Denise E. Murray is the director of the National Centre for English
Language Teaching and Research (NCELTR) at Macquarie University.
She also is a member of the TESOL task force on adult ESL teaching standards.
The ESL MiniConference newsletter is pleased to share her comments from
a recent interview.
Some Denise Murray links:
The National Center for English Teaching and Research (Macquarie University, Australia)
TESOL Task Force on Standards for Teachers of Adult Learners (1998-2002)
Changing Populations, Changing Needs in Teacher Preparation - in
Implementing the ESL Standards for Pre-K-12 Students through Teacher Education (ISBN-0939791-82-X) (2000)
Protean Communication: The Language of Computer-Mediated Communication
Changing Technologies, Changing Literacy Communities?
Access to Information Technology: Considerations for Language Educators
"Dat Teacher Be Hollin at Us"--What Is Ebonics?
Knowledge Machines : Language and Information in a Technological Society
(ISBN: 0582071313) (1995)
Identifying the Languages and Cultures of Our Students - in
Diversity as Resource: Redefining Cultural Literacy (Denise E. Murray, editor) (1992)
Making It Happen: An ESL Professional Organization's Advocacy for Teachers and Learners
Computer-Mediated Communication: Implications for ESP
The Context of Oral and Written Language: A Framework for Mode and Medium Switching
Literacy at Work: Medium of Communication as Choice
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Denise E. Murray:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
I primarily do research on language learning, especially learning using the
new computer-based technologies. I also teach postgraduate courses on
language teaching, and on technology, language & society. I've also become
very interested in management and leadership in language programs. At NCELTR
we now have a Post Graduate Certificate in Managing Language programs. While
I'm up to date on current theories and research in the area of management and
literature, I find there is very little that's been research in education.
What has been done has primarily been examining school principals. So, I'd
really like to start on some research projects looking at managing/leading
language programs, especially comparing different culture's ways of
organizing/managing language programs. Another backburner item is to follow
up on my early studies of the use of CMC in the workplace.
How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced
your decision? What were some important formative
experiences in the early stages of your development?
Like many people, I fell into ESL accidentally. It first began when I was
teaching English at private girls' school in Sydney and we had the daughters
of the Lebanese Consul at the school and I tutored them privately. When I
then went to England in the late 1960s, I again taught at a private girls
school and found myself teaching English privately to the daughters and wives
of Japanese businessmen in England on assignment--even though I was actually a
Math teacher at that school (I began my working life as a high school teacher,
primarily of Math and English, although in the climate of the time, I also
taught PE, history and French!). After a few years of private tutoring, I
realized that teaching ESL was totally different from teaching English to high
school English-speaking students.
So, I took a course at International House in London in the early 70s. The
prevailing paradigm at the time was audiolingual, which I found rather
stifling. But, I loved the experience of a classroom of language learners.
During one summer, to consolidate my learning to be an ESL teacher, I taught
at a summer school on the south coast of England. I fell in love with
teaching ESL and decided to return to Australia and take up ESL as my career.
What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds
with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which
ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a
language learner yourself? What insights have you
gained in how to meet the needs of English learners
from these cultures and language backgrounds?
I spent a lot of my ESL/EFL career teaching students from Asia (Japan,
Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia), then in my more than 20
years in the US I became very familiar with Hispanic learners as well. I'm
most familiar with Thailand as I lived and worked there in the later 70s. I
tried, rather unsuccessfully, to learn Thai. My Thai was totally without
tones, lacked grammatical accuracy, but was reasonably fluent--in that I could
order food, find my ways around, and hold minimalist conversations. The other
culture I have most familiarity with is Greek, having moved in the Greek
community in Sydney in the 1960s and spent quite a lot of time visiting Greece
while I was living in England. At one stage I was quite fluent, although
again, inaccurate, in Greek. Over my lifetime, I've attempted to learn, both
formally and informally, other languages. I find that I'm a visual learner
and so, look for the written language to reinforce my aural knowledge.
Indeed, without being able to read signs, bill boards, and so on, I feel quite
frustrated in my language learning. With Greek, I did master the written
script well enough to read fairly quickly; with Thai, I never did. By the
time I'd deciphered one word, I'd passed the sign. Without that written
reinforcement, I find language learning quite difficult.
I've learned that paying attention to the individual learner's context is much
more important than adherence to any particular methodology. I've also
learned not to classify learners by culture, even though learning about
different cultures' ways of believing and behaving are important. But,
inevitably, the learner in front of me does not fit the stereotype. There is
a myth that Asian students don't ask questions. Working with individual
learners from Asian countries soon explodes this myth. It also explodes the
myth of a uniform "Asian" culture.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a
new ESL teacher, what would they be?
Your enthusiasm and commitment to teaching and learning are great motivators
for learners. Each learner is different; focus on learning (what students are
or are not learning as a result of instruction), not on methods, activities
and so on. Be reflective about your practice, examining your practice in the
light of research and theory, informing the theories and research from your
own experience and vice versa. That's probably more than three, but teaching
is a complex activity, not easily captured in a few sound bites.
What do you see as the most important issues
facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?
Teaching is a political activity, even though most teachers go into the
profession for humanistic reasons. So, I consider some of our major issues to
be ones of policy, not methodology.
Recognition of the profession is high on my priority list. Educators in
general are not always respected in many countries, and English language
teachers even less so. This situation is exacerbated by the way companies and
organizations hire unqualified teachers. We need standards for language
teachers, ones that have been developed by the profession, such as those
TESOL, the international professional association, is involved in developing.
Being able to use our knowledge of language learning and teaching to influence
policy. For example, many countries around the world are starting to teach
children at younger and younger ages in order to gain economic advantage for
their country; yet, we didn't have the research studies that show that children
being taught by unqualified teachers, with minimal English proficiency,
teaching a class of 40-60 children in a country where English is not a means
of wider communication, will be successful language learners. We need more
research and we need to find ways of making that knowledge accessible to
policy makers, parents and the general public.
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online