Moving from informal to formal English (or ‘street smart’ vs. ‘book smart’)
Went to Reykjavik last month for the national conference of FEKI (the Icelandic acronym for their Association of Teachers of English) in lovely Iceland, a country the size of Kentucky with a population of only 320,000—plus 80,000 Icelandic horses. (Don’t call them ‘ponies’ or you’ll insult Icelanders.) Did you know that since the crash of the Icelandic banking system (remember?), the country has made an official national effort to promote itself as a natural reserve to visit and now there are 500,000 (half a million!) tourists visiting Iceland each year? That’s more than the native population!
All those visitors speaking the international language is one reason that Icelanders speak such excellent English. Another is that almost all Icelanders have family and relatives living and visiting from abroad. In fact, in his conference talk Professor Samuel Lefever (a fellow Kansan) of the University of Iceland demonstrated—by testing local kids with exams tasks similar to those found on the Cambridge Young Learners Exams—that Icelandic children incidentally ‘pick up’ quite a lot of English even before they start learning English officially at school. The contingent from neighbouring (sort of) Norway and myself were very impressed.
The theme of the conference was ‘Making Sense Through Writing’ and since Iceland has such a reading culture (‘Go barefoot before bookless’ is the translation of one Icelandic proverb), I presented two talks on writing: ‘Tools for Teaching Kids Writing Inside—and Outside—the Box’ and ‘Reading, Writing and CLIL’. Both talks focused on how intensive reading, cross-curricular and project work activities in coursebooks for such as Kid’s Box, More! and English in Mind as well as extensive ‘pleasure’ reading with graded, and ungraded, readers in the Cambridge Readers series can serve as springboards to higher-level writing skills. By the way, I can recommend Emma Heyderman’s excellent presentations on writing skills (though this particular video is in relation to the PET exam preparation).
But the buzz of the conference among Icelandic teachers was their new National Curriculum to be implemented in the next school years. It aims to move students in the 35 upper-secondary schools from their good informal English to better formal language, especially academic and professional writing and spoken production, in order for them to achieve a B2/C1 level by matriculation and be ready for tertiary education—because apparently 90% of study materials in Icelandic universities are in English! Or, as I said in my comments at the conference’s closing panel discussion, from being ‘street smart’ to becoming ‘book smart’.
What about you? How do you take your learners from being ‘street smart’ to becoming ‘book smart’—or vice-versa? Looking forward to hearing about your experience.
Gary Anderson, Cambridge ELT International Teacher Trainer