Richard Smith recently reminded his Twitter followers of Jason Anderson’s (2016) article Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education . After an exchange of comments on Anderson’s blog, The PPP Saga Ends, I wrote a brief post on my own blog. Here’s a revised version.
In his Introduction, Anderson explains his thesis:
I discuss some important research findings from SLA studies since the turn of the century that lend support to PPP-type lesson structures. I briefly analyse parallels between PPP and other teaching paradigms deriving from skill learning theory, linking these paradigms to the expectations of many learners worldwide, and the organisation of content in many mainstream ELT coursebooks. I identify three potential contexts for using PPP, including that of primary and secondary teachers working in low- and middle-income countries, and describe a PPP lesson structure from my own work as a teacher and teacher trainer compatible with best practice in mainstream teaching. While I caution that PPP cannot and should not be used to structure every lesson, I argue that it can be an appropriate and effective vehicle for the teaching of grammar, functional language and lexis, especially at lower levels of proficiency (up to B2), where the majority of ELT around the world happens, and is likely to happen for the foreseeable future (Graddol 2014).
First, let’s establish what we know about the SLA process after 60 years of SLA research. Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Studies in interlanguage development have shown conclusively that L2 learners exhibit common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Independent of those and other factors, learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to mastery of target-language structures, or, as is often the case, to an end-state short of mastery.
Acquisition of grammatical structures (and also of pronunciation features and some lexical features such as collocation), 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 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.
That’s what we know. As a result Anderson’s claim below is quite simply false.
while research studies conducted between the 1970s and the 1990s cast significant doubt on the validity of more explicit, Focus on Forms-type instruction such as PPP, more recent evidence paints a significantly different picture.
Recent research doesn’t do anything to validate the kind of focus on forms instruction prescribed by PPP, and no study conducted in the last 20 years provides any evidence to challenge the established view among SLA scholars, neatly summed up by Ortega (2009):
Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.
Teaching is constrained by the learners’ own powerful cognitive contribution, and to assume that learners will learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it using a PPP paradigm is false.
These assertions by Anderson are also false:
- we have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches
- writers in academia have neither evidence nor theoretical justification for criticising coursebook writers
- The research on which writers such as Michael Long have based their promotion of focus on form is scant
But let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is really quite simple. Anderson bases his arguments on the following non-sequitur, which appears throughout the paper:
There is evidence to support explicit (grammar) instruction, therefore there is evidence to support the “PPP paradigm”.
While there is certainly evidence to support explicit (grammar) instruction, and indeed, it is generally accepted that explicit instruction has an important role to play in classroom-based SLA, this evidence can’t be used to support the use of PPP in classroom based ELT. Explicit instruction can take many forms, including, for example, different types of error correction, different types of grammar explanation, and different types of explanations of unknown vocabulary. PPP, on the other hand, involves explicit (grammar) instruction of a very specific type – the presentation and practice of a linear sequence of chopped up bits of language. PPP runs counter to a mass of SLA research findings, and that’s that. Anderson appeals to evidence for the effectiveness of a variety of types of explicit instruction to support the argument that PPP is efficacious in many ELT contexts. In doing so, he commits a schoolboy error in logic.
The rest of Anderson’s paper says nothing to rescue a PPP approach from the fundamental criticism that students don’t learn an L2 in the way it assumes they do. The paper consists of a series of non-sequiturs and unsupported assertions which attempt to argue that the way the majority of institutions go about ELT is necessarily the best way. Here ‘s the argument:
- Explicit (grammar) teaching can be effective;
- the PPP approach is popular with students;
- coursebooks are consumer-driven;
- PPP is attractive to low income countries.
- Therefore a “PPP paradigm” is an appropriate and effective vehicle for the teaching of grammar, functional language and lexis, especially at lower levels of proficiency.
Apart from being illogical, the argument has other faults. First, the remarks about low income countries seem patronising. Second, Anderson makes an appeal to an “apples and pears” group of factors that need to be carefully examined and properly separated. I won’t go into any proper analysis now, but, just for example, the ELT coursebook business is not so much driven by the opinions of the end users, as by the language teaching institutions, both public and private, that deliver foreign language courses to them. For these institutions, the coursebook is convenient – it packages the otherwise “messy” thing that is language learning. Which is not to say that coursebook-driven ELT is efficacious, or that we can’t find cheaper, better, more rewarding ways of organising ELT.
Third, Anderson flouts the elementary logical rule “you can’t get an ought from an is“. In his blog post The PPP Saga Ends, Anderson says in reply to a comment by Neil McMillan:
the notion of ‘linear progress’ is a reflection of a much wider tendency in curricula and syllabi design. Given that the vast majority of English language teaching in the world today is happening in state-sponsored primary and secondary education, where national curricula perform precisely this role, we can predict to a large extent that top down approaches to language instruction are going to dominate for the foreseeable future
Well yes, as a matter of fact, the notion of linear progress is a reflection of top-down approaches, and yes, they do dominate ELT today, but that doesn’t mean that we should countenance the idea of linear progress or approve of top-down approaches.
Fourth, Anderson appeals to rhetoric as it it were evidence. In reply to another comment on his blog post, Anderson gives a long quote from Penny Ur, which includes this:
such features as students’ socio-cultural background, relationships, personalities; motivation …. often actually have more influence on how grammar is taught, and whether it is successfully learnt, than any of those dealt with in research.
Here, Anderson seeks support from an exercise in rhetoric which blithely ignores sociolinguistic research on relationships, motivation, etc., and provides neither evidence nor arguments to challenge SLA research findings with regard to the development of interlanguages.
In conclusion, Anderson’s attempt to defend PPP is marked by poor scholarship and argumentation, and fails to make any real case for PPP. Furthermore, it fails to address important, wider issues. Those of us who oppose PPP do so not only because it contradicts robust findings from SLA research, but also because it gives little say to students in the decisions that affect their learning, de-skills teachers, and represents the increasing commodification of education.
Ortega (2009) “Sequences and processes in language learning”. In Long and Doughty (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Wiley