Teacher Trainers and Educators in ELT

This blog is dedicated to improving the quality of Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE)

The Teacher Trainers and Educators 

The most influential ELT teacher trainers and educators are those who publish “How to teach” books and articles, have on-line blogs and a big presence on social media, give presentations at ELT conferences, and travel around the world giving workshops and teacher training & development courses. Many of the best known and highest paid teacher educators are also the authors of coursebooks. Apart from the top “influencers”, there are tens of thousands of  teacher trainers worldwide who deliver pre-service courses such as CELTA, or the Trinity Cert TESOL, or an MA in TESOL, and thousands working with practicing teachers in courses such as DELTA and MA programmes. Special Interest Groups in TESOL and IATEFL also have considerable influence.

What’s the problem? 

Most current SLTE pays too little attention to the question “What are we doing?”, and the follow-up question “Is what we’re doing effective?”. The assumption that students will learn what they’re taught is left unchallenged, and those delivering SLTE concentrate either on coping with the trials and tribulations of being a language teacher (keeping fresh, avoiding burn-out, growing professionally and personally) or on improving classroom practice. As to the latter, they look at new ways to present grammar structures and vocabulary, better ways to check comprehension of what’s been presented, more imaginative ways to use the whiteboard to summarise it, more engaging activities to practice it, and the use of technology to enhance it all, or do it online.  A good example of this is Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “Demand High” project, which leaves unquestioned the well-established framework for ELT and concentrates on doing the same things better. In all this, those responsible for SLTE simply assume that current ELT practice efficiently facilitates language learning.  But does it? Does the present model of ELT actually deliver the goods, and is making small, incremental changes to it the best way to bring about improvements? To put it another way, is current ELT practice efficacious, and is current SLTE leading to significant improvement? Are teachers making the most effective use of their time? Are they maximising their students’ chances of reaching their goals?

As Bill VanPatten argues in his plenary at the BAAL 2018 conference, language teaching can only be effective if it comes from an understanding of how people learn languages. In 1967, Pit Corder was the first to suggest that the only way to make progress in language teaching is to start from knowledge about how people actually learn languages. Then, in 1972, Larry Selinker suggested that instruction on formal properties of language has a negligible impact (if any) on real development in the learner.  Next, in 1983, Mike Long raised the issue again of whether instruction on formal properties of language made a difference in acquisition.  Since these important publications, hundreds of empirical studies have been published on everything from the effects of instruction to the effects of error correction and feedback. This research in turn has resulted in meta-analyses and overviews that can be used to measure the impact of instruction on SLA. All the research indicates that the current, deeply entrenched approach to ELT, where most classroom time is dedicated to explicit instruction, vastly over-estimates the efficacy of such instruction.

So in order to answer the question “Is what we’re doing effective?”, we need to periodically re-visit questions about how people learn languages. Most teachers are aware that we learn our first language/s unconsciously and that explicit learning about the language plays a minor role, but they don’t know much about how people learn an L2. In particular, few teachers know that the consensus of opinion among SLA scholars is that implicit learning through using the target language for relevant, communicative  purposes is far more important than explicit instruction about the language. Here are just 4 examples from the literature:

1. Doughty, (2003) concludes her chapter on instructed SLA by saying:

In sum, the findings of a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and the limited role of explicit learning in improving performance in complex control tasks, point to a default mode for SLA that is fundamentally implicit, and to the need to avoid declarative knowledge when designing L2 pedagogical procedures.

2. Nick Ellis (2005) says:

the bulk of language acquisition is implicit learning from usage. Most knowledge is tacit knowledge; most learning is implicit; the vast majority of our cognitive processing is unconscious.

3. Whong, Gil and Marsden’s (2014) review of a wide body of studies in SLA concludes:

“Implicit learning is more basic and more important  than explicit learning, and superior.  Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous  speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.

4. ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) review 35 years of instructed SLA research, and, citing the latest meta-analysis, they say:

On the relative effectiveness of explicit vs. implicit instruction, Kang et al. reported no significant difference in short-term effects but a significant difference in longer-term effects with implicit instruction outperforming explicit instruction.

Despite lots of other disagreements among themselves, the vast majority of SLA scholars agree on this crucial matter. The evidence from research into instructed SLA gives massive support to the claim that concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge (by developing the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback) leads to far greater gains in interlanguage development than concentrating on the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits and pieces of language.

One of the reasons why so many teachers are unaware of the crucial importance of implicit learning is that so few of those responsible for SLTE talk about it. Teacher trainers and educators don’t tell pre-service or practicing teachers  about the research findings on interlanguage development, or that language learning is not a matter of assimilating knowledge bit by bit; or that the characteristics of working memory constrain rote learning; or that by varying different factors in tasks we can significantly affect the outcomes. And there’s a great deal more we know about language learning that those responsible for SLTE don’t pass on to teachers, even though it has important implications for everything in ELT from syllabus design to the use of the whiteboard; from methodological principles to the use of IT, from materials design to assessment.

We know that in the not so distant past, generations of school children learnt foreign languages for 7 or 8 years, and the vast majority of them left school without the ability to maintain an elementary conversational exchange in the L2. Only to the extent that teachers have been informed about, and encouraged to critically evaluate, what we know about language learning, constantly experimenting with different ways of engaging their students in communicative activities, have things improved. To the extent that teachers continue to spend most of the time talking to their students about the language, those improvements have been minimal.  So why is all this knowledge not properly disseminated?

Most teacher trainers and educators, including Penny Ur (see below), say that, whatever its faults, coursebook-driven ELT is practical, and that alternatives such as TBLT are not. Ur actually goes as far as to say that there’s no research evidence to support the view that TBLT is a viable alternative to coursebooks. Such an assertion is contradicted by the evidence. In a recent statistical meta-analysis by Bryfonski & McKay (2017) of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings, “results revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes” in a variety of settings, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where many have flatly stated that TBLT could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where the same opinion is widely voiced. So there are alternatives to the coursebook approach, but teacher trainers too often dismiss them out of hand, or simply ignore them.

How many  SLTE courses today include a sizeable component devoted to the subject of language learning, where different theories are properly discussed so as to reveal the methodological principles that inform teaching practice?  Or, more bluntly: how many such courses give serious attention to examining the complex nature of language learning, which is likely to lead teachers to seriously question the efficacy of basing teaching on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of language? Current SLTE doesn’t encourage teachers to take a critical view of what they’re doing, or to base their teaching on what we know about how people learn an L2. Too many teacher trainers and educators base their approach to ELT on personal experience, and on the prevalent “received wisdom” about what and how to teach. For thirty years now, ELT orthodoxy has required teachers to use a coursebook to guide students through a “General English” course which implements a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus through a PPP methodology. During these courses, a great deal of time is taken up by the teacher talking about the language, and much of the rest of the time is devoted to activities which are supposed to develop “the 4 skills”, often in isolation. There is good reason to think that this is a hopelessly inefficient way to teach English as an L2, and yet, it goes virtually unchallenged.

Complacency

The published work of most of the influential teacher educators demonstrates a poor grasp of what’s involved in language learning, and little appetite to discuss it. Penny Ur is a good example. In her books on how to teach English as an L2, Ur spends very little time discussing the question of how people learn an L2, or encouraging teachers to critically evaluate the theoretical assumptions which underpin her practical teaching tips. The latest edition of Ur’s widely recommended A Course in Language Teaching includes a new sub-section where precisely half a page is devoted to theories of SLA. For the rest of the 300 pages, Ur expects readers to take her word for it when she says, as if she knew, that the findings of applied linguistics research have very limited relevance to teachers’ jobs. Nowhere in any of her books, articles or presentations does Ur attempt to seriously describe and evaluate evidence and arguments from academics whose work challenges her approach, and nowhere does she encourage teachers to do so. How can we expect teachers to be well-informed, critically acute professionals in the world of education if their training is restricted to instruction in classroom skills, and their on-going professional development gives them no opportunities to consider theories of language, theories of language learning, and theories of teaching and education? Teaching English as an L2 is more art than science; there’s no “best way”, no “magic bullet”, no “one size fits all”. But while there’s still so much more to discover, we now know enough about the psychological process of language learning to know that some types of teaching are very unlikely to help, and that other types are more likely to do so. Teacher educators have a duty to know about this stuff and to discuss it with thier trainees.

Scholarly Criticism? Where?  

Reading the published work of leading teacher educators in ELT is a depressing affair; few texts used for the purpose of teacher education in school or adult education demonstrate such poor scholarship as that found in Harmer’s The Practice of Language Teaching, Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching, or Dellar and Walkley’s Teaching Lexically, for example. Why are these books so widely recommended? Where is the critical evaluation of them? Why does nobody complain about the poor argumentation and the lack of attention to research findings which affect ELT? Alas, these books typify the general “practical” nature of SLTE, and their reluctance to engage in any kind of critical reflection on theory and practice. Go through the recommended reading for most SLTE courses and you’ll find few texts informed by scholarly criticism. Look at the content of SLTE courses and you’ll be hard pushed to find a course which includes a component devoted to a critical evaluation of research findings on language learning and ELT classroom practice.

There is a general “craft” culture in ELT which rather frowns on scholarship and seeks to promote the view that teachers have little to learn from academics. Those who deliver SLTE are, in my opinion, partly responsible for this culture. While it’s  unreasonable to expect all teachers to be well informed about research findings regarding language learning, syllabus design, assessment, and so on, it is surely entirely reasonable to expect teacher trainers and educators to be so. I suggest that teacher educators have a duty to lead discussions, informed by relevant scholarly texts, which question common sense assumptions about the English language, how people learn languages, how languages are taught, and the aims of education. Furthermore, they should do far more to encourage their trainees to constantly challenge received opinion and orthodox ELT practices. This surely, is the best way to help teachers enjoy their jobs, be more effective, and identify the weaknesses of current ELT practice.

My intention in this blog is to point out the weaknesses I see in the works of some influential ELT teacher trainers and educators, and invite them to respond. They may, of course, respond anywhere they like, in any way they like, but the easier it is for all of us to read what they say and join in the conversation, the better. I hope this will raise awareness of the huge problem currently facing ELT: it is in the hands of those who have more interest in the commercialisation and commodification of education than in improving the real efficacy of ELT. Teacher trainers and educators do little to halt this slide, or to defend the core principles of liberal education which Long so succinctly discusses in Chapter 4 of his book SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching.

The Questions

I invite teacher trainers and educators to answer the following questions:

1 What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?

2 How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?

3 What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?

4 What materials do you recommend?

5 What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

References

Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delata.

Doughty, C. (2003) Instructed SLA. In Doughty, C. & Long, M. Handbook of SLA, pp 256 – 310. New York, Blackwell.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Ur, P. A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

Whong, M., Gil, K.H. and Marsden, H., (2014). Beyond paradigm: The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research, 30(4), pp.551-568.

ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) Introduction: A snapshot of thirty-five years of instructed second language acquisition. Language Teaching Research, in press.

Skehan’s Limited Attentional Capacity (LAC) approach to TBLT

In the fourth run of the SLB course on Task-Based Language Teaching, which starts in late October this year, we’re very lucky to count on the collaboration of Peter Skehan, whose work earned him, along with Mike Long, the IATBLT’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2017. His more recent work includes  

  • Skehan (2018) Second language task-based performance: theory, research, assessment. Routledge.
  • Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2019). Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice (Cambridge Applied Linguistics). CUP.  

There’s also this collection of papers in his honour:

  • Wen & Ahmadian (2019) Researching L2 task performance and pedagogy: in honour of Peter Skehan. Benjamins.  

CAF & CALF

Over the last thirty years, Skehan has conducted research (often with Pamela Foster) which focuses on how various factors affect the complexity, accuracy and fluency (CAF) of students’ L2 production (mainly speaking) when performing tasks. We should note first that structural complexity and lexical complexity are now treated separately by Skehan (hence CALF), and second that, although there are generally recognized ways of operationalizing these constructs (e.g., structural complexity is usually measured in terms of subordination, in the form of the total number of clauses divided by the number of AS (Analysis of speech) units (Foster et al 2000) and accuracy is measured through the percentage of error-free clauses) all of them are open to a wide range of interpretation.  

The Trade-off Hypothesis

Skehan claims that, due to the limitations of attentional resources and working memory, when students are performing tasks there is competition between complexity, accuracy, and fluency for attentional resources, leading to a “trade-off” between them, such that one is prioritized at the expense of the others. Since meaning normally takes priority when students perform communicative, meaning-based tasks, fluency is usually given priority, and thus complexity and accuracy suffer. Furthermore, even when there is attention available for form, there is a still further tension between attention directed to complexity and attention directed to accuracy. To this, we need to add a consideration of interlanguage development.

Interlanguage Development

Learners can be seen to be developing their interlanguages in terms of the increased complexity, accuracy and fluency of their production, and a second perspective on how the three areas of CAF inter-relate focuses on acquisitional sequence. Skehan and Foster (2007) offer Table 1, which captures how new language is developed and how, subsequently, greater control is achieved over this new language:

Table 1: A developmental sequences for complexity, accuracy, and fluency

Complexity ↓This represents new cutting edge and possibly risky language, and foreshadows growth in the interlanguage system
Accuracy ↓This represents a striving for control and error avoidance, possibly by the avoidance of cutting-edge language, and by avoiding fluency to enable more time to be used to achieve higher accuracy
FluencyThis represents a focus on meaning, automatisation, lexicalization and a push for real-time processing

TBLT

Skehan sees the central challenge for task-based instruction as discovering how task characteristics and task conditions can be manipulated to produce performance which maximises complexity, accuracy, and fluency even though these three areas may enter into competition with one another. Through a series of studies, Skehan established that different task characteristics and different task conditions exert systematic influences on performance.  

Various studies (most of them by Skehan and Foster) used three different types of task:

  1. Personal: a personal information exchange task where one student tells another student how to get to their home to turn off a gas oven which had been left on.
  2. Narrative: subjects had to construct a story based on a sequence of pictures.
  3. Decision making task: subjects had to role play a judge and decide on appropriate punishments for wrong doers.

Changes were made to these tasks in follow up studies in order to further explore the implications, but let’s stick to basics.

Task Characteristics

In terms of task characteristics, “The three tasks essentially opposed familiar with unfamiliar propositions, and clear structure for the information required with progressively less predictable structure and information” (Skehan, 1998, 108). It was found that

  • Accuracy was significantly higher on the personal and decision-making task than on the narrative task
  • The personal task produced less complexity and higher accuracy than the other two.
  • A clearly structured task promotes accuracy and fluency.
  • Tasks based on familiar or concrete information lead to greater accuracy.
  • Fluency, and dialogic tasks lead to greater accuracy and complexity, while monologic tasks generally produce the reverse results.

Interesting in themselves, these conclusions are also important in supporting Skehan’s argument that accuracy and complexity can and should be separated when examining the effects of task characteristics. Pace Robinson’s Cognitive Hypothesis (Robinson, 2001a, 2001b, 2005), which Long’s version of TBLT relies on to some extent, Skehan argues that when accuracy and complexity do, in fact go together, they do so for reasons that can be better explained by his LAC approach than by Robinson’s Cognitive Complexity framework.

Task Conditions

In terms of task conditions, Skehan and his collaborators looked at the effects of pre-planning and the conclusions are:

  • pre-task planning consistently produces greater complexity and fluency
  • pre-task planning sometimes produces more accurate language
  • pre-task planning is more effectively done when led by the teacher, and least effectively done in a group of learners

These conclusions about task conditions lead us to a consideration of Skehan’s view of how tasks should be implemented.

Methodology

Skehan’s view of how tasks should be implemented are summarized in Table 2 (Skehan, 1996).

.

The general purpose of the pre-emptive, or pre-task activities is to encourage restructuring of the students’ interlanguages – to incorporate new elements or re-arrange existing elements. These activities aim to make salient language which will be relevant to task performance. They can also aim to ease the processing load that learners face when actually doing a task, releasing more attention for the actual language that is used, so that more complex language can be attempted and greater accuracy can be achieved.

The main factor affecting performance during the task is the choice of the task itself, Tasks should not be so difficult that excessive mental processing is required simply to communicate any sort of meaning. Nor should tasks be so easy that learners are bored, and do not engage seriously with the task requirements, with the result that no gain is made in terms of stretching interlanguage or developing greater automaticity. Skehan considers that the mayor area for adjustment while tasks are being completed is in the area of stress (or communicative pressure) put on students. This can be manipulated by considering these factors

  • time
  • modality
  • scale
  • stakes
  • control

I’m afraid I can’t go into these here, but I hope they at least to some extent, speak for themselves.  

Then there are the post-task activities. Skehan argues that learners’ knowledge of what is to come later can influence how they approach attention-management during an actual task. While a task is being done, the teacher needs to withdraw and allow natural language acquisitional processes to operate. But the danger is that communication goals will be so predominant that lexicalized communication strategies will become so important that the capacity to change and restructure, to take syntactic risks, and to try to be more accurate, will not come into focus as serious goals. Post- task activities can change the way in which learners direct their attention during the task by reminding learners that fluency is not the only goal.

In ‘Post 1’, Skehan suggests three general post-task activities: public performance, analysis, and tests. In public performance, learners are asked to repeat their performance, publicly, in front of an audience – the rest of the class, the teacher, or a video camera. Skehan, following Willis (2009), suggests that the knowledge while the task is being done that a task may have to be re-done publicly will cause learners to allocate attention to the goals of restructuring and accuracy. Analysis can involve the teacher or the students reviewing the performance, and tests can be whatever the teacher thinks is appropriate. In Post 2, the teacher decides what follow up work is required.

The important thing here is to emphasise Skehan’s use of something close to the Willis (Willis, 2009) framework, much at variance with Long’s (2015) approach to TBLT.

Let me finish this brief summary with a quote from Skehan (2007)

First, it is assumed that the CALF [Complexity, Accuracy, Lexis, Fluency] categories can represent an acquisitional sequence, and so tasks which promote greater complexity are pushing for new language, while tasks which promote accuracy or fluency are supporting control of an existing interlanguage level. In this view, first there is destabilization, and then there is a concern for control (eliminating inaccuracy first, and then achieving fluency second). But second, and more fundamentally, LAC regards the task itself as having the important function of making some aspect (or aspects) of language salient. The teacher records what language has been made salient in this way, Then it is assumed that important acquisitional work takes place at a post-task stage.

Discussion

This rushed attempt to summarise Skehan’s LAC paves the way for our forthcoming discussion with Peter, scheduled for next week, when Neil McMillan and I will talk to Peter about his work and how it relates to Mike Long’s version of TBLT.

The first thing I’d like to draw attention to is the way that Skehan has gone about his research. Rather than attempt to test some wide-ranging hypothesis, Skehan has worked bottom-up. In his studies, he selects a few tasks and then tweaks them, concentrating on this variable or that. He finds that variable X affects outcome Y and then does further studies to check and slowly extend his investigations. Only when he introduces Levelt’s model of speech production (Levelt, 1989) – which I haven’t even mentioned!!! – does Skehan attempt an explanatory theory to support his work. Of course, Levelt’s theory is an important addition, but somehow it isn’t central, to me at least, when it comes to appreciating his huge contribution to SLA research.

Second, narrowing things down (a lot!) what marks Skehan out in the world of ELT is his dogged pursuit of a reasonable (sic) way to go about ELT. He’s done so much to promote an alternative to coursebook-driven ELT, to raise the bar when it comes to how we can apply SLA research findings to teaching practice. Whatever differences there are between Long’s approach to TBLT and Skehan’s, they both agree: ELT practice must change!

But what about those differences? Well, they’re not as great as they might appear. Skehan’s view that tasks should be the syllabus, and that they should be designed in such a way that they “destabilize” the learner’s interlanguage before helping to eliminate inaccuracy and achieve fluency is completely in accord with Long’s view. The pre-task -> task -> post task sequence is a major difference, and in the end, I side with Long, because I think his sequence of pedagogic tasks, based on Target Tasks, is better: each pedagogic task in the sequence includes attention to all three phases of Skehan’s methodolical phases. However, when it comes to the design of the pedagogic tasks, I think Robinson’s framework is unwieldy and based on an over-ambitious hypothesis. Skehan’s Task Sequencing Features, which pay attention to Code Complexity, Cognitive complexity, processing and familiarity, and factors that affect Communicative Stress, seem a beter guide.

In the first three runs of our course, Neil and I have learned that Long’s TBLT has to be adapted to fit the very different contexts of ELT which confront course designers and teachers worlwide. We continue to develop our course, and we anxiously (sic) await Peter Skehan’s contribution to it.             

Finally, here’s a bit from Ellis, et al (2019)

“One key distinction that Prabhu (1987) makes is between syllabuses which are intended to function as operational constructs in the curriculum and those that are intended to function as illuminative constructs. When a syllabus is designed to function as an operational construct in the L2 curriculum, the aim is to provide course content as a resource for teachers to construct their lesson plans and reach curricular goals with different learners in the varying classroom contexts in which they teach. This type of syllabus has low internal structure and leaves methodological and implementational issues to be determined by teachers based on their experience of what works at the local level and the problems that different learners face in the classroom. In short, the syllabus specifies only what will be taught, not how it will be taught. The content of syllabus is fixed, but how the teacher uses this content is flexible. By contrast, when a syllabus is designed to function as an illuminative construct in the L2 curriculum, the aim is accountability for both what will be taught and for what will be learned as a result. The focus at the planning stage is on ensuring accurate prediction so steps are taken to bring what is taught and what is learned into careful alignment. In achieving this end, the line between syllabus and methodology naturally blurs, and the syllabus takes on a much broader role within the curriculum.”

Ellis’ position, like Prabhu’s, is that an illuminative syllabus would be undesirable, even if it were possible, as “it limits what teachers and learners bring to the learning process in terms of the intuitive decisions and adjustments that they make in optimizing learners’ mastery of syllabus content”. Now there’s the rub. It sounds reasonable, but I couldn’t disagree more with this position, and I’ll be interested to hear what Peter has to say when Neil and I talk to him.  

 Peter’s chat with us will form part of the TBLT course run by SLB which starts on October 22, 2021. For more info, see here: TBLT: From Theory to Practice.

 References

Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2019). Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice (Cambridge Applied Linguistics). CUP.

Levelt W.J. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. MIT Press.

Long, M. (2015). SLA and TBLT. Wiley.

Skehan (2018) Second language task-based performance: theory, research, assessment. Routledge.Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2019). Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice (Cambridge Applied Linguistics). CUP.  

Skehan, P. & Foster, P. (1997) Task Type and Task Processing Conditions as Influences on Foreign Language Performance  Language Teaching Research, 1, 3, 85-211.

Skehan, P. & Foster, P. (2007). Complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis in task-based performance: a meta-analysis of the Ealing research. In: Van Daele, P.; Housen, S.; Kuiken, F.; Pierrard, M. and Vedder, I., (eds.) Complexity, Fluency and Accuracy and Fluency in Second Language Use, Learning and Teaching. University of Brussels Press, Brussels, pp. 207-226

Robinson, P. (2001a). Task complexity, cognitive resources, and syllabus design: A triadic framework for examining task influences on SLA. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 287-318). Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, P. (2001b). Task complexity, task difficulty, and task production: Exploring interactions in a componential framework. Applied Linguistics, 22, 27-57.

Robinson, P. (2005). Cognitive complexity and task sequencing: A review of studies in a componential framework for second language task design. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 43(1), 1-33.

Wen & Ahmadian (2019) Researching L2 task performance and pedagogy: in honour of Peter Skehan. Benjamins.  

Willis, J. 2009. The TBL framework: the task cycle. In K.Van den Branden, M. Bygate, J. Norris (eds) Task-based Language Teaching – a reader. Benjamin.

SLB: Task-Based Language Teaching Course No. 4

The fourth run of our online TBLT course starts on October 22nd, 2021 and subscription is now open. It’s a 100-hour, online tutored course aimed at classroom teachers, course designers, teacher-trainers, directors of studies and materials writers.

Our premise is that current ELT practice contradicts what we know about how people learn an L2 and is therefore inefficacious. We argue that TBLT — which is aimed at learners’ specific needs and respects what we know about language learning — should take its place, both in traditional and online environments.

The course is built around a series of tasks relating to key aspects of Long’s TBLT, from needs analysis through syllabus and material design to classroom delivery and assessment. Given that many who are attracted to TBLT work in contexts that make Long’s TBLT over-demanding, we also explore lighter, more feasible versions of TBLT that can be adopted by smaller schools or individual teachers working with groups with specific needs.

There will be contributions from the following experts:

Roger Gilabert: An expert on TBLT, Roger worked with Mike Long on several projects and has developed a TBLT course for Catalan journalists. His contributions to our three previous courses have been extremely highly rated by participants.

Marta González-Lloret: Marta did her PhD with Mike Long at the University of Hawai’i, is currently book series co-editor of Task-Based Language Teaching. Issues, Research and Practice, Benjamins, and is espcially interested in using technology-mediated tasks.

Glenn Fulcher: Glenn is a renowned testing & assessment scholar. His (2015) Re-examining Language Testing. A Philosophical and Social Inquiry was winner of the 2016 SAGE/ILTA Book Award, jointly with Fulcher and Davidson (2012) The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing.  He’ll help us with our discussion of task-based, criterion-referenced performance tests.

Cathy Doughty: Cathy is an expert in SLA, and technology & language teaching. She will contribute to our discussions of syllabus design and materials production.

Peter Skehan We’re still waiting for Peter to confirm his acceptance of our invitation. Peter is one of the most influential scholars in SLA, and with a particular interest in TBLT, Peter was the inaugural recipient, along with Mike Long, of the IATBLT’s Distinguished Achievement Award, made in 2017 at the Barcelona conference. Peter will help us get to grips with designing and sequencing pedagogic tasks.

Ljiljana Havran Ljiljana is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer who works in Belgrade. Her blog is one of the most read and respected in the ELT community. Ljiljana will share her experiences of designing and implementing a TBLT course for pilots and air traffic controllers.

Rose Bard Rose Bard works in Brazil and, like Ljiljana, has a blog which enjoys a wide audience. In this course, Rose is going to tell us how she uses Minecraft in her TBLT courses aimed at young learners.

Mike Long: The course will also include exclusive recordings of Mike Long, who inspired Neil and me to design the course, and who contributed to all its earlier versions. As many of you will know, Mike died in February of this year; we dedicate this course to his memory.

1. Now you can choose individual modules or the the whole course. The whole course takes 100 hours and consists of five modules (see below). If you choose to do one or two individual modules, you’ll have the chance to do further modules in later courses to achieve complete certification.

2. We will give more attention to the increasingly important influence of new technologies on the TBLT field. As the tasks people need to perform are increasingly mediated by technologies, so is TBLT itself, with consequences for how TBLT courses are designed and run.

3. Thanks to the truly impressive work of the participants in the three previous courses, we’ve learned a lot about the problems of implementing a full version of Long’s TBLT, and we now better appreciate the need for a flexible case-by-case approach to the design and implementation of any TBLT project. In the third course, we were very pleased to see how each participant slowly developed their own TBLT agenda, working on identifying their own target tasks, breaking these down into relevant pedagogic tasks, finding suitable materials, and bringing all this together using the most appropriate pedagogic procedures. Another gratifying aspect of all the courses has been the way participants have learned from each other; most of the individual participant’s TBLT models contain common elements which have been forged from the forum discussions. So in this course, we’ll make even more effort to ensure that each participant works in accord with their own teaching context, and at the same time contributes to the pooled knowledge and expertese of the group.

1. Neil McMillan and I (both experienced teachers with Ph.Ds) do most of the tutoring.

2. There are 5 modules:

  • Presenting TBLT
  • Designing a TBLT Needs Analysis
  • Designing a task-based pedagogic unit
  • Task-Based Materials:
  •  Facilitating and evaluating tasks

3. Each Module contains:

  • Background reading.
  • A video presentation from the session tutor and/or guest tutors.
  • Interactive exercises to explore key concepts. 
  • An on-going forum discussion with the tutors, guest turors and fellow course participants.
  • An extensive group videoconference session with the tutors and/or guest tutors. 
  • An assessed task (e.g. short essay, presentation, task analysis etc.). 

Sneak Preview

To get more information about the course, and try out a “taster” CLICK HERE

Theoretical Constructs in SLA

Given the recent discussion on Twitter of Native Speakers, where I defended the construct as a useful one for SLA research, below is a short piece I wrote for Robinson, P. (ed) (2013) The Encyclopedia of SLA London, Routledge. In the Twitter thread I wrote, I criticised those in the sociolingustics field who adopt a relativist epistemology. The post I did on the work of Adrian Holliday might be of interest.

1. Introduction
Theoretical constructs in SLA include such terms as interlanguage, variable competence, motivation, and noticing. These constructs are used in the service of theories which attempt to explain phenomena, and thus, in order to understand how the term “theoretical construct” is used in SLA, we must first understand the terms “theory” and “phenomena”.

A theory is an attempt to provide an explanation to a question, usually a “Why” or “How” question. The “Critical Period” theory (see Birdsong, 1999) attempts to answer the question “Why do most L2 learners not achieve native-like competence?” The Processability Theory (Pienemann, 1998) attempts to answer the question “How do L2 learners go through stages of development?” In posing the question that a theory seeks to answer, we refer to “phenomena”: the things that we isolate, define, and then attempt to explain in our theory. In the case of theories of SLA, key phenomena are transfer, staged development, systemacity, variability and incompleteness. (See Towell and Hawkins, 1994: 15.)

A clear distinction must be made between phenomena and observational data. Theories attempt to explain phenomena, and observational data are used to support and test those theories. The important difference between data and phenomena is that the phenomena are what we want to explain, and thus, they are seen as the result of the interaction between some manageably small number of causal factors, instances of which can be found in different situations. By contrast, any type of causal factor can play a part in the production of data, and the characteristics of these data depend on the peculiarities of the experimental design, or data-gathering procedures, employed. As Bogen and Woodward put it: “Data are idiosyncratic to particular experimental contexts, and typically cannot occur outside those contexts, whereas phenomena have stable, repeatable characteristics which will be detectable by means of different procedures, which may yield quite different kinds of data” (Bogen and Woodward, 1988: 317). A failure to appreciate this distinction often leads to poorly-defined theoretical constructs, as we shall see below.

While researchers in some fields deal with such observable phenomena as bones, tides, and sun spots, others deal with non-observable phenomena such as love, genes, hallucinations, gravity and language competence. Non-observable phenomena have to be studied indirectly, which is where theoretical constructs come in. First we name the non-observable phenomena, we give them labels and then we make constructs. With regard to the non-observable phenomena listed above (love, genes, hallucinations, gravity and language competence), examples of constructs are romantic love, hereditary genes, schizophrenia, the bends, and the Language Acquisition Device. Thus, theoretical constructs are one remove from the original labelling, and they are, as their name implies, packed full of theory; they are, that is, proto-typical theories in themselves, a further invention of ours, an invention made in our attempt to pin down the non-observable phenomena that we want to examine so that the theories which they embody can be scrutinised. It should also be noted that there is a certain ambiguity in the terms “theoretical construct” and “phenomenon”. The “two-step” process of naming a phenomenon and then a construct outlined above is not always so clear: for Chomsky (Chomsky, 1986), “linguistic competence” is the phenomenon he wants to explain, to many it has all the hallmarks of a theoretical construct.

Constructs are not the same as definitions; while a definition attempts to clearly distinguish the thing defined from everything else, a construct attempts to lay the ground for an explanation. Thus, for example, while a dictionary defines motivation in such a way that motivation is distinguishable from desire or compulsion, Gardener (1985) attempts to explain why some learners do better than others, and he uses the construct of motivation to do so, in such a way that his construct takes on its own meaning, and allows others in the field to test the claims he makes. A construct defines something in a special way: it is a term used in an attempt to solve a problem, indeed, it is often a term that in itself suggests the answer to the problem. Constructs can be everyday parlance (like “noticing” and “competence”) and they can also be new words (like “interlanguage”), but, in all cases, constructs are “theory-laden” to the maximum: their job is to support a hypothesis, or, better still, a full-blown theory. In short, then, the job of a construct is to help define and then solve a problem.

2. Criteria for assessing theoretical constructs used in theories of SLA

There is a lively debate among scholars about the best way to study and understand the various phenomena associated with SLA. Those in the rationalist camp insist that an external world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and that it is possible to study different phenomena in this world, to make meaningful statements about them, and to improve our knowledge of them by appeal to logic and empirical observation. Those in the relativist camp claim that there are a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs. Science, for the relativists, is just one type of social construction, a particular kind of language game which has no more claim to objective truth than any other. This article rejects the relativist view and, based largely on Popper’s “Critical Rationalist” approach (Popper, 1972), takes the view that the various current theories of SLA, and the theoretical constructs embedded in them, are not all equally valid, but rather, that they can be critically assessed by using the following criteria (adapted from Jordan, 2004):

1. Theories should be coherent, cohesive, expressed in the clearest possible terms, and consistent. There should be no internal contradictions in theories, and no circularity due to badly-defined terms.
2. Theories should have empirical content. Having empirical content means that the propositions and hypotheses proposed in a theory should be expressed in such a way that they are capable of being subjected to tests, based on evidence observable by the senses, which support or refute them. These tests should be capable of replication, as a way of ensuring the empirical nature of the evidence and the validity of the research methods employed. For example, the claim “Students hate maths because maths is difficult” has empirical content only when the terms “students”, “maths”, “hate” and “difficult” are defined in such a way that the claim can be tested by appeal to observable facts. The operational definition of terms, and crucially, of theoretical constructs, is the best way of ensuring that hypotheses and theories have empirical content.
3. Theories should be fruitful. “Fruitful” in Kuhn’s sense (see Kuhn, 1962:148): they should make daring and surprising predictions, and solve persistent problems in their domain.

Note that the theory-laden nature of constructs is no argument for a relativist approach: we invent constructs, as we invent theories, but we invent them, precisely, in a way that allows them to be subjected to empirical tests. The constructs can be anything we like: in order to explain a given problem, we are free to make any claim we like, in any terms we choose, but the litmus test is the clarity and testability of these claims and the terms we use to make them. Given it’s pivotal status, a theoretical construct should be stated in such a way that we all know unequivocally what is being talked about, and it should be defined in such a way that it lays itself open to principled investigation, empirical and otherwise. In the rest of this article, a number of theoretical constructs will be examined and evaluated in terms of the criteria outlined above.

3. Krashen’s Monitor Model

The Monitor Model (see Krashen, 1985) is described elsewhere, so let us here concentrate on the deficiencies of the theoretical constructs employed. In brief, Krashen’s constructs fail to meet the requirements of the first two criteria listed above: Krashen’s use of key theoretical constructs such as “acquisition and learning”, and “subconscious and conscious” is vague, confusing, and, not always consistent. More fundamentally, we never find out what exactly “comprehensible input”, the key theoretical construct in the model, means. Furthermore, in conflict with the second criterion listed above, there is no way of subjecting the set of hypotheses that Krashen proposes to empirical tests. The Acquisition-Learning hypothesis gives no evidence to support the claim that two distinct systems exist, nor any means of determining whether they are, or are not, separate. Similarly, there is no way of testing the Monitor hypothesis: since the Monitor is nowhere properly defined as an operational construct, there is no way to determine whether the Monitor is in operation or not, and it is thus impossible to determine the validity of the extremely strong claims made for it. The Input Hypothesis is equally mysterious and incapable of being tested: the levels of knowledge are nowhere defined and so it is impossible to know whether i + 1 is present in input, and, if it is, whether or not the learner moves on to the next level as a result. Thus, the first three hypotheses (Acquisition-Learning, the Monitor, and Natural Order) make up a circular and vacuous argument: the Monitor accounts for discrepancies in the natural order, the learning-acquisition distinction justifies the use of the Monitor, and so on.

In summary, Krashen’s key theoretical constructs are ill-defined, and circular, so that the set is incoherent. This incoherence means that Krashen’s theory has such serious faults that it is not really a theory at all. While Krashen’s work may be seen as satisfying the third criterion on our list, and while it is extremely popular among EFL/ESL teachers (even among those who, in their daily practice, ignore Krashen’s clear implication that grammar teaching is largely a waste of time) the fact remains that his series of hypotheses are built on sand. A much better example of a theoretical construct put to good use is Schmidt’s Noticing, which we will now examine.

4. Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

Schmidt’s Noticing hypothesis (see Schmidt, 1990) is described elsewhere. Essentially, Schmidt attempts to do away with the “terminological vagueness” of the term “consciousness” by examining three senses of the term: consciousness as awareness, consciousness as intention, and consciousness as knowledge. Consciousness and awareness are often equated, but Schmidt distinguishes between three levels: Perception, Noticing and Understanding. The second level, Noticing, is the key to Schmidt’s eventual hypothesis. The importance of Schmidt’s work is that it clarifies the confusion surrounding the use of many terms used in psycholinguistics (not least Krashen’s “acquisition/ learning” dichotomy) and, furthermore, it develops one crucial part of a general processing theory of the development of interlanguage grammar.

Our second evaluation criterion requires that theoretical constructs are defined in such a way as to ensure that hypotheses have empirical content, and thus we must ask: what does Schmidt’s concept of noticing exactly refers to, and how can we be sure when it is, and is not being used by L2 learners? In his 1990 paper, Schmidt claims that noticing can be operationally defined as “the availability for verbal report”, “subject to various conditions”. He adds that these conditions are discussed at length in the verbal report literature, but he does not discuss the issue of operationalisation any further. Schmidt’s 2001 paper gives various sources of evidence of noticing, and points out their limitations. These sources include learner production (but how do we identify what has been noticed?), learner reports in diaries (but diaries span months, while cognitive processing of L2 input takes place in seconds and making diaries requires not just noticing but also reflexive self-awareness), and think-aloud protocols (but we cannot assume that the protocols identify all the examples of target features that were noticed).

Schmidt argues that the best test of noticing is that proposed by Cheesman and Merikle (1986), who distinguish between the objective and subjective thresholds of perception. The clearest evidence that something has exceeded the subjective threshold and been noticed is a concurrent verbal report, since nothing can be verbally reported other than the current contents of awareness. Schmidt adds that “after the fact recall” is also good evidence that something was noticed, providing that prior knowledge and guessing can be controlled. For example, if beginner level students of Spanish are presented with a series of Spanish utterances containing unfamiliar verb forms, and are then asked to recall immediately afterwards the forms that occurred in each utterance, and can do so, that is good evidence that they noticed them. On the other hand, it is not safe to assume that failure to do so means that they did not notice. It seems that it is easier to confirm that a particular form has not been noticed than that it has: failure to achieve above-chance performance in a forced-choice recognition test is a much better indication that the subjective threshold has not been exceeded and that noticing did not take place.

Schmidt goes on to claim that the noticing hypothesis could be falsified by demonstrating the existence of subliminal learning, either by showing positive priming of unattended and unnoticed novel stimuli, or by showing learning in dual task studies in which central processing capacity is exhausted by the primary task. The problem in this case is that, in positive priming studies, one can never really be sure that subjects did not allocate any attention to what they could not later report, and similarly, in dual task experiments, one cannot be sure that no attention is devoted to the secondary task. In conclusion, it seems that Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis rests on a construct that still has difficulty measuring up to the second criteria of our list; it is by no means easy to properly identify when noticing has and has not occurred. Despite this limitation, however, Schmidt’s hypothesis is still a good example of the type of approach recommended by the list. Its strongest virtues are its rigour and its fruitfulness, Schmidt argues that attention as a psychological construct refers to a variety of mechanisms or subsystems (including alertness, orientation, detection within selective attention, facilitation, and inhibition) which control information processing and behaviour when existing skills and routines are inadequate. Hence, learning in the sense of establishing new or modified knowledge, memory, skills and routines is “largely, perhaps exclusively a side effect of attended processing”. (Schmidt, 2001: 25). This is a daring and surprising claim, with similar predictive ability, and it contradicts Krashen’s claim that conscious learning is of extremely limited use.

5. Variationist approaches

An account of these approaches is given elsewhere In brief, variable competence, or variationist, approaches, use the key theoretical construct of “variable competence”, or, as Tarone calls it, “capability”. Tarone (1988) argues that “capability” underlies performance, and that this capability consists of heterogeneous “knowledge” which varies according to various factors. Thus, there is no homogenous competence underlying performance but a variable “capacity” which underlies specific instances of language performance. Ellis (1987) uses the construct of “variable rules” to explain the observed variability of L2 learners’ performance: learners, by successively noticing forms in the input which are in conflict with the original representation of a grammatical rule acquire more and more versions of the original rule. This leads to either “free variation” (where forms alternate in all environments at random) or “systematic variation” where one variant appears regularly in one linguistic context, and another variant in another context.

The root of the problem of the variable competence model is the weakness of its theoretical constructs. The underlying “variable competence” construct used by Tarone and Ellis is nowhere clearly defined, and is, in fact, simply asserted to “explain” a certain amount of learner behaviour. As Gregg (1992: 368) argues, Tarone and Ellis offer a description of language use and behaviour, which they confuse with an explanation of the acquisition of grammatical knowledge. By abandoning the idea of a homogenous underlying competence, Gregg says, we are stuck at the surface level of the performance data, and, consequently, any research project can only deal with the data in terms of the particular situation it encounters, describing the conditions under which the experiment took place. The positing of any variable rule at work would need to be followed up by an endless number of further research projects looking at different situations in which the rule is said to operate, each of which is condemned to uniqueness, no generalisation about some underlying cause being possible.

At the centre of the variable competence model are variable rules. Gregg argues cogently that such variability cannot become a theoretical construct used in attempts to explain how people acquire linguistic knowledge. In order to turn the idea of variable rules from an analytical tool into a theoretical construct, Tarone and Ellis would have to grant psychological reality to the variable rules (which in principle they seem to do, although no example of a variable rule is given) and then explain how these rules are internalised, so as to become part of the L2 learner’s grammatical knowledge of the target language (which they fail to do). The variable competence model, according to Gregg, confuses descriptions of the varying use of forms with an explanation of the acquisition of linguistic knowledge. The forms (and their variations) which L2 learners produce are not, indeed cannot be, direct evidence of any underlying competence – or capacity. By erasing the distinction between competence and performance “the variabilist is committed to the unprincipled collection of an uncontrolled mass of data” (Gregg 1990: 378).

As we have seen, a theory must explain phenomena, not describe data. In contradiction to this, and to criteria 1and 2 in our list, the arguments of Ellis and Tarone are confused and circular; in the end what Ellis and Tarone are actually doing is gathering data without having properly formulated the problem they are trying to solve, i.e. without having defined the phenomenon they wish to explain. Ellis claims that his theory constitutes an “ethnographic, descriptive” approach to SLA theory construction, but he does not answer the question: How does one go from studying the everyday rituals and practices of a particular group of second language learners through descriptions of their behaviour to a theory that offers a general explanation for some identified phenomenon concerning the behaviour of L2 learners?

Variable Competence theories exemplify what happens when the distinction between phenomena, data and theoretical constructs is confused. In contrast, Chomsky’s UG theory, despite its shifting ground and its contentious connection to SLA, is probably the best example of a theory where these distinctions are crystal clear. For Chomsky, “competence” refers to underlying linguistic (grammatical) knowledge, and “performance” refers to the actual day to day use of language, which is influenced by an enormous variety of factors, including limitations of memory, stress, tiredness, etc. Chomsky argues that while performance data is important, it is not the object of study (it is, precisely, the data): linguistic competence is the phenomenon that he wants to examine. Chomsky’s distinction between performance and competence exactly fits his theory of language and first language acquisition: competence is a well-defined phenomenon which is explained by appeal to the theoretical construct of the Language Acquisition Device. Chomsky describes the rules that make up linguistic competence and then invites other researchers to subject the theory that all languages obey these rules to further empirical tests.

6. Aptitude

Why is anybody good at anything? Well, they have an aptitude for it: they’re “natural” piano players, or carpenters, or whatever. This is obviously no explanation at all, although, of course, it contains a beguiling element of truth.To say that SLA is (partly) explained by an aptitude for learning a second language is to beg the question: What is aptitude for SLA? Attempts to explain the role of aptitude in SLA illustrate the difficulty of “pinning down” the phenomenon that we seek to explain. If aptitude is to be claimed as a causal factor that helps to explain SLA, then aptitude must be defined in such a way that it can be identified in L2 learners and then related to their performance.

Robinson (2007) uses aptitude as a construct that is composed of different cognitive abilities. His “Aptitude Complex Hypothesis” claims that different classroom settings draw on certain combinations of cognitive abilities, and that, depending on the classroom activities, students with certain cognitive abilities will do better than others.. Robinson adds the “Ability Differentiation Hypothesis” which claims that some L2 learners have different abilities than others, and that it is important to match these learners to instructional conditions which favor their strengths in aptitude complexes. In terms of classroom practice, these hypotheses might well be fruitful, but they do not address the question of how aptitude explains SLA.

One example of identifying aptitude in L2 learners is the CANAL-F theory of foreign language aptitude, which grounds aptitude in “the triarchic theory of human intelligence” and argues that “one of the central abilities required in FL acquisition is the ability to cope with novelty and ambiguity” (Grigorenko, Sternberg and Ehrman, 2000: 392). However successfully the test might predict learner’s ability, the theory fails to explain aptitude in any causal way. The theory of human intelligence that the CANAL-F theory is grounded in fails to illuminate the description given of FL ability; we do not get beyond a limiting of the domain in which the general ability to cope with novelty and ambiguity operates. The individual differences between foreign language learners’ ability is explained by suggesting that some are better at coping with novelty and ambiguity than others. Thus, whatever construct validity might be claimed for CANAL-F, and however well the test might predict ability, it leaves the question of what precisely aptitude at foreign language learning is, and how it contributes to SLA, unanswered.

How, then, can aptitude explain differential success in a causal way? Even if aptitude can be properly defined and measured without falling into the familiar trap of being circular (those who do well at language aptitude tests have an aptitude for language learning), how can we step outside the reference of aptitude and establish more than a simple correlation? What is needed is a theoretical construct.

7. Conclusion

The history of science throws up many examples of theories that began without any adequate description of what was being explained. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (the young born to any species compete for survival, and those young that survive to reproduce tend to embody favourable natural variations which are passed on by heredity) lacked any formal description of the theoretical construct “variation”, or any explanation of the origin of variations, or how they passed between generations. It was not until Mendel’s theories and the birth of modern genetics in the early 20th century that this deficiency was dealt with. But, and here is the point, dealt with it was: we now have constructs that pin down what “variation” refers to in the Darwinian theory, and the theory is stronger for them (i.e. more testable). Theories progress by defining their terms more clearly and by making their predictions more open to empirical testing.

Theoretical constructs lie at the heart of attempts to explain the phenomena of SLA. Observation must be in the service of theory: we do not start with data, we start with clearly-defined phenomena and theoretical constructs that help us articulate the solution to a problem, and we then use empirical data to test that tentative solution. Those working in the field of psycholinguistics are making progress thanks to their reliance on a rationalist methodology which gives priority to the need for clarity and empirical content. If sociolinguistics is to offer better explanations, the terms used to describe social factors must be defined in such a way that it becomes possible to do empirically-based studies that confirm or challenge those explanations. All those who attempt to explain SLA must make their theoretical constructs clear, and improve their definitions and research methodology in order to better pin down the slippery concepts that they work with.

References

Birdsong, D. (ed) (1999) Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Bogen, J. and Woodward, J. (1988) Saving the phenomena. Philosophical Review 97: 303-52.

Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use. New York: Prager.

Ellis, R. (1987) Interlanguage variability in narrative discourse: style-shifting in the use of the past tense. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 9, 1-20.

Gardner, R. C. (1985) Social psychology and second language learning: the role of attitudes and motivation. London: Edward Arnold.

Gregg, K. R. (1990) The Variable Competence Model of second language acquisition and why it isn’t. Applied Linguistics 11, 1. 364—83.

Grigorenko, E., Sternberg, R., and Ehrman, M. (2000) “A Theory-Based Approach to the Measurement of Foreign Language Learning Ablity: The Canal-F Theory and Test.” The Modern Language Journal 84, iii, 390-405.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Benjamins: Amsterdam

Kuhn, T. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.

Pienemann, M. (1998) Language Processing and Second Language Development: Processability Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Popper, K. R. (1972) Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-58

Schmidt, R. (2001) Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-32.

Tarone, E. (1988) Variation in interlanguage. London: Edward Arnold.

Towell, R. and Hawkins, R. (1994) Approaches to second language acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Summer Reading

Frustrated by online searches for new books to read in the garden (no way am I going near a Spanish beach this summer!) I looked through my own collection and picked the ones listed below. I’m sure many of you will have read some of them, but I hope one or two might tickle your fancy.

The Doll Factory is set in London, 1850, the year of the Great Exhibition. This is Victorian London, a truly awful place for most of its inhabitants. It tells the story of Iris, struggling to survive, an aspiring artist who meets a member of the Pre-Raphaelite group and agrees to model for him. Silas, a Dickensian bad guy if ever there was one, is the spanner in the works. It’s a great story and it’s beautifully written. Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, describes it as “A sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art and delusion”. I bought it at an airport without much expectation and was blown away by the opening pages that draw you in to a wonderfully described environment and its main characters. A superb debut novel.     

There are five novels in Edward St. Auybyn’s Patrick Melrose series. I read the first one, Never Mind, when it came out and just couldn’t believe that anyone could write so well – it’s a masterpiece. Nobody else writes like this, St. Aubyn has to be one of the greatest stylists in the English language. St. Aubyn says that he wrote the novels as an act of investigative self-repair. The first novel tells of how, as a child, he was repeatedly sexually abused by his father while his mother turned a blind eye. This harrowing tale is told with quite extraordinary style; it is, IMHO, an unrivalled tour de force of literary elegance, sparkling in its wit and intelligence. The rest of the series recount his father’s death, his loss of the huge family fortunes, and his eventual “redemption”. Hide the drugs while you read; if you felt hungry reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, you’ll be sorely tempted to indulge in illicit substances while reading this. The books were recently made into a tv series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick. Fantastic as Cumberbatch’s acting is, you really must read the books.

Gomptertz’ What Are You Looking At? gives a tremendously enjoyable history of modern art. It’s easy to read, mercifully free of all the precious, obscurantist stuff that art critics are famous for, and it tells its story with terrific anecdotes and illustrations. Highly recommended.

Russell’s Bird lives is the best biography I’ve ever read (Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, and Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay, come close). It’s the biography of Charlie Parker and if you like jazz, you’ve almost certainly read it. It swings! Here’s one review:

“One of the very few jazz books that deserve to be called literature . . . perhaps the finest writing on jazz to be found anywhere. . . . Russell knows a lot about music, has a novelist’s eye for detail and a phonographic ear for jazz speech, and he swings a clean sports reporter’s style. He has poured these gifts into what must be the most exhaustively researched biography on a jazz musician ever published and miraculously catches the feel of a jazz performance, that impossible fusion of spontaneous freedom and total discipline. Those aware of Parker’s genius cannot do without this book.”  Grover Sales, Saturday Review

Greger’s How not to die is a must read. As someone who’s dedicated much of his life to drug abuse (not that I’ve ever got close to Edward St. Auybyn’s), I’m an unlikely fan of a book dedicated to clean living. But Greger doesn’t preach or tell you off – he just gives you facts about the damage modern meat and dairy produce do to us, and recommends that we adopt a vegan diet. The argument is compelling. Quite apart from how much we suffer, it’s evident that the planet we live on suffers even more than we do from our reliance on meat and dairy products. In our house now, we eat a small fraction of the meat and dairy stuff we used to: most of what we eat is unprocessed fruit and veg. “Stay away from processed foods” is the number one take away (geddit!). Yes, I know: beer, wine, vodka, cocaine, heroin and speed are all processed. I want to change to opium, but you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find.    

Stevick’s A Way and Ways is well described and commented on by Scott Thornbury in his S is for (Earl) Stevick post. The book looks at various innovative ways of doing ELT that were emerging at that time. It changed my life. It didn’t stop the drug abuse, but it stopped me teaching in the prescribed fashion that dominated ELT in the late 1970s and that now, in the 2020s, again dominates. Stevick was a key player in breaking the mold and ushering in a golden, alas, short-lived, era of CLT.  My good friend Mike Long (how we all miss him) used to get quickly riled up when I praised Stevick, and I now appreciate his concerns, but nevertheless, back in the early 1980s, Stevick was one of my gurus (Henry Widdowson – another of Mike Long’s bete noires – was another). When I worked at ESADE Idiomas in Barcelona, Earl was a regular visitor and I fondly remember hosting a lunch for Earl at our house in 1989. About a dozen of us sat around the table outside, shooting the breeze with one of the most charming and persuasive educationalists we’d ever meet. I’m going to spoil this now, but I can’t resist recounting what Earl said at that lunch. “Being quizzed by Geoff is like going to the dentist – it hurts, but it’s good for you”. Well, it got a laugh, and added a bit of spice, as if it were needed, to a lovely encounter with the great man. It’s never too late to read Stevick’s stuff for yourself. A Way and Ways is on my desk now, ready for its umpteenth reading this summer.       

Finally, Coffield and Williamson’s From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery which I only bought recently, makes compelling reading. To paraphrase the blurb, it calls for educators to challenge the dominant market-led model of education and instead build a more democratic one, better able to face threats such as environmental damage; intensified global competition; corrosive social inequalities in and between nations in the world; and the need for a new, just and sustainable economic model. It shows how education policy has led to schools and universities becoming exam factories and further education colleges becoming skills factories. They propose an alternative future for education, which builds “communities of discovery” by realising the collective creativity of students and educators through democracy. Put it down from time to time, but its 80 pages are well worth slowly digesting.   

I wish you all a great summer break; stay safe and happy reading.

The books

Macneal. E. (2019) The Doll Factory. Picador.

St. Aubyn. E. (2016) The Melrose novels (the 5 novels in one book).  Picador.

Gompertz, W. (2012) What are you looking at? Penguin.

Russell, R. (1972) Bird Lives. Quartet Books.

Greger, M. (2016) How Not to Die. Macmillan.

Coffield, F. & Williamson, B. (2012) From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery. Bedford Way Papers.

Genius!

Dr. Gianfranco Conti (with largely unacknowledged help from his side kick Steve Smith) is the brilliant scholar and gifted educator responsible for the M.A.R.S.’ E.A.R.S. method for teaching modern languages. The enormous success of Dr. Conti’s method is due to a winning combination of factors:

  • its crystal clear, lock-step, Do-this-then-do-that-and-don’t-even think-of-doing-anything-else methodology;
  • its catchy, easy to follow range of classroom activities, including Drill and Kill, Stultifying Sentence Stealer, Disappearing Time, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Three Blind Mimes, and It’s All Nonsense.
  • the relentless promotion of both Dr. Conti himself and his methodology on platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and websites like The Language Gym.

Dr. Conti’s websites give tons (sic) of extraordinarily detailed information about every single aspect of his sparkling career, with special attention paid to his formidable combination of academic prowess and pedagogic acumen. Thousands of teachers applaud his work; stories abound of fans waiting patiently outside his house, often in pouring rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero as he returns home after a gruelling day’s work at the chalk face. If all the “Thank you, Dr. Conti” testimionials Dr. Conti has received over the years were laid end to end, they would doubtless circumnavigate his wonderous head more than once.

Dr. Conti discusses his MARS-EARS sequence for implementing his Endlessly Repeated Instruction (ERI) method of teaching modern foreign languages (MFLs) in a number of posts, one of which is Patterns First. While the method remains faithful to the time-honoured tradition in mainstream language education of ignoring the tedious distinction made by academics between declarative and procedural knowledge, it stands head and shoulders above the usual PPP methodology by devoting no time at all to students creatively using the L2 for their own chosen communicative purposes. In a typical school term using Dr. Conti’s method, no student ever gets a speaking turn lasting for more than twenty seconds, except right at the end of the course, in the “Spontaneity” phase, where a single student was once recorded speaking, with only occasionally interruptions from the teacher, for over one minute.

Thus, Dr. Conti ensures that “the kids”, as he lovingly calls them, having worked their way through masses of sentence building, drills (expansion work to push output) and carefully guided, focused production of target items, are well-prepared for their end of tem exam which tests what they know about the bits of language they have been so thoroughly taught. They know what this sentence means:

The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.

They know how to pronounce each word. They know what’s wrong with the sentence

The pens of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle .

and with a bit of luck and enough time they know how to compose (“build” as Dr. Conti would say) this sentence

The wheel of my car is on the foot of my screaming daughter.

What they don’t know, of course, is how to use the L2 fluently in order to to take part in spontaneous, real-time, communicative exchanges with other people about things that matter to them. But, as Dr. Conti likes to say, “Less in more”.

Luckily for us, Dr. Conti has recently recorded “an impromptu, unplanned, unscripted summary of the EPI philosophy and principles”.

This tour de force is worth playing over and over again. Among the many remarkable features of the talk, Dr. Conti’s ability to continually recover from contradictions in what he’s saying with all the aplomb of a truly professional salesperson, and his powerful use of the fingers of his two hands. deserve special praise. Note how, in his “Count The Ways” (TM) routine, while the left hand serves to indicate the number of elements involved in the current topic being discussed, the thumb and index finger of his right hand are used to show which among the elements he is focusing on.

Dr. Conti begins by offering a daring interpretation of emergentism. Majestically sweeping aside the finer points of Nick Ellis’ work on emergentism, Dr. Conti suggests that “basically” (a key term in Dr. Conti’s oevre) what Ellis is saying is that language learning consists of getting bombarded with lexical chunks that are all basically the same. Every single situtation the learner finds themselves in is like “an attentional frame to a specific number of chunks”, and what Nick Ellis says (“born out by research, by science”) is that by being bombarded with these chunks that are all basically the same, “a phenomenon called priming happens whereby you are basically primed by this exposure ….. to then at some stage produce them”.

OK? Got that? If you’ve read Nick Ellis’ stuff, you might not recognise Dr. Conti’s description, but rest assured, he’s got a PhD in SLA, so he must be right. Now here comes the truly original twist, the bit that really seals the authority of the maestro.

Having stripped emergentism to the bone, Conti goes on to combine its raw principles with the principles of skills acquisition theory! I mean, how audacious can you get! It goes like this. First you get primed (the basic principle of emergentism), and then, and I quote: the important theory which kicks in after that is that then you’re going to start producing those chunks and you’re going to become fluent through trial and error, through feedback and a lot of practice. So when you have the two theories combined, you have a powerful synergy.

What most mundane scholars see as two completely contradictory theories, Dr. Conti sees as synergy! After a bit of a detour, Dr. Conti returns to these two theories which provide the principles for his method. He repeats that emergentism (usage based theory) gets you primed through massive exposure, and then skills theory gets you to practice so that you reach automaticity. “These two theories are the main tenets of my approach”.

Wow! Isn’t that amazing? As you know, I’m sure, the basic tenet of skills based theory is that learning begins with declarative knowledge, which can then be turned into procedural knowledge through practice. The usual way to describe skills based theory is to say that when you start learning something, you do so through largely explicit processes, after which, through practice and exposure, you move into implicit processes. So you go from declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge and the automatisation this brings. Declarative knowledge involves explicit learning or processes; learners obtain rules explicitly and have some type of conscious awareness of those rules. The automatization of procedural knowledge; learners proceduralise their explicit knowledge, and through suitable practice and use, the behaviour becomes automatic.

But Dr. Conti is, of course aware of the weaknesses of this theory.

  1. First, the lack of an operational definition undermines the various versions of skill acquisition theory that Conti has referred to: there is no agreed operational definition for the constructs “skill”, “practice”, or “automatization”. Partly as a result, but also because of methodological issues (see, for example, Dekeyser, 2007), the theory is under-researched; there is almost no empirical support for it.
  2. Second, millions of people who have emigrated to an English speaking country have learned English without any declarative or metalinguistic knowledge.
  3. Third, skill acquisition theory is in the “strong-interface” camp with regard to the vexed issue of the roles of explicit and implicit learning in SLA. It holds that explicit knowledge is transformed into implicit knowledge through the process of automatization as a result of practice. Many, including perhaps most famously Krashen, dispute this claim, and many more point to the fact that the theory does not take into account the role played by affective factors in the process of learning.  Practice, after all, does not always make perfect.
  4. Fourth, the practice emphasized in this theory is effective only for learning similar tasks: it doesn’t transfer to dissimilar tasks. Therefore, many claim that the theory disregards the role that creative thinking and behaviour plays in SLA.
  5. Fifth, to suggest that the acquisition of all L2 features starts with declarative knowledge is to ignore the fact that a great deal of vocabulary and grammar acquisition in an L2 involves incidental learning where no declarative stage is involved.
  6. Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, skill acquisition theory fails to deal with the sequences of acquisition which have been the subject of hundreds of studies in the last 50 years, all of them supporting the construct of interlanguages.

How to deal with these weaknesses? Only Dr. Conti could hit on bringing emergentist theories to the rescue. Without for a moment revising his method, which so obviously relies almost completely on the explicit teaching of pre-selected items of the L2, Dr. Conti says that priming gets learners ready for the practice bits of skills based pedagogy! So what Dr. Conti has done – as Marx did to a more modest degree with Hegel – is to stand two theories on their heads in such a way that his EPI method rests magically on the principles of two contradictory theories, and the limitations of both theories are surmounted. Needless to say, such is the audacity of this dialectic leap that nobody in the emergentist or skills based theory camps agrees with it. Nick Ellis, for whom language learning is an essentially implicit process, would not easily recognise Dr. Conti’s account of emergentism, and he most certainly would not endorse the MARS EARS sequence. On the other hand, neither Anderson nor DeKeyser would have any truck with Dr. Conti’s seemingly incoherent account of skills based theory. It’s hard to exaggerate the originality of Dr. Conti’s account as outlined in this truly fascinating off the cuff lecture.

Syllabus Design

We must accept that even the genius that is Dr. Conti has his weak spots, and I think his approach to syllabus design (which he refers to under the broader umbrella of curriculum design) needs some attention.

In his post “The seed-planting technique ..”,   Dr. Conti says:

effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design…… A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions.

This amounts to what Breen (1987) calls a “Product” syllabus, what White calls a “Type A” syllabus and what Long (2011 and 2015) calls a “Synthetic” syllabus. The key characteristic of Conti’s “effective curriculum” is that, like all synthetic syllabuses, it concentrates on WHAT is to be learned. Dr. Conti’s syllabus specifies the content – he recommends concentrating on lexical chunks that can be used in the expression of communicative functions – “The Majestic 12” as he calls them. This content is presented and practiced in a pre-determined order, in such a way that planting “seeds” precedes the scheduled main presentation and subsequent recycling. Despite all Dr. Conti’s brilliant intellectual gynmnastics, his syllabus assumes that declarative knowledge is a necessary precursor to procedural knowledge, and second, it assumes that learners learn what teachers teach them, an assumption undermined by all the evidence from interlanguage studies. We know that learners, not teachers, have most control over their language development. As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

Even when presented with, and drilled in, target-language forms and structures, even when errors are routinely corrected, and even when the bits and pieces are “seeded” and recycled in various ways, learners’ acquisition of newly-presented forms and structures is rarely either categorical or complete, and it is thus futile to plan the curriculum of an academic year on the assumption that the course’s “core language items” will be “comprehended/produced effectively” by the end of the year. Acquisition of grammatical structures and sub-systems like negation or relative clause formation is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and  U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures and vocabulary are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989).

Conclusion

I hope you rushed quickly through the bit about syllabus design, and that your “take away” will be simple: Such is Dr. Conti’s genius, that, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty he can say what he likes.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ (Carroll, 2009).

There can, surely be no question about who IS the master!

References

Breen, M. (1987) Learner contributions to task design. In C. Candlin and D. Murphy (eds.), Language Learning Tasks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 23-46.

Carroll, L. (2009). Alice through the looking glass. Penguin.

Dekeyser, R. (2007) Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 97-113). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Long, M. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M. Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. N.Y., Routledge.

Pienemann, M. (1984). Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 6, 2, 186-214.

Pienemann, M. (1989). Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics 10, 1, 52-79.

White, R.V. (1988) The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dr Conti’s latest sales pitch

Gianfranco Conti, Phd (Applied Linguistics), MA (TEFL), MA (English Lit.), PGCE (Modern Languages and P.E.) likes to emphasise what a well-qualified scholar he is. In this tweet, he refers to a body of SLA research which demonstrates that learners follow their own trajectory in the development of an interlanguage. The pedagogic implication is that efficacious teaching depends on respecting students’ interlanguage trajectory: students cannot learn formal aspects of the L2 which they’re not yet ready for (see Pienemann, M. (1989) “Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses”. Applied Linguistics, 10, 52-79, for example). Conti correctly says that SLA research on interlanguage development suggests that prepositions and prepositional phrases are acquired late in the L2 acquisition process, after which he immediately contracticts himself by urging teachers to do lots of work on them with beginners.  

Thus, Conti flaunts his supposed command of SLA research by references to two different bits of it – interlanguage development and the construct of saliency – in order to add clout to the latest sales pich for his famous “Sentence Builders”. These crude substitution tables will, he assures his followers, do the impossible. They will enable those who teach beginners to successfully teach items of the L2 which, according to Conti himself, the students concerned are not ready to learn. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.

See this post for my view on the implications of SLA research for ELT

The IATEFL Conference 2021 and the Elephant Who Is Studiously Ignored

INTRODUCTION

Thanks to the IATEFL 2021 Conference website and to messages on Twitter (in particular, the work of Jessica Mackay who does such a truly fine job of reporting), I have some idea of what happened at the 2021 IATEFL conference.

Hundreds of presentations covering various aspects of the lives of its members were given, and hardly any of them talked about new findings in SLA concerning how people learn an L2. How, I ask, can teachers do their jobs well, if they’re not informed about how people learn English as an L2? Surely the most important question for teachers is

“What is the most efficacious way of helping students learn English as an L2?”

And surely that question is answered, to a significant extent, by appeal to what we know about how people learn an L2.

In what follows, I won’t give references, but every assertion I make is supported in posts on this blog where references are given, and I’ll happily respond to requests for more references.

BACKGROUND

We know that learning an L2 is not the same as learning other subjects in a school curriculum. You learn geography, biology, etc., by learning about the subject. In contrast, you learn an L2 by doing it. There’s a difference in language learning between declarative and procedural knowledge – knowing about the language doesn’t mean you know how to use it. This basic difference was first highlighted in the early 1960s and it led to radical reform of ELT methodology in the late 1970s, with the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching, where the emphasis was put on giving students opportunities to do things in the L2 rather than being told about the L2.

These progressive tendencies were snuffed out by the emergence of the modern coursebook, of which Headway was the first example and Outcomes is a current example. They returned ELT practice to its old emphasis on teaching ABOUT the target language, rather than an emphasis on giving students opportunities to do things IN the target language. Since 1990, ELT practice has been dominated by coursebooks, by high stakes exams which give prime importance to knowledge about the language, and by teacher training programmes which emphasise teaching about the language.

ARGUMENT

Today, around the world, ELT is characterised by courses where most of the time is devoted to teaching students about the language. Teachers talk for most of the time, and individual students get few opportunities to speak in the target language; they mostly do drills, respond to display questions and very rarely speak for longer than a minute. The results are bad: most students of English as an L2 (more than a billion of them) fail to reach the ability to communicate well. In primary and secondary school education in most countries, the results are particularly bad.  

More than 60 years of SLA research suggest that basing ELT on the explicit teaching about the L2 doesn’t give the knowledge needed to use it. Quite simply: explicit teaching must take a back seat and prominence must be given to giving students the opportunities to do things in the language – not at the end of a lesson but right the way through it. There is absolutely zero support from research findings to support the argument that using coursebooks as the driver of ELT is more efficacious than using an analytic syllabus like TBLT, Dogme, CBLT, for example. None! Adapting, supplementing, tweaking coursebooks doesn’t rescue them. They are fundamentally flawed because they try to teach students things in a way that they can’t learn them. See the dozens of posts I’ve done to support this assertion and see the work of dozens of teachers and scholars I’ve cited. Here’s the argument: throw away coursebooks and focus on learning by doing.

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You may well disagree, but surely it deserves some attention, given that it’s supported by so much evidence. And that’s my point: it’s the elephant in the room. Very few at the IATEFL 2021 conference talk about it. Very little time in the 2021 IATEFL conference is given to discussion of what we know about SLA or of new findings in SLA research. Who talks about the 40 years of Interlanguage studies which demonstrate conclusively that learners follow their own non-linear trajectory towards communicative competence? Who talks about Nick Ellis’ new work on emergentism, or the push back against it?  Who talks about the general consensus that’s emerging among SLA scholars about how L2 learners are affected by their L1 and the implications about how explicit attention to certain formal features of the language is best done? Who talks about the growing ability of stats tools to help in meta-surveys of research studies? Who talks about results of crucial new tools of research such as eye-tracking? Who talks about the new results on sensitive periods, motivation, age, re-casts, modified, elaborated texts, or attempts to measure the cognitive complexity of tasks? Who talks about the really important new work being done on aptitude? Who’s right: Skehan or Robinson? What’s wrong with Tomlinson’s new account of SLA? How are lexical chunks processed? (Pace Dellar, this is an open, very interesting on-going, unresolved problem.) What’s the relationship between short term (SM) and long term memory? (Pace Smith and Conti, SM doesn’t rule.)

Most of this research points in one very clear direction: THE NEED TO BASE TEACHING ON LEARNING BY DOING. If it were taken seriously, which it should be, the current ELT paradigm would be overthrown. It’s that important: we’re teaching in the wrong damn way! There’s no silver bullet, no “right way”, despite what Conti might tell you. As always, it’s much easier to say what’s false than what’s true. We know, from SLA research, that coursebook-driven ELT is based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2. We have good reason to think that an analytic syllabus, one that doesn’t cut the L2 up into hundreds of items to be learned, but rather treats the L2 more holistically, respects learners’s interlanguage development, and gives students scaffolded opportuntiesw to learn by doing, is more efficacious.

And we also know that current ELT practice is driven by commercial interests which lead, inevitably, to the increasing commodification of education.

THE CONFERENCE

The IATEFL conference is sponsored by the powerful commercial interests who support current ELT practice and there’s little room for any real challenge to the status quo. What we get instead is hundreds of sessions that leave the fundamentally flawed basis of EFL unexamined. It’s simply assumed that coursebook-driven ELT is the way to go, and the question is how to do it better.

The most obtuse example of this is the IATEFL SIG that deals with second language teacher education (SLTE).  It’s all about identity. “Who am I? Where did I come from? Is it OK to be who I am? Why do I believe what I believe? Where did I get the ideas about teaching that mess me up? How have I been messed up? How can I grow as a human being?”  Nothing about “How can I move beyond this effing coursebook? Is my teaching efficacious?” And, even more importantly, nothing about “How can I get decent working condition and pay?” “How can I unite with my fellow workers in such a way that we challenge the status quo?”

Similarly, the materials SIG.  Rather than taking the opportunity to change the way they teach provided by the need to teach online, they confine themselves to the question of how to adapt coursebook-driven ELT to Zoom sessions. The “rear-view mirror” history of development strikes again!  

Instead of challenging the dominantion of the coursebook, materials writers in IATEFL prefer to improve the content of the texts. Tyson Seburn is a good example. Keen to make materials more inclusive, he suggests ways in which the texts and exercises provided in coursebooks and supplementary materials should reflect the myriad concerns of the LGBT communities. Not for a second does he question the status quo and the framework it provides for current ELT practice. The elephant in rainbow colours is still the elephant.

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Steve Brown’s session at IATEFL was, for me “el colmo” – the last straw. Here we have one of ELT’s best, most articulate progressive voices doing one of the most audacious “I see no elephant” acts I’ve ever seen. His presentation is called “Beyond Empowerment: ELT as a Source of Emancipation” He deconstructs a couple of pages from Outcomes Intermediate in order to show how it enshrines gender stereotypes. In my opinion, he does a good job of it. He goes on to suggest a more politically correct version, substituting all the men for a more varied cast and making careful changes to the text and the discussion topics. Bravo! I invite you to watch the presentation.

The problem is, of course, that Steve doesn’t refer to the bigger picture. Why not step back a bit and see the elephant? Why not look at the two pages he selects in terms of how well they represent what General English coursebooks are all about? Outcomes Intermediate, for all its pretensions to be a new kind of coursebook, is a typical example of the implementation of a synthetic syllabus, where items of the L2 are dealt with in a linear sequence on the false assumption that students will learn what they’re taught in this way. We may begin by asking: why talk about martial arts in the first place? Why assume that everybody in the class needs to know about martial arts? The answer is, of course, that the subject doesn’t really matter: what’s important is THE LANGUAGE AS OBJECT. Martial Arts as a topic might as well be Pottery Through The Ages or Great Philosophers or Sailing The Seven Seas. This is just a chance to hear, study, talk ABOUT the language. Who cares that nobody in the class has any interest in martial arts! It’s just a random topic, a vehicle for learning ABOUT the language. The 2 pages Steve uses do this:

  • listen to a short text,
  • see if you get it by ticking boxes,
  • study words in the vocab. box,
  • study the grammar box,
  • study pronunciation, and then
  • do a bit of “Speaking” by working in groups, finding answers to a list of questions, using questions starting with “how long, when, where, how often…”.    

Now THAT’s what’s wrong: students are involved in looking at the language as an object and then in silly exchanges. No care has been taken to assure that the content is relevant to students’ needs, and very little time is dedicated to giving students the opportunity to do things in the language, to engage in meaningful communicative exchanges. The two pages from the coursebook are a good example of a synthetic syllabus in action: certain items of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar have been selected for teaching and these are contextualised then presented and then practiced. The assumption that this is an efficacious way of helping students on their trajectory towards communicative competence is both false and unquestioned.

Reply to Gerald’s “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness” Thread, June 1, 2021

In his June 1st thread of tweets on “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness”, Gerald explains why he occaisionally chooses to engage with “certain types” in Twitter scuffles. “These people” (later identified as “status quosaders” – a term coined by Scott Stillar) defend an ideology which, says Gerald, they probably can’t articulate. Specifically, they are unable to see past “How Things Are”. They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with “the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. It’s impossible to argue with these people – they’re so fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries that they can’t see the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy.

Gerald continues:  

You can use whatever word you want – rigor, logic, evidence, “thin soup” – but basing your ethos on the assumption that there is One True Practice is inherently hostile to innovative ways of knowing, teaching, and languaging. (12)

Ultimately, we don’t know the best way to teach everyone, because we’re all very different, and that’s good!  We just have to keep trying to find ways that connect with and support anyone who wants to learn and be heard. (13)

And ultimately, this sort of fluidity is anathema to the binaries and hierarchies that whiteness would prefer to hold in place. It’s up to you if you want to see something new. The current way only benefits a few people and harms almost everyone else. (14)

So on one side there are people who can’t see past How Things Are and who hold to the concept that there is “a binary between order and disorder”, “with the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. These people use words like rigor, logic, evidence and thin soup; they base their ethos on the assumption that “there is One True Practice”; and they are thus hostile to innovation and to the sort of fluidity in teaching practice that encourages trying out different ways of meeting different learners’ needs.

On the other side are those who embrace the paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy, who embrace “fluidity” and seek change

Discussion

I suggest that this amounts to a poorly articulated misrepresentation of the real struggle between those who promote coursebook-driven ELT and those who fight it by promoting alternatives such as Dogme, CBLT and TBLT.  At least we can agree on one thing: binary thinking is faulty – people’s positions on the matters we’re discussing cluster around a non-binary, indeed fluid, range of views. But it’s Gerald who makes the binary distinction between two different, mutually opposed “paradigms”, one bad the other good.

The problem I see (and which I discuss at length in various posts on this blog) is that most teachers, teacher educators, materials writers, and the tens of thousands who work for assessment providers are largely in favour of the commodified ELT that results from its focus on profit. The majority of people involved in the ELT industry embrace the use of coursebooks which serve up what Thornbury (2010) calls ” Grammar McNuggets”, the use of the CEFR which reifies proficiency levels, and the use of high stakes exams which every year ruin hundreds of thousands of people’s lives thanks to their (frequently racist and nearly always class-based) use by university entrance boards and immigration authorities.

The ideology which supports this industry is the ideology of capitalist neoliberalism: free competition is the basis of social interaction; citizens are consumers whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling; everybody aspires to material prosperity, and the play of market forces is the best way to deliver these aspirations.  The “Ulterior motives” section of Gerald’s 2019 article has some good points to make on this.

Do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the current practices of ELT are parts of a status quo which promote a neoliberal capitalist ideology? In their work in ELT, do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the use of synthetic syllabuses facilitates the packaging of English courses, and that proficiency scales facilitate ordering students into convenient consumer groups, and that institutions like the British Council, Cambridge Assessment, TOEFL, and bodies like IATEFL and TESOL are powerful promoters of the status quo?

Gerald poses as a radical crusader, urging his followers on to a brighter future, while scathingly dismissing the reactionary views and practices of his critics. In fact, many of Gerald’s critics voice more radical (and certainly more articulate) views than he does, while he, and many of his supporters, give the impression of limiting themselves to identity politics. These are complicated matters which deserve serious discussion, but it’s unlikely that we’ll get far with Gerald. While he stresses what a waste of time it is to discuss matters with me, because I’m a racist only interested in winning arguments, I suggest that until Gerald gets his ideas sorted out to the point where he can succinctly articulate them, it’s hard to talk to him.    

Gerald makes a distinction between people who believe in the justness of hierarchies and binaries, and people who believe in the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. The question is: what’s he talking about?  

What are the binaries and hierarchies he refers to?

Take this statement:

 “They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with the latter always lower in the hierarchy. Or, in truth, a set of binaries in the first place.”

Or this:  

I’m staking a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. Yes, I focus on racism and language, but it applies to all categories.”

What do tjhey mean?

What “paradigm” bases itself on “no real order and no real hierarchy”?

I can find nothing in any of Gerald’s published texts which answers these questions. Should he not explain, if he wants to be taken seriously?

My guess is that Gerald is basing himself on an epistemological debate among scholars in the field of applied linguistics (AL) and elsewhere who adopt either (1) a realist, critical rationalist approach, or (2) a relativist “postmodern” approach. In the field of AL, those studying psycholinguistics tend to adopt a realist epistemology, which bases the investigation of phenomena on the use of logic, rational argument and empirical evidence to test hypotheses. In a broad sense, this research method can be described as the scientific method. On the other hand, many scholars researching sociolinguistics adopt a relativist epistemology, rejecting the scientific method (which they call “positivism”) and adopting various alternative research methods, such as ethnography. As I say in Jordan (2004), the relativists, mostly sociolinguists, want to throw off the blinkers of modernist rationality, in order to grasp a more complex, subjective reality. They feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology. They have every right to express such views, which usuually reflect a radical politcal position.

Science is a social construct, a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But – and here is the crux – this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper (1975) defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual shortcomings of its members are largely cancelled out. I discuss all this more fully in my book (Jordan, 2004) and briefly in my post on Positivist and Constructivist Paradigms.

My point here is that Gerald contributes nothing to the interesting debate between those taking different epistemological positions, and fails to appreciate that there are many scholars – including Chomsky, White, Carroll, Doughty, Long, Crookes, Krashen, Gass, Baretta, Robinson and a host of others – who manage to combine a commitment to a realist epistemolgy (using words like rigor, logic, and evidence) with a radical political position.

Conclusion

If Gerald wants to present himself as a serious scholar dedicated to the decentering of Whiteness in ELT, then he needs to do better than this. Gerald’s argument rests on a poorly described and unexplained distinction between people “fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries” and people who “stake a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy”. Such a distinction doesn’t stand up to examination and does nothing to promote his cause more widely.

And, just BTW, please note that I’m replying to a further attack on me by Gerald. The moment Gerald stops accusing me of racism, of being an obsolete part of the “statusqusaders”, etc., etc., I’ll stop replying.   

References

Gerald, JPM. (2020) Worth the Risk: Towards DecentringWhiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44–54.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Popper, K.R. (1975). Objective Knowledge. Oxford, Clarendon.

Thornbury, S. (2010) G is for Grammar McNuggets. Retreived, 5th June, 2021, from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/

Life on Twitter Part 3

Instead of using the comments section on my post where I defend myself against charges of racism, Rob Sheppard did another thread of tweets. I replied to some of the tweets and ended up by thanking Sheppard for his engagement in the discussion. I want to repeat those thanks here. I’m grateful to him for his contributions.

James Burn, in his article The Kitsch of “Wokeness” gives the Cambridge Dictionary definition of wokeness: “the state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.” As Burn says, this definition implies that the woke person has correctly identified what form racism takes. In his thread of tweets replying to my post, Rob Sheppard identifies racism in a way that makes it difficult for any white person to defend themselves against accusations of being a racist. He says:

  1. You are still failing to address possibly the most fundamental insight of the anti-racist movement, one that is central to understanding Gerald’s work.
  2. You say “I do not participate in racism.” This is where you seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding Gerald’s work. You work in English language teaching. So do I. By virtue of that fact, we participate in racist systems. So, yes, we absolutely do participate in racism.
  3. Racism is baked into systems. Government, healthcare, criminal justice, policing, education, and certainly ELT. Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.
  4. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.
  5. This is true of nearly all fields, but particularly true in our field, which is fundamentally grounded in colonialism. That the systems themselves are racist independent of the racism of individual bigots is what makes the active “anti-“ in anti-racism necessary. Just like being neutral in situations of oppression favors the oppressor, being merely “not a racist” within a racist system favors an inequitable status quo.
  6. There are power dynamics at play that now intersect with your individual behavior, regardless of your motivation. This is why you can be (and are) perpetuating racism regardless of your receipts from 40 years ago.
  7. But now you are an established white academic tearing down the work of a young Black academic. I do not think that this is motivated by individual bigotry on your part. But that’s beside the point.
  8. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.

Discussion

1,2, 3 and 4 say: We all participate in racism. (Ergo; I participate in racism.)

5 says: We must be active in fighting racism. (I have always been active in fighting racism – I dare to say that I’ve done so more than he has, and contributed more than he has to that fight.)  

 6. says: I am perpetuating racism because of power dynamics at play that now intersect with my individual behavior, regardless of my motivation. (Decipher that for yourselves,)

7 and 8 say: Although my motivation is not individual bigotry, my attempts to show that I’m not a racist are beside the point because of the existence of systemic racism.

Given that my only concern has been to defend myself against personal accusations of racism, I hope that the weaknesses in Sheppard’s argument speak for themselves. What is troubling is the wokeness of the argument, summed up by this bit:

“Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.”

My attempts to defend myself against personal accusations of racism are doomed to fail if this sort of reply is given credence. In Sheppard’s world, the world of wokeness, the persistent, endemic racism that pervades our world makes any attack on the work of black scholars a minefield. If the person treading through this minefield is bad old me, known for making “weird” personal attacks on people, and if the victim of my criticism this time is “a young black scholar”, then I’m almost bound to tread on a mine. And when I do, it’s only right and proper that the full wrath of wokeness should descend on me. “He’s a racist!” chant the woke people – and Sheppard’s there, true to his family’s heritage perhaps, guiding the sheep towards a slightly more nuanced understanding of why they take so much delight in cheering from the sidelines as another offender’s character gets dragged through the social media slime.

Whatever my criticisms of Sheppard’s arguments, I respect him, and his attempts to fight racism. I have nothing but contempt, however, for those on Twitter who get so much perverse enjoyment (“I can’t sleep” for fuck’s sake) from making wokeness an artless, vicarious form of kitsch. Burn, cited above, quotes Kundera: “In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” He adds “Crucially, indulgence in kitsch brings with it the feeling that one is part of something greater—joining with others in being moved to happiness, sorrow or anger”.

My CV in Fighting Racial Prejudice

1960  Aged 16, I organised a debate at my school “This House condemns Apartheid in South Africa”.

1962 I joined the Anti Arpartheid group at LSE

1965  As President of Debates at LSE, I helped organise Malcolm X’s visit to LSE https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2015/02/11/brilliant-rhetoric-malcolm-x-at-lse-11-february-1965/

1967-1969 I worked with  Ronnie Kasrils in London (he was at LSE for a while) to organize opposition to the  South African government.  https://jacobinmag.com/2017/11/south-africa-apartheid-sacp-london-recruits

1970- 1975 I worked in Notting Hill and Chalk Farm with various anarchist groups. We fought racism by supporting local black groups fight police busts, racist landords and racist government officials. I was part of a group in Chalk farm who went with black Londoners (mostly from the Caribbean) to fight for their rights in local magistrates courts and government departments, notably social security. I worked with a radical solicitor (Bernie Simons) on a number of cases to defend innocent black Londoners against trumped-up charges.  I was also part of a group who gave evening classes to local young people (many of whom were black) to help them with their school studies.

1972 – 1974 I worked with radical black groups in Chicago and with the San Francisco branch of the Black Panthers. I gave two series of seminars to members and followers on Marxism and Anarchism and I rode in cars with armed Panthers who followed the police to monitor their stops on black African Americans.

1960 – 1980 In the UK, I was involved in a number of conferences and workshops involving local officials and members of the government where racial prejudice was attacked and solutions proposed.

1980 – While living in Spain, I have taken an active part in various campaigns to combat racial prejudice and spoken out every time I’ve ever heard people making racist comments or treating people of colour disrespectfully.  

All my life I have fought racial prejudice. I’ve been beaten up by cops and racists. I’ve lost jobs, been arrested and put in prison for my efforts. I have on a few occasions started fights in bars and restaurants when I’ve witnessed people being insulted or badly treated because of the colour of their skin.  

I feel obliged to defend myself in this way because recently I’ve been accused of being a racist on Twitter and other parts of the Social Media. All of the attacks stem from an exchange I had with a black American who accused me of racism because I said he was talking crap. My “guilt” was sealed by a review I did of an article that the same man wrote with two co-authors. “He’s done it again!” tweeted the now twice offended black guy.

And the same man recently said on Twitter something like “It seems that years ago he spoke truth to power, but now he’s just a sad, cranky old man, unwilling to accept his obsolescence”. He refuses to acknowledge that his accusation is false, he uses my age to insult me in a way I never insulted him, and he uses my age and whiteness to dodge the criticisms I make of his published work. His followers, and those who are only too happy to see me insulted, back him up.     

Postscript

On 31st May, Rob Sheppard tweeted the following thread about this post      

Response

My concern in this post is to support my claim that the accusations of racism made against me are wrong and unfair. I give my “CV” in order to suggest that the comments I made about Gerald’s tweets and articles are unlikely to be explained by racism. After a life dedicated to fighting racism, why would I suddenly stoop to it for the first time in my life when arguing with Gerald on Twitter?

Sheppard’s tweets seem to say “Today, we’re less concerned about people being racists and more about combating the ways that we all inevitably participate in racism. Since you frequently critique people’s work in a way that many [including Sheppard, of course] strongly disapprove of, and since you tried to “tear down” the work of a young black scholar, you should stop making all this effort to defend yourself and, instead, reflect on the consequences of your online behaviour.” The message seems to be: it’s your own fault that you’ve been called out as a racist.

First, I do not participate in racism; not in what I say, nor in what I do. However much the current turn in anti-racist work might be about combating general social attitudes and practices, I’m defending myself against a personal attack: I was personally “called out” as a racist.

Second, I think it’s an unfair exaggeration to say that I tried to tear down Gerald’s work. I supported the attempt of the authors to bring attention to the problems of what they call “Standardized English”, and suggested that they needed to build a stronger case. My remarks about Gerald’s style were seized on as evidence of racism. See my reply.

Third, I know perfectly well that many people intensely dislike many of my posts, and maybe many of them intensely dislike me. That’s OK by me. I appreciate that I’ve been rude about individuals, although I have, pace Sheppard, on a number of occasions, publically recognised and apologised for offensive remarks, and deleted the offending blog posts. Still, I recognise that I’ve “blotted my copybook”, so to speak, enough times for Sheppard’s remarks to have some force. He’s quite right to say that I too often adopt the wrong tone and that I show little sign of learning from my mistakes.

But what isn’t OK by me is being called a racist. I find the accusation abhorrent. That’s why I’ve taken the trouble to defend myself by 1) answering a series of tweets describing me as a “trash person”, … “called out for racism”, and 2) writing this “CV”.

Gerald’s accusations of racism about me are unfounded and unfair, as are similar remarks made by others. Nobody who has called me a racist has given any but the flimsiest of evidence to support these accusations, and I hope my “CV” serves as counter evidence. Of course, it’s hard to prove that you’re NOT a racist or to live with the smear, once it’s been made. Sheppard might like to reflect on that.