Living in a glass house

A few days ago, Silvana Richardson tweeted

Strong words from Ms. Richardson. But is she in a position to throw such stones? Below are some extracts from her IATEFL 2016 conference plenary. My comments follow the ***s. 

Most SLA researchers assume that Native Speakers make the best teachers.  *** False.

Most SLA researchers view the L1 as “an obstacle”. *** False.

 Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar supports Native Speakerism, is ideologically biased, and has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs.

*** False. In Chomsky’s theory of UG, the term “native speaker” is used to refer to an “ideal” speaker; it’s a construct used in a very carefully-defined domain. Richardson seems unable to distinguish between a theory of linguistic competence and ethnographic studies of language use, where the term “native speaker” is often used to unjustly discriminate against a certain group of teachers. It’s quite common to find Chomsky’s theory so airily misrepresented, but, given his record of fighting social injustice, it’s surely ironic to hear Richardson accuse Chomsky of ideological bias.

Task-based language teaching and the lexical approach thrust a monolingual approach upon the world.  

*** False.  What unites the very different views of proponents of TBLT and Lexical approaches, such as the Willises,  Long,  Nunan, Ellis, Skehan (TBLT), and Walkley & Dellar (Lexical Approach), is their commitment to the fight for equal rights for NNESTs.

If you look at theories of SLA, you find yourself in a dark, narrow, confined cognitivist theoretical space which results in a narrow approach to teaching, learning and teacher education, and to native speakerism, monolingualism and monoculturalism. 

*** False. This  sweeping, unwarranted assertion shows little understanding of SLA research or of the people who do it. For a start, Richardson supports her own views by citing the work of Vivian Cook and Guy Cook, and then, twenty minutes later, she accuses both men of shunning the light. But it’s worse than that – the people Richardson portray working in a nasty, dark tunnel include her heroes! She seems not to appreciate that under the wide umbrella of cognitivists stand the emergentists, including, of course, the wonderful Diane Larsen-Freeman and Scott Thornbury. In fact, cognitivists include academics as diverse as Krashen, Pienemann, Gass, Towell, Hawkins, Doughty, Long, Skehan, Robinson, Pica, Schmidt, White, R. Ellis, Mackay, Brown, Bygate, Chaudron, Foster, Lightbown, Spada, Tomasello, MacWhinney, and Nick Ellis, to name but a few. Richardson’s remarks really don’t bear examination.      

A paradigm shift from “SLA” to “Plurilingual Development” will usher in a new world of ELT practice where NNESTs are no longer discriminated against. 

*** False. Blissfully unaware of her confusion, Richardson steps further into the mire by attributing ideological positions to two  groups inside the cognitivist camp. On one side are those she refers to as “the “cognitivists”. These are the baddies, portrayed as conservative reactionaries doggedly protecting the status quo. On the other side are the emergentists, including Larsen-Freeman. These are the goodies, the liberal vanguard, fighting to bring about the paradigm shift to “Plurilingual Development”.  Two points need making.

First, the most cursory examination of the ideological views of members of the two groups will quickly show that their views on education, social inclusion and politics don’t depend on what explanation of second language learning they favour. Some of the most radical political views are held by those who staunchly defend a generativist theory – including Chomsky himself, of course. The moral high ground doesn’t belong exclusively to those who believe that language learning is best explained by appeal to some elementary version of the power law of practice processing frequently occurring exemplars encountered in the input (sorry, in the affordances).     

Second, there is the question of the relative academic merits of these two groups. A quick way to judge is to watch Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 plenary and then to read as much as you can bear of Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) Complex systems and applied linguistics. I think it’s fair to say that the obscurantist writing and the lack of clarity are notable. and that those familiar with the topics dealt with will also notice the poor standards of scholarship and argumentation displayed. In contrast, if you read Topics 7 and 8 in Cook and Singleton (2014) Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition, I think it’s fair to say that the writing is clear and the scholarship exemplary.    

Apart from regular appearances in the Cambridge English Teacher, a now defunct, promotional arm of Cambridge Assessment English, I can find no published work by Richardson in any applied linguistics or  ELT journal. Richardson rebukes conference organisers and teaching associations for giving under-informed speakers a platform to spread half-baked ideas. Yet she herself continues to use the biggest platforms at the biggest conference to deliver ill-informed and poorly judged opinions on SLA research.  Mind the glass. 

Coursebooks: A Recap

In the light of two threads which I took part in on Twitter yesterday, I’d like to quickly re-cap my position on coursebooks.

In a number of posts, I’ve argued that coursebooks should be replaced by analytic syllabuses, for the following reasons:

1 Using a coursebook means that a lot of classroom time is devoted to talking about the L2 as an object. However, if communicative competence is the goal, better results can be obtained by devoting classroom time to students talking in the L2 about matters that are relevant to their needs. This, like the other reasons below, is based on a consideration of efficaciousness: coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious – the results are better if you emphasise learning by doing.

2 Presenting and practicing a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation, grammar, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) contradicts research findings about how people learn an L2.  Teaching via PPP doesn’t ensure that what is presented and practiced will be available to the learner for future spontaneous use. Furthermore, the assumption that the best  approach to ELT is to teach linguistic forms first, and then practice them might seem like common sense, but actually, it’s putting the cart before the horse.  As Hatch (1978) so famously said:

“Language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed”.

3 The cutting up of language into manageable pieces usually results in impoverished input and output opportunities. Short “safe” texts are too frequently used with display questions to produce poor quality Initiation –> Response –> Feedback exchanges (e.g.:  Where’s Paris?” -> It’s in France -> Good) between teacher and students.

4 Results are poor. It’s hard to get reliable data on this, but evidence strongly suggests that most students who do coursebook-driven courses do not achieve the level of proficiency they expected.

Defenders of coursebooks argue that all coursebooks can’t be lumped together in the same bag. I accept that some coursebooks don’t follow the synthetic syllabus I describe, but these are the exceptions. The coursebooks I’ve reviewed along the years belong to the same set: best-selling General English coursebooks, versions of which are sold all over the world. They all use a synthetic syllabus and they all make the same fundamentally mistaken assumptions about how people learn an L2. To accuse me, as someone did on Twitter yesterday, of making “an obvious and unhelpful over-generalisation” is mere hand waving, and to say, as he also did, that I fail to support my arguments with detailed reviews of coursebooks is quite simply false.

It’s also said that coursebooks are OK, the problem is that teachers use them too slavishly. But coursebooks are not OK: their job is to help teachers to implement a synthetic, usually grammar-driven syllabus, where bits of language are first presented and then practiced in a sequence going from the first to the last Unit of the book. The coursebook says Do this and then do that. It says: Present this bit of language using these texts and diagrams, and then practice it by doing these activities.

And that’s what millions (sic) of teachers do. Depending on a number of factors such as teaching experience and the attitude of the boss, teachers may skip some pages of the book, or change the order in which activities are done, or use some additional material, or do activities that are “off piste”. They may, that is, bend the rules a little, or quite a lot, but they’re still letting the coursebook guide the course. If they seriously depart from the prescribed PPP treatments of the designated bits of the L2, then they stop using the coursebook for its designed purpose.

On Twitter yesterday, Tim Hampson and Rob Sheppard say that they just take a few of their favorite things from a collection of  coursebooks, treating them like a materials bank. If this is really what they do, then they no longer implement the syllabus of any given coursebook and they have to answer the question: “What syllabus have you put in its place?” If they dedicate most classroom time to scaffolding students’ engagement in relevant communicative activities, then they have effectively abandoned the coursebook and put an ad hoc, learner-centred, analytic syllabus in its place.

In other posts, I’ve replied to those who say there are no practical alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT. I’ve discussed alternatives such as Dogme, immersion courses, Breen’s process syllabus, CLIL, some ESP and EAP courses, and, most of all TBLT. I’ve spent some time describing and discussing different versions of TBLT and supporting my opinion that Long’s version, as described in his 2015 book SLA and TBLT, is the best. I think that Long’s TBLT is highly recommended for those teachers who are doing many kinds of in-company courses, or who have private clients, or who are doing special needs courses, or who have the chance to design courses for a group of learners.

But I recognise that lots of teachers can’t chuck the coursebook in the bin just yet. At the moment, I’m doing a course with teachers where, among other things, we’re exploring ways in which those who find themselves using coursebooks because that’s what they’re told to do by their bosses can “loosen the grip” of the coursebook and slowly work towards a more learner-centred, TBLT approach.

P.S. I pursue a few of these points in more detail in the post: Why Teach Grammar