Basic communication skills for writing and researching in teacher training

One of my PhD students recently did a short certificate training course in teaching English as a foreign or other language. As a full-time student in her final year, time is short and needs to be well used. So one might wonder if doing this course was a good idea.

I think yes, certainly. I remember what I learnt from the Cambridge certificate training course I did in 1973 – probably the first year it ran. I had already got a post­graduate certificate in education to qualify me to teach English, history and sociology in secondary school. That gave me the philosophy, sociology and psychology of education, which the Cambridge course I think lacked. But what it gave me that the post­graduate course didn’t was basic communication skills that were crucial far beyond classroom teaching – in professional life and in research and writing. I can trace much of what I think I’m able to do now back to a number of crucial skills that I learnt then.

First, planning lessons taught me to sequence the delivery of ideas and evidence with an audience right there in front of me at every small step.

The second and third skills were how to ask questions and how to design tasks and their instructions. These involved precise wording, design and also sequencing. In research, this helps us to design interview questions and to set up the right conditions for research events. In writing, this helps us involve our audience in the task of reading our work by helping them to piece together the various elements of what we present and to act upon what we want to say in the way that we want them to act.

These skills were enablers for the crucial fourth skill of elicitation. This is how to activate what Kumaravadivelu refers to as ‘the intuitive heuristics of the learner’ (in his classic, 1993, ‘Maximising the learning potential’ paper). I didn’t learn about the notion of underlying communicative competence until years later in my masters course. But in the certificate training it was made very evident that my audience of language learners had tacit knowledge and intelligence with which how I presented my material had to engage.

In writing, we need to plan carefully how we select and sequence our material to best elicit the ‘intuitive heuristics’ of our readers – to help our readers to get what we are writing about. I think that, as writers, we often forget that we are communicating with an audience that needs showing and having their attention directed not so unlike the students that we teach.

To know how to elicit the intuitive heuristics of our language students we need to research who they are. This requires direct observation not just of how they ‘perform’ in the classroom, but of everything we can see of them in the classroom, in the corridors, as they come into the classroom, in the library or the cafeteria, and wherever we can find them. What we learn about them is also informed by our knowledge of people in all walks of life.

Something very similar applies to writing. Knowing how and what to write involves an ethnographic understanding of the wider academic community to which our readers belong. This can be acquired not just from what members of this community write in books and journals, but also what they say and do in lectures, tutorials, conversing in common rooms and tutorials, what they post on office doors and departmental corridor walls, what they put on their office shelves and desks.

It is also not unconnected that the first step in the classic ethnographic research cycle is looking around in the research setting to see what’s going on – to work out how we are going to approach our participants and what methods we are going to use.

Therefore, in conclusion, successful teaching requires researching our students so that we can effectively engage them and elicit response through sequenced ideas, questions and tasks to bring them to desired learning outcomes. Successful writing requires researching our audience so that we can effectively … . Successful research requires researching social settings and the people in them … . I think we can here fill in the gaps – and also for professional scenarios.

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