Bits and Pieces From the Blog Part 1

Looking through the posts, I’ve selected these bits and pieces. Many are comments. My own bits are indicated by GJ.

On Emergentism

Emergentist explanations of how you learn language remind me of the story of how Rockefeller became rich. One day as a young lad he found himself with a penny in his pocket. He walked down to the farmer’s market and bought an apple, walked to Wall Street and sold it for 2 cents. Then back to the market to buy 2 apples, back to Wall Street, and so on. At the end of a week he’d bought an old wheelbarrow, and after a month he’d earned enough to put down the first month’s rent on a small fruit shop. But then his uncle died and he inherited everything. (Kevin Gregg)

On Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

It’s important to try to clarify what Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis says, and then to evaluate its claims because these days it’s being used to support all manner of explicit teaching practices. Whether it’s presenting the present perfect in a grammar box, or making the explicit teaching of lexical chunks the number one priority in teaching, or using a red pen to indicate errors in a composition, it’s all OK because the Noticing Hypothesis says that bringing things to learners’ attention is a good thing. Schmidt’s construct has been watered down so much that it now means no more that noticing in the everyday meaning of the word. (GJ)

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According to Susanne Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory, learners do not attend to things in the input as such, they respond to speech-signals by attempting to parse the signals, and failures to do so trigger attention to parts of the signal. It is possible to have speech-signal processing without attention-as-noticing or attention-as-awareness. Carroll argues that learners may unconsciously and without awareness detect, encode and respond to linguistic sounds; that learners don’t always notice their own processing of segments and the internal organization of their own conceptual representations; that the processing of forms and meanings are often not noticed; and that attention is the result of processing not a prerequisite for processing. (GJ)

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I’m so glad you’ve taken this subject up; I’ve always wanted to and never did. I’ve always had a problem trying to work out just what it is that the Noticing hypothesis claims. On the one hand, it should be uncontroversial that you have to receive input in order to act on it; you can’t be asleep, or in another part of town. On the other hand, you can’t notice what is not in the input; and rules, for instance, or functions, are not in the input. Dretske makes a distinction between noticing the toast burning and noticing that the toast is burning; your dog can do the former but not the latter. You can notice that the speaker said “I often eat eggs”; you can notice, in the second sense, that he didn’t say “I eat often eggs”, although I rather doubt that many L2 learners do. What you can’t do is notice the structure of an English verb phrase, which is what makes “I eat often eggs” impossible, and it is knowledge of the structure of an English verb phrase that the learner needs. Long, and Schmidt (to the best of my memory) talk about forms and ‘form-meaning relationships’, as if language acquisition were the acquisition of forms. Language acquisition is the acquisition of a grammar, which you can’t notice.  (Kevin  Gregg)

On language and teacher trainers

At the heart and foundation of everything – I do think that grammar has a special role. I still (unfashionably) see it as the necessary motherboard that the rest of the components organise themselves onto and from which the software makes the message. (Jim Scrivener)

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The problem is not your lesson. The problem is not the methodology. The problem is not the coursebook. The problem is the training that told these teachers how a lesson should be.(Jim, again.)

On coursebooks

ELT is now controlled by commercial teaching institutions, exam-boards and publishing companies. Between them they ensure the continuing dominance of coursebooks and exams which commodify language learning, de-skill teachers and fail students. The uncritical support that this coursebook-driven model of ELT gets from the establishment, and the depressing lack of initiative among teacher trainers who often have a vested interest in coursebooks means that attractive alternatives such as TBLT are starved of the oxygen they need to mount a challenge.

I think that the best hope we have of changing this lamentable state of affairs is for teachers to organise locally, in cooperatives, for example, in such a way that we get better informed, better qualified, and more able to offer teaching that pushes beyond the awful confines of coursebooks. Machine translation is coming fast; armed with the new technology and the knowledge of how people learn languages, we can use needs analysis and a task-based approach to offer tailor-made help to more carefully targeted learners. By organising our own development, by designing our own courses, by being properly prepared and locally organised, we can topple the 3-headed hydra and hurl it into the dustbin of history. We can use our skills to emancipate ourselves, earn decent money, and enjoy doing our job, scaffolding learners’ interlanguage development, without a coursebook in sight. (GJ)

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The texts in coursebooks like Headway and Outcomes are “short, contrived, inauthentic, mundane, decontextualised, unappealing, uninteresting, dull”. The activities are “unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial”. None of the coursebooks examined is likely to be effective in promoting long term acquistion. (Brian Tomlinson)

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Courseboooks suck the life out of teaching. (J.B.)

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It’s not a question of doing things right, but doing the right thing. (Mark Walker)

On the implications of  SLA research on ELT

If I am teaching someone to drive, I might be more concerned with how the learner-driver manages routine manoeuvres and copes in unpredictable conditions rather than on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine – however fascinating. Likewise, a person who writes books about teaching (such as the unjustly maligned Penny Ur) may find it more apposite to engage with questions of classroom management, teacher-student, and student-student, interaction, the selection and evaluation of materials, the planning of lessons, the relation between classroom learning and the social context, and so on, than in the way individual learners internalize isolated grammar items in laboratory conditions (which is the focus of the bulk of SLA research). Oh, yes, that is interesting – but ancillary.  (Scott Thornbury)

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Surely this analogy would be more apt if the instructor took to telling learners that modern theories of combustion were unproven, at best, false, at worst? Or if students were instructed to, say, rub their seatbelt to reduce fuel consumption (reflecting the countless pages of grammar mcNugget teaching philosophy espoused by Ur et al)?  (Robert Taylor)

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Penny Ur argues for an approach to ELT which you yourself abhor. She does so by sometimes misrepresenting research findings; by more frequently omitting any mention of research which seriously questions the assumptions on which her “experientially-grounded” approach is based; and by constantly inventing straw man arguments like the one you’ve just come up with here. You use a collection of non-sequiturs to suggest on the one hand that Ur is an irreproachable scholar, and that on the other hand there’s little point in teachers taking any notice of fifty years work by real scholars who attempt to explain how people learn English as a second language. (GJ)

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Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur, and others demand lots of evidence that TBLT “works”, while providing none that traditional grammar-based PPP does. And if some of the evidence is from laboratory studies, they dismiss it as ivory tower, etc., etc., etc.

Here’s the abstract from a forthcoming statistical meta-analysis of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings*, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where arm-chair pundits have decided it could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where they have also decided it could never work:

Findings based on a sample of 52 studies revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes. … Additionally, synthesizing across both quantitative and qualitative data, results also showed positive stakeholder perceptions towards TBLT programs.

Of course, it’s only 52 studies, some with methodological weaknesses, no doubt, and Scott and Penny probably have 53 in favor of PPP up their sleeve . .  (Mike Long)

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

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