World-Acclaimed Applied Linguist Helps Pioneer Online Education
Dr. Rod Ellis is a world-acclaimed British applied linguist and thought leader in the field of second language acquisition. In the late 1990s, Dr. Ellis joined renowned applied linguists Dr. David Nunan and Dr. Ruth Wajrnyb at Anaheim University where they helped pioneer the field of online education. A former professor at Temple University in both Japan and the U.S., Dr. Ellis serves as a distinguished professor in the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics at the University of Auckland and as a senior professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, where he has held the roles of department chair, dean of the Graduate School of Education and VP of academic affairs. He has taught in numerous positions in England, Japan, the U.S., Zambia and New Zealand. TJ caught up with Dr. Ellis at the American Association for Applied Linguistics 2015 conference in Toronto, Canada.
TJ: What do you think was the breakthrough in your career that took you from language teacher to acclaimed applied linguist?
ELLIS: It was a progression because I started off as a language teacher in Zambia, but then I began to work as a teacher educator in a college for secondary school teachers. So that moved me from being a teacher to being a teacher educator. It inevitably meant that I started to read more about language teaching, research on language teaching. The next move was when I went back to England and I did an M.Ed. degree with someone called Gordon Wells, who was working on a child language acquisition project, and that got me hugely interested in research. From there, I went on to do a Ph.D. and did my own research. Gradually, there has been a progression from teacher to teacher educator to researcher, but I have never stopped being a teacher educator.
TJ: Since the late 1990s, you have been teaching in the online M.A. in TESOL degree program at Anaheim University, where you recently developed the world’s first online Doctor of Education in TESOL degree program. Tell us about that.
ELLIS: Anaheim University was really the first university to try to set up as an online university delivering high-quality courses, primarily at the graduate level: the M.A. TESOL program and the other programs which have followed in other disciplinary areas. So one thing that was really rewarding for me was to be there, more or less, at the beginning and to help Anaheim develop and grow, develop its curriculum, become better organized, adapt to new technologies when they became available. And as someone who is not a technological wizard. . . it helped me to develop some of my own technological skills. It introduced me to online teaching, which is very different from face-to-face teaching, so I learned a lot, and that’s the most rewarding thing — that it wasn’t just me providing a service to AU, it was AU providing a service to me, to enable me to become familiar with what is obviously the future: the delivery of highly effective online courses. Over the course of working for Anaheim University, I’ve worked with a lot of people. I’ve worked with David Nunan, Ruth Wajnryb, Kathi Bailey, and more recently with Hayo Reinders, and working with all of them has really been a pleasure. We’re looking at people who are, to my mind, high-class professionals, people who are first class in their own fields, people who are very, very good teachers. So, it’s been a privilege to work with them.
TJ: You’ve worked a lot in Japan, Korea and China. What are the biggest challenges that English teachers face there?
ELLIS: One of the key issues is the prociency of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean teachers of English. Many of these teachers lack confidence in their ability to teach, and therefore, it drives them to use a methodology, which minimizes the demands on their own oral speaking proficiency. Teachers need to recognize that one of the best ways that they can develop their oral proficiency is to actually take risks and use the English language resources they have in the best way and show their students that even though you are not perfect, you can still actually use English as a tool; you can still communicate. is is one of the reasons that I’ve tried to promote task-based language teaching. If teachers can be encouraged to do task-based language teaching, then they’re not only going to help their students develop oral proficiency in the English language; they’re going to develop their own oral proficiency in English. Teaching is itself learning. You learn a language through learning to teach it. And that is the sort of message that I think needs to “get in” to the teachers in this part of the world.
TJ: What advice would you give to new language teachers?
ELLIS: Clearly, one of the first things they need to do before they go into their classroom: they need to be well organized. They need to have an idea about the shape of their lesson. The good teachers are the ones that don’t simply enact their lesson plan. They are responsive to what’s going on in their class. I believe the most effective teachers are the teachers that are able to communicate effectively with their students in the classroom: making it clear what the instructions are for a particular activity, being able to pick up signals of students who are having problems and not having problems. And, ultimately, this is to do with the individual teacher’s communication skills. A good teacher is a communicator. Technique is much less important than being able to communicate e effectively with your students. tj
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