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Interview With – Paul Seligson

Jack Scholes: You’ve been teaching EFL worldwide since 1978. With all your international experience, what would you say are the “ties that bind” quality teaching practice across the globe and in a variety of scenarios?

Paul Seligson: Strong rapport, empathy, personalisation, the ability to maintain student engagement, and well-honed management skills, to make efficient use of class time.

JS: How do you see the learner as a collaborator in the various age groups you work with?

PS: Again, it’s often down to good class management to elicit maximum participation from each student. Basics, of course; ask the right questions, avoid unnecessary teacher‑dominated procedure, plus lots of short bursts of meaningful pair work and time enough for feedback. We need to avoid hurtling through over‑crowded syllabuses to make space for emerging language and greater learner contribution, at all stages.

JS: What have been the most fascinating and challenging parts of your educational career? Why?

PS: The privilege of sharing with countless fabulous teachers in 50+ countries! What other profession has so many ‘people’s people’? The challenge has been persuading more to adopt a broader range of pedagogical options, and locally relevant content. Despite our individual inventiveness, collectively, ours is a conservative profession, very slow to change.

JS: You’re well‑known for your lively talks and highly practical approach. As a writer, with over 40 publications, you’ve evolved into a Latin America specialist, and written a course which includes a unique syllabus of Common mistakes, cognates, and more locally tailored materials specifically designed to help Spanish and Portuguese speakers achieve early fluency. Why did you decide to write such an innovative course?

PS: Latin Americans — 900 million people! ‑had never had a specific course, just ‘a mesma coisa de sempre’. The fact is, any Romance language learner should get to ‘B1’ and communicate in reasonable English far more quickly than most. This hasn’t been happening nearly enough because we’ve ignored their existing linguistic knowledge/advantages and fed them an international rather than ‘own‑language friendly’ approach. Where is the language needs analysis for Brazilians in global courses? Why should we have to teach ‘go on’ in preference to ‘continue’ or ‘put up with’ before ‘tolerate’, when the phrasal form is so difficult? Brazilians immediately comprehend and can use the familiar alternatives immediately. With over 1.2 billion native Romance language speakers in the world, far more than of English. I’m not sure ‘go on’ is more globally intelligible than ‘continue’ anyway, particularly when you consider ELF. ’B1’ Brazilians are not the same as ‘B1’ Asians or Arabs, as they can comprehend and immediately use far more English lexis because of Portuguese. It’s high time we built this into our pedagogy, at all levels, from day 1.

JS: You recently ran CELTA courses back to back in Brighton and Recife. What are the main differences between running/doing a CELTA in Brazil and the UK?

PS: The ability to anticipate and shape more specific classes. Knowing what learners will/won’t understand immediately and find easy/harder in terms of meaning, form, pronunciation and use is a huge advantage. You don’t need to elicit or concept check anything like as much here in Brazil. Lesson preparation is significantly easier, or should be, unless you ignore this. In Recife last January, trainees teaching an A1 level group had to abandon their global course book as so much content/ lexis/emphasis was irrelevant to Brazilian students, who just wanted to express their identities quickly. 

JS: Mainstream grammar teaching follows two approaches ‑deductive, and mainly now, inductive, but you’re regularly critical. Why? 

PS: Because both usually either avoid, sometimes even deny L1‑contrast, or else postpone it until after it has already happened, which doesn’t seem illogical when we know it’s inevitable. Class time is precious. Induction often takes too long to make a straightforward point, particularly for Romance language speakers, where English is often so similar, much is guessable, often transparent for our learners. In grammar terms, think how easy conditionals or the passive voice are.

In any class, some will always ‘get it’ faster than others. Yes, the quick can try to explain/exemplify to the slower, but that can be awkward, fragmentary, even divisive, time‑consuming again, and teachers often have to intervene, re‑explain, then end up eliciting or translating anyway! Such ‘trying to work out what’s going on time’ is more profitably used giving everybody additional language development and communicative practice.

Besides, when do students ‘get it’? What’s the ‘Agora sim!’ moment’? Normally, when the penny finally drops and they’ve worked out the Portuguese equivalent! So, why not make this happen sooner, for everyone at once? Thornbury (2010) concurs; ’Learners will use translation, even if covertly, as a strategy for making sense of L2, so it makes sense to use it as an overt tool, so all the class get the message simultaneously.’ 

Inducing places significant extra demands on teachers to prompt and guide appropriately. This is obviously easier for those with strong English, plus training in elicitation and concept checking which, sadly, isn’t the majority in Latin America. Furthermore, learners often come up with incomplete or inaccurate rules, resulting in more (wasted) time and uncertainty. Learners used to deductive, more teacher‑led spoon‑feeding, or simply the weakest in any class, can find induction frustrating too. And many global course book exercises are included purely for the sake of inducting, when page space could be better used. For example, why gloss so many cognates when only false cognates need a glossary? Far more useful is to learn to pronounce cognates and explore affix patterns.

JS: You advocate a third approach which you call ‘seductive’! What exactly is your seductive alternative and how does it help? 

PS: Similar to ‘flipping’, I believe it wiser to have the inducting/deducting done before class, so teachers can begin by immediately confirming the point, then get on with the key phases of practice, personalisation and feedback. This is exactly how ‘seductive’ grammar works. Imagine boarding these items at the start of a class on expressing age, or uses of the present perfect; 

How would any Portuguese speaker understand the error and correct forms? Through mental contrast, thinking between languages, without having to say a word in Portuguese. Unlike traditional translation or contrast‑based methods, you’re not being asked to verbalise anything in any language, merely notice what goes wrong if you translate literally, extrapolate and begin to say it correctly.

Anticipating our students’ L1‑transfer issues, should be our starting point, both for lesson preparation and input, to best exploit this advantage. We know what will happen if we don’t, so why not? With multilingual classes, you can’t anticipate everybody’s errors, so have to elicit/ check thoroughly until every single learner whose language you don’t know has ‘got it’. I’m not saying ‘don’t induct’, I do it all the time. I’m merely stating the obvious that, in Latin America, we don’t have to induct nearly as much as elsewhere, and have a more efficient option available whenever we wish, before, during, or instead

Knowledge of other languages is now seen as an asset in language learning. Translanguaging and code switching have moved from acceptable, to inevitable, to desirable 

Four more examples, from Starter, A1, A2 and B1 levels of Seligson et al (Richmond, 2020) 

Can you sense a context, or even hear someone saying them? Perhaps yourself correcting a student, or even making the error when you were learning English? If we consistently model L1 transference traps to avoid right at the start of class, students see them on arrival, think, get the message, and on we go. They comprehend the lesson’s main thrust, your examples provide a context, they know what (not) to do, and are ready to practise straight away, without a word in Portuguese. 

JS: That makes a lot of sense. When did you start advocating this? 

PS: Instinctively, back in 1982, teaching in Egypt. After 6 months using the ‘native who doesn’t speak their language, English only’ method, which I call ‘bombard and pray’, I realised I was spending ages on exercises which had little impact. So, I started asking Arab‑speaking colleagues what the transfer issues would be in my next class, then would begin it by demonstrating ‘Don’t say X, say Y’. Students were remarkably positive, even thinking I spoke good Arabic myself, which I’m afraid to say I still don’t!

JS: What kind of response have you had from teachers? 

PS: Here’s some recent feedback; 

  • Mental contrast immediately contextualises language. No need to spend time context‑building. 
  • Accelerated comprehension. No need for explanation or inductive presentation. 
  • Embraces the inevitable. You can’t stop teens/adults from seeking equivalents. Until ‘C1’, they translate most new items/complex ideas anyway. Denying L1‑English contrast can confuse, frustrate and slow down classroom learning. 
  • Truly democratic. Everybody, weak and strong, gets the message faster. 
  • Wholly relevant. Students recognise the errors as ‘their own’. 
  • Respects existing linguistic knowledge, building confidence. 
  • More time for practice. ‘Contrast is a time‑efficient way to convey meaning, compared to demonstration, explanation, working out meaning from context’ Thornbury 2010 
  • Accelerates early fluency. Learners produce more, sooner, internalising ‘the rule’ through repeated use, and generating more examples of their own, with greater security, within the class itself 
  • Accelerates early accuracy too, saving the embarrassment of making predictable errors, requiring less teacher correction. 
  • Generates more peer correction sooner. Students have a model to refer (each other) to from the get go. 
  • Plays to bi‑lingual teacher’s strengths. Being able to put yourself in their linguistic shoes, anticipate and guide appropriately, offers great opportunities for empathy, motivation and learner‑respect for you, both as a model and pedagogue. 
  • Great for institutions which consider use of Portuguese undesirable. Incorporates in‑class translation without opening the flood gates. It actually reduces the need to speak anything but English.

JS: And what do other experts say?

PS: It’s entirely in‑line with current thinking. There’s no research to support ‘banning’ classroom translation (Cook, 2010). Monolingual, English‑only teaching is being replaced by an acceptance that all students are involved in a bi‑lingual process. Knowledge of other languages is now seen as an asset in language learning. Translanguaging and code switching have moved from acceptable, to inevitable, to desirable. Best of all, it advantages the vast majority; non‑native teachers, who are effectively bilingual, playing to their own strengths to confect more locally relevant classes.

JS: Vinicius Nobre, a New Routes Advisory Board member, has kindly sent you some excellent questions, so I’ll hand over to him.

Vinicius Nobre: There have been interesting insights and academic proposals that aim at shifting the focus of ELT back to the students’ needs and teachers’ autonomy (Dogme, Demand High) as opposed to prescriptive methods or course books. Do you feel the market has embraced these principles? What is the role of teachers and students in the contexts you know nowadays? 

PS: These mainly emanate from skilled, fluent, privileged teachers with small, more homogeneous, motivated classes, responsive learners and time to prepare, where you don’t need the security/support of a book. However, this is not the case for most teachers in Latin America, often with two or three jobs, larger classes, needing a ready‑made, proven spine to work from easily, one which provides full, 4‑skill support, consistent, appropriate pronunciation, guaranteed regular recycling, Teacher’s Book, digital platform, tests, etc. I believe ELT publishing brought Dogme onto itself by being too ‘one size fits all’, too general, trying to satisfy the world. Many global course books are vast, almost ‘lifestyle choices’, trying to cover every angle, to the point of being ‘claustrophobically complete’, leaving teachers either trying to pick out the most relevant bits, or just ploughing /racing through, producing less than ideal lessons, with no time for autonomy or local co‑creation. 

‘Demand high’ is having students practise more, push and polish themselves further, just as ‘seductive grammar’ does, by generating greater practice time. I entirely concur with beginning with student needs, making space for adequate practice and the concoction of relevant personalisation together. That’s why I advocate shorter, tailored course books. We need less rush, more time for collaborative creativity, but coupled with and triggered by a secure spine of exercises which really do fit our learners’ needs; for example, in our case, specific pronunciation work to break their L1 habits, plentiful help with writing and spelling, and early access to hundreds of cognates which are normally hidden, but ‘gifts’ if you speak Portuguese. 

VN: You’ve been developing materials for a long time. What would you say are the key competences a professional needs in order to start writing materials? What advice can you give teachers who want to make this career move? 

PS: I began after 10 year’s teaching in 5 countries. I had a lot of training experience, a high profile job and, right time, right place, I was noticed and head‑hunted by a publisher, lucky me. Nowadays, unless you have a ‘speciality’ they want, you have to approach publishers yourself. Otherwise, the route is not dissimilar. Get as much experience as you can, ideally in a niche area, like very young learners, an aspect of CLIL or technology… share your ideas with colleagues, train and give talks, maybe write an article too, to establish your name/expertise, then approach a publisher, pray and… be lucky!

VN: The ELT scene in Brazil has been going through changes recently. There are movements towards bilingual schools, language centers being managed by large investment funds and the increase of private teaching. In your opinion, what should we focus on in order to take full advantage of these changes? 

PS: Be a competent, bi‑lingual teacher yourself! With proven teaching and language skills, you’ll always be employable. I’d prefer an effectively bi‑lingual teacher to a monolingual native, as they’re more relevant, and better placed to help our students efficiently. Quality private language schools need to fight back against the dubious marketing of the dodgier ‘bi‑lingual’ schools by promoting not only their demonstrable pedagogical quality, but also the bilingual talents and ideal skills of their teachers and programmes. 

VN: Native speakerism is still an issue in many countries. In Brazil there are still organizations that will pay native speakers higher salaries and students who believe that Brazilian teachers are not as good as someone whose first language is English. In your experience, how can we change this perception? What can we do to ensure greater equity in our field? 

PS: See above! Promote language teaching as the experts suggest, a bi‑lingual process, We need more honesty about what can/can’t be achieved with different age groups in realistic amounts of time, and to challenge the misleading claims which have influenced sponsors/ parents/the world for so long. It’s changing, thankfully, but too slowly still. 

VN: You’re a very experienced conference speaker with consistent positive feedback. There seems to be a struggle in our area, however, to balance academic content and engaging presentations. Do you think an academic presentation needs to engage the audience through effective presentation skills or is content enough? Do we run the risk of supporting sheer entertainment at the expense of academic depth? 

PS: The most popular speakers usually combine both. I seem to remember youthful good looks and a sense of humour help too, as well you know, Vinny! No matter how entertaining, you won’t go far without real content. Equally, I’ve seen the most brilliant pedagogues fall flat through dry delivery. Concrete, challenging pedagogy, plus feasible, practical content, delivered with a twinkle, rarely fails. 

THE INTERVIEWEE 

Paul has been teaching EFL worldwide since 1978. His new edition of Richmond’s English ID, Starter to B1 levels, is still the only international quality course specifically written for Latin America, designed to promote early fluency, by giving our students access to more language which is easy for them, sooner. 
Paul wrote a two-part article entitled Advantaging Brazilian Learners (ABL at last!) 
which was published in New Routes #53 & #54 in 2014. These two articles focus on ways to improve the teaching of teens and adults in Brazil using a more language friendly, learning friendly and teacher friendly approach, with lots of practical examples.
http://digital.maven.com.br/pub/newroutes/?numero=53&edicao=11904#page/14 
http://digital.maven.com.br/pub/newroutes/?numero=54&edicao=11903#page/34

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