box warriors, citing research suggesting that grammar emerges but is not necessarily taught. For example, “Grammatical syllabuses cannot easily accomodate the essential nature of L2 acquistion.” (Ellis & Shintani), and “Grammar instruction has not been altered by research.” Thornbury explained its persistence with some data from his own survey of English language teachers coming up with the following results of why teachers think grammar instruction is such a powerful force.

  1. Students expect it. (about 48% of teachers think this is true.)
  2. Publishers are unwilling to take risks. (48%)
  3. Examinations value it. (43%)
  4. Teachers prefer it. (38%)
  5. SLA research is wrong. (10%)
  6. Alternatives are unworkable. (10%)

Thornbury left half his time for teachers questions, something he seemed genuinely curious about, and when asked what we should do to teach grammar, he talked about providing grammar when it’s needed as is done with content-based approaches.

Colin’s Oxford session also addressed the theme of aligning language teaching more closely with authentic use. He pointed out that “No language is ever taught in isolation from content,” and showed how a content first approach can help students gather a set of mix and match phrases and stems that can ease students’ way into discourse communities. He even slipped in a few slides about TRIO, which just happens to teach grammar at the point of need.


Alice did a session for Wayzgoose Press’s Big Ideas graded readers series that explored the potential of extensive reading texts to provide content for lesson plans across the curriculum.  When students are able to comprehend a text well enough to engage with ideas, there is much skills work that can be done, and students start to enjoy reading with the same level of comfort that native speakers feel when picking up a magazine at the doctor’s office.

TESOL 2018 was also the launch of Alice’s Integrated Skills Through Drama series, a series of one-act plays packaged with ancillary activities (Alphabet Press). With scripts as a starting point, students can become characters, and through those characters work on pronunciation, intonation and pragmatics, moving from words on the page, to words in the air, to a transfer of expressions and strategies in new role plays.

A final highlight was a hug from Diane Larsen-Freeman, who spoke on a panel about learning from other fields. Her work with complex systems and chaos theory has shed great insight into the dynamics of language in action, and her inflence continues to be widely felt among teachers and researchers’ who seek to provide students with opportunities to iterate and reiterate their ideas, opinions, and stories.

Hopefully, the conversation will never end!





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