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Critical reading


Anna Phillips finds wisdom in a book for novice teachers

How can we help novice Esol teachers ‘survive’ in the classroom? In other words, how can they teach effectively while at the same time developing their own teaching skills?

This handbook aims to provide such teachers with solutions for forty familiar teaching dilemmas they might encounter – hopefully not all at the same time!

As quoted in the introduction to the book, novice teachers often face ‘the collapse of missionary ideals formed during teacher training by the harsh and rude reality of classroom life’ (Veenman 1984).

The ‘critical incidents’ of the title do not refer to life-threatening emergencies, but to ‘any unplanned and unanticipated event which occurs during class, outside class or anytime during a teacher’s career … when subjected to conscious reflection’. So how does this handbook deal with these critical incidents, what are they and are the incidents resolved in a practical and helpful way? Where does ‘conscious reflection’ fit in?

The book covers a range of general areas of teaching, including curriculum development, teaching mixed level or large classes and developing each of the four skills.

The book manages to balance material which is easy to read but also very useful and thought-provoking. It can be dipped into or read cover to cover. Ideally, though, as the authors suggest, it should be used as the basis for discussion, either formally or informally with colleagues.

An identical format is used for each of the ten chapters of the book. Each chapter starts with a brief overview of the particular topic. There are four ‘critical incidents’ in each chapter and each one is presented in an anecdotal way, each by a different teacher, as a kind of mini case study.

The selected incidents, based on real-life classroom experiences according to the authors, are interesting – and ones that most teachers can relate to. For example, one teacher struggles to get monolingual eight- and nine-year-olds to use L2 in group discussion work and not always work with their friends. Another teacher was suffering from exhaustion after organising too many activities out of fear of running out of things to do.

A variety of Esol contexts has been chosen, from primary school to private language school, and from special needs students to EAP classes on foundation courses. Every ‘critical incident’ starts with an inquiry question such as: ‘How do I foster a better relationship with a challenging L2 student?’

There are a few preview questions before the context and events of an incident are described. After the description, there are more questions in order to encourage ‘conscious reflection’ on the incident. These reflexive questions encourage the reader, for example, to think of possible ways to deal with the dilemma before finding out what steps the teacher actually took next.

The follow up section reveals the teacher’s attempts to resolve the dilemma in later lessons. Interestingly, the incidents are not always resolved completely, particularly in the later chapters, suggesting for example that more time or practice may be needed, or other methods need to be used. This underlines how complex the role of teaching is – and that there are rarely easy solutions.

The sections marked ‘Exploring the issue’ at the end of each incident have some suggestions for activities that give teachers the tools they need for the future, so that if a critical incident occurs, they are better equipped to deal with it. All in all, this book successfully fills a gap in teacher training – put simply, what to do when classroom methods go wrong.

Reflecting on Critical Incidents in Language Education
Thomas S.C. Farrell & Laura Baecher, Bloomsbury;