NNEST-of-the-Month Blog Interview, September, 2016
Dr. Willy A. Renandya is a language teacher educator with extensive teaching experience in Asia. He currently teaches applied linguistics courses at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has given numerous plenary presentations at regional and international conferences, and published extensively in the area of second language education. His latest publications include Motivation in the language classroom (2014, TESOL International), Simple, powerful strategies for Student Centered Learning with George Jacobs and Michael Power (2016, Springer International), and English language teaching today: Linking theory and practice with Handoyo P Widodo (2016, Springer International). He maintains an active language teacher professional development forum called Teacher Voices: https://www.facebook.com/groups/teachervoices/. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Interviewer: Madhukar K.C.
1.Thank you so much for agreeing to be our guest for the NNEST-of-the-month blog. Could you briefly tell us about your linguistic, academic, and professional background? What inspired you to become an educator, especially a teacher of English?
Dr. Renandya: Thank you very much. It’s an honor for me to be interviewed for the NNEST of the month blog.
I am a language teacher educator currently teaching at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Prior to teaching at NIE, I worked at SEAMEO Regional Language Centre (RELC), where I had numerous opportunities to work with English teachers and lecturers from many countries in Asia. For the past 20 years, my work has revolved around working with pre-service as well as in-service English teaching professionals in the Asian region, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
When I was training to become an English teacher, I met a lot of wonderful English teachers. They were dedicated and committed people, and very passionate about teaching and helping their students become successful learners of English. I guess these people played an important role in helping me make a decision to become an English language teacher. I’m glad I have chosen this profession and have never regretted my decision to become a TESOL educator.
2. You have been a teacher educator and a researcher at NIE-NTU, Singapore. How much of your work involves teaching and research at your university? How do you connect teaching with research?
Dr. Renandya: All faculty members in my institution are expected to teach and do research. The latter has become more important in recent years because the NTU has now become a research-intensive university. If you are on the research track, you have to do more research and are expected to publish in top journals. Those on the teaching track are also required to do research and publish their work although their teaching hours are quite high.
As for me, I would say that I’ve been fortunate to be able to juggle nicely between teaching and research. It’s roughly 50% teaching and 50% research. Also, my teaching and research interests are quite closely connected. I teach reading and listening courses and my research is also in this area so it’s been quite straightforward for me to connect the two. My research on extensive reading and listening, for example, has given me a lot of theoretical and practical insights that I share with my students in my teaching.
3. As an NNEST ELT/TESOL teacher educator, could you share with us some success stories and challenges you have experienced? How have you been encouraging your students, particularly NNESTs, over the years in your teaching career at SEAMEO RELC and NIE-NTU?
Dr. Renandya: When I first started working at SEAMEO RELC as a TESOL teacher educator, my learning curve was quite steep. I knew the theory and principles that I had learned from my graduate courses, but teaching these concepts to English teachers and lecturers with different socio-cultural and language backgrounds and diverse ELT contexts was very challenging. I had difficulty pitching my lesson at the right level. It was either too complex or too simple. Fortunately, I could always turn to my more experienced colleagues who were ever so willing to offer advice and teaching tips. I am now quite comfortable working with teachers from the Asian region and have developed sufficient knowledge, skills and expertise of relating to them in meaningful ways.
One piece of advice I often give my L2 student teachers is that they should focus more on the affective aspect of learning. Learning is about kindling that little flame in students’ hearts, not about pouring knowledge into their heads. When students are motivated, they become more engaged in their learning. We know from research that students learn best when they are fully engaged in the learning process. The same thing applies to L2 learning. I often say to them that learning English is not that hard, but it takes quite a bit of effort to acquire the language. When students are motivated, they will willingly and happily put in much effort in their learning.
4. Could you tell our readers about a vibrant virtual community of professionals, “Teacher Voices: Professional Development”? What are its goals and activities? How do you think such a forum helps in the professional development of ELT/TESOL professionals?
Dr. Renandya: “Teacher Voices: Professional Development” membership consists of English teaching professionals from some 40 different countries. They are a very diverse group of people; some teach in schools while others teach in college; some just started their teaching career while others have had years of teaching experience. But, they all feel the need to be connected and to be part of a larger TESOL community where they can exchange teaching ideas, share the joy of teaching English with each other and where they can learn from each other.
They also feel that professional development can take many different forms — via face-to-face informal interactions with colleagues and friends, via formal participation in seminars and workshops and also via a virtual forum like Teacher Voices. As a moderator, I am very happy to see that the group has grown rapidly in the past few years and members are becoming more active and forthcoming in sharing resources (e.g., online language learning resources), academic information (e.g., call for papers in conferences) and even job vacancies.
I am also impressed by the quality of members’ posts and commentaries which I find both sincere and thought-provoking. It is a real joy reading and responding to their posts.
I must mention my co-moderator, Ms Flora D Floris, of Petra Christian University who has helped keep the forum alive by posting useful L2 learning resources and encouraging members to contribute to the discussions.
5. You have extensively published in peer-reviewed international journals, more specifically on “Extensive Reading” and “Motivation in Second Language Education”. How did you get interested in these issues? In what ways do you think your academic publishing has contributed to the literature of NNEST issues, World Englishes, and EIL?
Dr. Renandya: Extensive reading and motivation sort of go nicely together. Students won’t read very much if they are not motivated; they will read more if they are motivated. So the relationship is reciprocal (i.e., motivation is needed for students to get started and once they start reading, their motivation increases). And when students do read extensively, they reap miraculous language learning benefits. Their vocabulary improves, their grammar becomes more sophisticated, and their speaking, listening and writing skills also improve. Their attitude towards learning becomes more positive and they become more motivated to learn English.
Unfortunately, extensive reading and motivation are two areas that are often neglected in the TESOL classroom. While many believe that extensive reading and motivation are important, they don’t really translate their belief into their classroom practices. This is the reason why I become interested in researching extensive reading and motivation. I am happy to note that a growing number of TESOL scholars are joining the extensive reading movement.
I have a keen interest in EIL (English as an International Language) too, not so much on its sociolinguistic aspects but more on its implications for second language pedagogy. Since EIL reflects the reality of the use and users of English nowadays, teachers should be mindful of what it means to be teaching English in today’s world. Together with several colleagues, I put together an edited volume entitled Principles and Practices for Teaching English as an International Language (Routledge, 2012). Readers will find this a wonderful resource for applying EIL ideas in our teaching.
6. The dominance of NES is evident in most of the international ELT/TESOL conferences/workshops as the plenary/keynote speakers. But you have been a frequent speaker (featured/plenary/keynote) at various international language conferences/workshops, especially in Asia. What areas do you mainly focus on in your presentations? How do you see your ‘self’ in the context where NES dominance is still prevalent?
Dr. Renandya: Yes, you are right that conference organizers often invite speakers from native-English speaking countries but things are changing, although not as fast as we hope for. Some conference organizers in Asia have now made it a point to include speakers from the region. For example, the line-up of invited presenters for the 2017 RELC International Conference is quite balanced with speakers from Hong Kong (Icy Lee), Singapore (Willy Renandya) Vietnam (Le Van Canh), and the rest from the traditional inner circle countries such as Brian Tomlinson and Alan Maley. I must hasten to add that Brian and Alan have had years of experience teaching in inner, outer and expanding circle countries. So I would group them as speakers that represent the international TESOL community, not as scholars from an inner circle country (both are originally from the UK but have spent more time working in many other countries in the world).
When I give invited presentations in the region, I make it a point to encourage people to be more critical and discerning about new ideas developed in contexts different from the ones they are working in. Some are applicable with some minor tweaks, but others may require major tweaks before seemingly innovative ideas can be productively applied in their teaching contexts.
After years of working closely with ELT teachers from the Asian region, I have now developed a deeper understanding about their beliefs and preferred pedagogical practices. This knowledge has helped me interpret contemporary L2 research findings from different sources in ways that make sense to these teachers. This is perhaps one of the reasons I have received frequent invitations to speak at pedagogical conferences in this part of the world.
7. NNEST scholars argue that Standard English and monolingual ideologies still dominate broader SLA/TESOL research and scholarship. Furthermore, our May 2016 guest, PremPhyak echoes this sentiment, arguing, “Racial ideologies, attitudes, and stereotypes embedded in ‘non-native’ and ‘native’ speaker distinction is so pervasive in TESOL/TEFL/ELT, and Applied Linguistics.” How do you think ELT/TEFL/TESOL educators should address this prevalent issue of bias and discrimination?
Dr. Renandya: Many are already aware of this issue and are actively promoting the idea that Standard English is but one of the many legitimate varieties of English that are in use in the world today. In Singapore for example, Standard Singapore English is being actively promoted by the government and by people teaching in schools and universities.
In my own course, my reading list comprises published articles by established SLA scholars and also by those from inner and expanding circle countries. This is to show my students that they can learn from both groups of writers. What works in ESL contexts for example may not necessarily work equally well in EFL contexts. The communicative language teaching approach which was developed in ESL contexts may work well in that context, but may not be the most effective in places where the main purpose of learning English is just to pass school examinations.
8. Singapore is often referred to as “an Asian multicultural and multilingual melting pot.” In post-independence period, how does the current language policy and planning address the socio-linguistics/multilingual dynamics of Singapore? How do you interpret the preference given to Standard English ideology as opposed to Singlish in education?
Dr. Renandya: As I mentioned above, Standard Singapore English continues to be actively promoted. The Ministry of Education in particular plays a big role in promoting the use of Standard Singapore English in schools and in the broader community. But how about Singapore Colloquial English (popularly known as Singlish)? The Ministry used to take a very rigid stand, not allowing teachers to use Singlish in teaching. But they have now loosened up a bit and take on a more pragmatic stand. They believe that while teachers should use the standard variety most of the time, judicious use of Singlish can be pedagogically beneficial. Teachers can use it to connect and build rapport with the students, and to help increase their awareness of the differences between the standard and colloquial varieties.
9. Ethically speaking, all employers must treat all candidates impartially. However, TEFL/TESL industry (i.e., universities, colleges, private language and training schools) in Asian countries tend to perpetuate the ideology of native speakerism. In other words, they still follow discriminatory hiring policies and practices. How do you think ELT/TESOL educators should address this issue? Is it necessary for TESOL teachers/educators to discuss social justice and professional equity issues?
Dr. Renandya: Yes, and many people in my circle of friends are already talking about it, which I think is good. We should assess people in our profession using the same standard criteria of excellence which matters in our profession, namely people should get hired because they are capable, not because of their skin color or country of origin. I have worked with excellent colleagues from many countries in the world, from both native and non-native English speaking countries. I have hired people with different backgrounds, but their country of origin has never been an issue to me.
10. As an NNES scholar, could you share with us your experience about the most challenging parts of writing/publishing, especially in peer-reviewed international journals? Have you experienced any sort of discriminatory practices in academic publishing?
Dr. Renandya: It was quite challenging when I first started. The publication process seemed like a mystery to me; I didn’t know which journals I should send my paper to, what the review process was like, what I should do when the paper got rejected etc. Fortunately I was surrounded by very helpful colleagues who were ever so willing to help. They gave me guidance, constructive comments and other useful suggestions.
Discriminatory practices? No, I don’t think so. My experience working with editors and reviewers has been largely positive. They could be rather critical when reviewing manuscripts written by NNEST scholars, but they are equally critical when reviewing papers by NEST researchers.
11. Could you provide ELT/TESL/TESOL graduate students, EFL teachers, or aspiring writers, who would like to be promising writers in their careers, with some advice to help them become better writers, especially for academic publications?
Dr. Renandya: My advice: writing is tough but doable. The key thing is that we need to set aside time regularly, say an hour a day or every other day. We can spend this time reading, thinking about what we have read or jotting down notes from our reading, writing our first paragraph or revising it, etc. Once we’ve got into the rhythm of this daily routine, things will get easier and easier. And before you know it, our first paper is already completed.
12. Please tell us briefly about your current writing projects and publications. As a busy ELT/TESOL professional, a researcher, and a writer, how do you balance your professional and personal lives?
Dr. Renandya: I have just completed two books by Springer. Both are practical publications that address important concerns and issues that classroom teachers are most concerned with. They will find the book useful and enjoyable.
Jacobs, G. M., Renandya, W. A., & Power, M. (2016). Simple, powerful strategies for Student Centered Learning. New York, NY: Springer.
Renandya, W.A., & Widodo, H.P. (2016). (Eds.). English Language Teaching Today: Linking theory and practice. New York: Springer.
I have several book chapters which are still under review and am hoping that they will see the light of day later this year or early next year.
Writing takes quite a bit of time but I get a lot of satisfaction from doing it. So it’s not really a burden but something that I enjoy doing. Plus I am not the sort of person who draws a clear boundary between work and personal life. I find writing an important part of my personal life. It keeps me mentally occupied and it gives me reasons to read new books and re-read old ones. And more importantly, it is a source of happiness to me.
Thank you, Dr. Renandya for taking the time to share your very interesting and insightful experiences, and critical ideas with our readers within the TESOL community and beyond.