a centenary
of Learning

  • 35
  • by Dominic O'Dwyer
  • graduated 2007
  • studied MSc in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
  • from Sierra Leone, UK, Papua New Guinea

It is very satisfying to be able to apply what I learned during my Master’s to designing what I hope are good courses and good teaching materials.

My first degree was in Social Anthropology and Linguistics, taken at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Prior to taking my Master’s at Bristol, I gained the Cambridge/RSA Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults. I undertook the Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in order to enhance my role as English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Co-ordinator at the University of Bristol Language Centre.

My present role as EFL Co-ordinator involves providing in-sessional support in English for Academic Purposes to international students at the University of Bristol. I enjoy it because it is good to use one's study and training to help people achieve things that they would not be able to do on their own. The students I deal with are very appreciative of what I do for them and work very hard both in class and out of class. I co-ordinate diverse programmes, from undergraduate courses in teaching English as a Foreign Language to research report writing for PhD-registered students, and am faced with the challenge of meeting the expectations of a university which is managing an increasing international student population.

Studying at Bristol gave me increased professional credibility and confidence. It is very satisfying to be able to apply what I learned during my Master’s to designing what I hope are good courses and good teaching materials. I was given a very good example by my teachers at the Graduate School of Education and I have tried to give the same example to the students that I have taught.

The Master's at the Graduate School of Education made me think about the nature of languages and language learners. What I found particularly fascinating was learning how learners make hypotheses about the language they are learning and then test them. Since I was doing my Master's in a part-time mode, I was able to try out what I was learning on my own students in the classes I was teaching in between the Graduate School sessions. I think I learned a lot through osmosis; I applied the good practice I observed at the Graduate School to my own teaching and co-ordination at the University of Bristol Language Centre.

I enjoyed learning alongside international students. The insights I gained into their professional backgrounds and aspirations were only possible because I was a fellow student. Arlene Gilpin, my Programme Director, stands out in my memory as a significant influence. She came from a great liberal teaching tradition and had extensive overseas teaching experience, which I thought was important in our field. Arlene was a no-nonsense academic who also showed great humanity.

My first data collection for my Master’s was very exciting, particularly when I realised that I had something completely fresh, original and genuine on which to test my hypotheses. I collected data of students making requests in academic service encounters. I used role play and recorded students' performances, with their prior permission. The study was a replication of research carried out by Andrew Cohen at the University of Minnesota to describe the processes involved in the production of request and other speech acts by non-native speakers of English. I was particularly interested to find out whether grammatical competence preceded pragmatic competence in the production of successful requests in English. I suspected that it did and the data pretty much bore out that hypothesis, although I think I needed to hone my skills in eliciting accurate retrospective verbal reports from the fifteen students who were the subjects of my research.

When I retire in three or four years’ time, I plan to teach in a developing country – something which I believe is entirely congruent with the ethos of the Graduate School of Education. I have already done two terms of Voluntary Service Overseas, as a Cadet Volunteer in a Papua New Guinea primary school and as a secondary school teacher in Sierra Leone. My introduction to teaching writing in English at further educational level was when I was asked for help with a distance learning essay by the manager of a passion fruit plantation in the Western Highlands of New Guinea, whilst I was on my travels around the country. Since I was interested in tropical agriculture as well as teaching English, the opportunity to combine both interests appealed to me and led me to teaching English for Specific Purposes in subsequent years and finally English for Academic Purposes.

This all happened very early in my career, before I did my Master's at the Graduate School of Education. It will be rewarding and satisfying to use all the qualifications and experience I have gained to work again on a project in one or other of those countries. I know the Graduate School has strong links with development education, so I may approach them for advice in the near future.

Being creative with other people’s minds, and helping them to learn skills that will build their self-esteem, is one of the most rewarding things you can do.