Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Meanwhile... back at the farm...

While all this has been going on, back in my home country we're having an election.

Not the kind of election most people get excited about, where you might have an outside chance of changing the government. Nor the kind of election that it seems from away over here my compatriots would rather enjoy at this stage, with greedy, self serving MPs swinging from every lamppost.

No, it will be one of those elections people don't normally bother to get out of bed for. Except tomorrow, I rather think they will.

We (or rather they, as I missed my registration) are voting for local government councillors and members of the European parliament... I'm ashamed to say I don't know who my MEP is. This sort of thing would normally attract a turnout of about 20% of the electorate, in a good year. Tomorrow I hope it will be massive. The opinion polls don't really know how to read it: bad for Labour, the party in power (a massive recession followed by a huge scandal... lovely!) but possibly also bad for the Tories (umm... what's different about them on policy?... errr....).

One curious thing over the last 20 years or so is that there has become essentially no difference in policy between the two main parties: both agree with more privatisation, even of social services like the NHS, deregulation of business and financial services (and we now know how well that has worked out) and increasing authoritarian control.

We haven't, so far as I am aware, ever had a national debate about whether we wanted these things (in fact I seem to recall all parties insisting that they were NOT trying to sell off the NHS, the London Underground, schools, the Post Office, while all the time the creeping tides of privatisation lapped ever higher around them).

But where there is no difference in belief, parties have to compete on their competence and honesty. Nobody's debating what the government should do, just whether party x or party y will manage to do it without leaving top secret information on the 7.15 train to Waterloo, and without vastly enriching its MPs at public expense.

The Labour party has failed on both counts, but the Conservatives have been equally corrupt, and show no signs of being any more efficient.

So it's an interesting election all right. I wish I was there.

Playing God with the Mogs

Roxy's kittens are thriving and rampaging around the house.

While still feeding them milk, Roxy celebrated the kits' near-independence by ... going on heat and rampaging around the house singing her eerie love songs. I suppose that, having made a rather good job of bringing 4 healthy moglets into the world, she thought now would be the time to start another 4, and another, and another.

We thought otherwise. She was scragged, bundled into one of the shiny new cat carriers we've got, and delivered to the vet under protest.

He's a good man, our vet. Very critter-oriented, it took 3 visits before he made eye contact with us primates. All the same, we felt like murderers.

She was at the vets for 3 days, during which the kittens wandered about looking anxious and deprived. We did much the same.

Yesterday we brought the poor mog back, complaining loudly. Her flank has been shaved and painted blue, with a neat row of staples pinning her wound together. I sat in the back with the cat carrier open and stoked her head all the way home. At first she was just cowering and moaning (especially on the roundabouts - not surprising given some of the driving we could see), but as we got into our neighbourhood she stretched her neck up to peer through the windows, and I would not be surprised if she recognised perfectly well where we were.

Once indoors she was immediately surrounded by the kittens, who sniffed her, kissed her whiskers, stroked their tails along her flanks, and licked her ears. She licked them back. It was so clearly an affectionate reunion that we felt, if anything, even more guilty for taking her away. The next thing was that she lay down and fed them... at least, they all sucked away frantically and, apparently, we satisfied.

She is obviously aching and rather cranky - tends to crouch and moan, and walks stiffly. This will pass. But she has also lost some of her trust in us, and is not happy having us pick her up. She cowers when we come close, which is upsetting. It seems that she is afraid we will grab her, stick her in a cage, and whisk her away to a strange place where people do painful things to her.

The worst of it is that we will, on Sunday, when we take her back to have the staples taken out.

Poor Roxy.

She'll get over it, but I'm not sure whether we will.

Monday, 1 June 2009

so much to blog, so little time

The pace just gets quicker, with teaching and grading, testing and final presentations all galloping faster and faster to the end of the week. Something in my brain goes dead and I find myself sneaking peeks onto the net...

And answering emails. There has been an email-based debate about teaching vocab here - basically, what when and how.

The background to it is that on the course I teach, a new target is for students to "learn" - which means they must be assessed - on the Academic Word Lists, the top frequency words in Academic writing.

This came in for the first time 2 years ago. So one of my big jobs last year was devising assessments... which we now have a bunch of.

Oddly, the requirement for the course was that students should demonstrate passive understanding of 65% of the list and active production of 60% of the list... I suspect the figures should be rather different for realistic language learning (I'd guess 75% passive recognition - 50% active production would be more likely, though I don't know any research on the figures).

Anyway, devising an instrument that assesses production is quite hard, and the freer the production the harder it is.

There is now the suggestion that some of the AWL should be devolved down onto the level below.

However, the problem I notice most is not with students learning an academic word list (they are good at "learning" - in the sense of "memorising the translation of" lists of words). It is with the more basic vocabulary - what is often called the basic 3,000 words.

Plus they suffer difficulties with forming sentences and word forms (as in history - historical - historian) - it seems hard for students to recognise what a plausible sentence of English looks like, even into their 2nd year. Obviously, this affects their writing, but it also affects their reading.

A lot of exam reading comprehension consists of recognising parallel expressions (so in a text which mentions "eyesight" the question might ask about "vision") - one expression might contain the Academic list word but the other will use a paraphrase.

Students sometimes say "I know what this means in Arabic" but being unable to find other English words is a barrier (and it also encourages students to plagiarise... another can of worms).

Personally, I think that more lists would be pretty deadly - another move, as if we needed more, towards the "memorise-test-forget" cycle a lot of our teaching seems to aim to emulate. I would like more reading - more extensive reading and more focused reading with vocab support. But it's harder to measure the benefits of that.

I even proposed a test - some students in Foundations doing the AWL earlier, and some doing extensive reading with vocab support - then see who does better in the AWL in Year 1, and in everything else.

I'd be willing to bet money the readers would not only learn the AWL's better, but score better in reading and writing....