22nd April 2023 – ‘Learner Voices’ Hands Up Project Conference

We sometimes lose sight of the most important people in ELT: the learners. As we move up, along and through the various other career progressions of researcher, trainer and manager, we can go for months and years without talking to learners. In this conference, learners took centre stage. Quite literally. From the wonderful teenagers in Palestine performing live theatre at the pre-conference Friday evening to the colourful teens in a remote village in Guinea Bissau performing short plays at the end of the Saturday.

All the sessions put learner voices right at the centre: “The learner is King / Queen”; “If all teachers stopped teaching, learning would still happen; but if all students stopped coming to class, there would be no teaching”; “Even the most brilliant teaching often doesn’t result in learning, proving that teaching needs learning.” These were some of Harry Kuchah Kuchah’s words, showing that coursebook writers and policy-makers really should ask the learners what they think and want. Harry showed us some of the children he has worked with in Cameroon, and how it is vital to base English lessons on meaning, rather than grammar. One of his powerful visuals showed a class of children all looking miserable, being asked ‘Name 10 irregular verbs’ (“Silence is a voice too”); and the same class responding with enthusiastic hands waving to ‘tell us a short story’.

We were then treated to various tasks and types of teaching that can bring out and foreground learner voices in our teaching:

Fiona Mauchline showed us how she gets learners to make short films and then correct the auto-captions; and a visualisation to spark personalised speaking and writing. Jane Willis demonstrated the TBL cycle, again starting with meaning, not grammar, highlighting the voice of a Spanish learner talking about her first job. Richard Chinn then showed several ways of exploring emergent language in class, and how this helps learning, especially in challenging contexts.

Emily Bryson gave the examples of some amazingly powerful voices of former ESOL learners, like Roza Salih, who succeeded in stopping child detention in the UK, all encouraged by their teachers to speak out. She also asked us to draw round our hands and write / illustrate important points about ourselves in each finger (task attributed to Efi Tzouri), a very personalised task that learners love.

One of the most interesting parts of the day was the research that Ashraf Kuhail and Andre Castro Bilbrough reported. They showed that the Hands Up Project teaching to large classes of over 50 students in Palestine seems to have increased enjoyment and confidence with English, even for those learners who were silent. Nick Bilbrough showed us how he works remotely with individual learners in large classes and we heard the strong voice of a young Palestinian speaking in English for the first time, about his grandfather.

Haneed Khaled told us a lot more about the Hands Up Project’s remote theatre, and how she has worked with other international partners, connecting learners’ voices across the world, especially in preparation for the Hands Up annual competition. More learner voices were expressed in the Hands Up Poetry competition, with some of the most beautiful, emotive entries read out, and the winners announced.

IATEFL Global Issues SIG organised an Open Space discussion session after the delicious Palestinian lunch, a space to talk about several of the questions that had arisen over the course of the day: decolonisation, decentring and ChatGPT. And we ended with the learner voices from the village of Sendegal in Guinea Bissau, beginner level teenagers acting for the first time ever some of the short plays from Nick Bilbrough’s ‘Doing Remote Theatre’: Stone Soup (by Carol Read) and An Apple for the Teacher (by Ken Wilson).

If you missed the conference, you can see the recording of this last part here: https://tinyurl.com/yhyat93f – and don’t miss it next year!

Linda Ruas is an ESOL teacher, teacher trainer, and consultant. She has worked in the UK, Brazil, Japan, and, remotely, with several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. She also writes, creates materials, and runs a charity: Action Guinea Bissau.

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