Key Issues in ELT: A Reply to David Deubelbeiss

David’s latest post lists some key issues in ELT. Here’s my response.

Teacher Precarity

I think David properly puts this first. Education today is increasingly a commodity to be sold for profit. The treatment of teachers in the recent closure of the International House schools in Spain is but one recent example of how teachers are treated. The answer to this problem is clear: an understanding of how neoliberalism affects education should lead to organized protest and retaliation. Teachers must organize at a local level. “Unity is strength” is best understood as syndicalism, not following the empty, top-down edicts handed down by left-wing party hacks. Don’t trust the big unions who have consistently failed teachers – get together with your colleagues and do stuff locally, get involved in local cooperatives, share resources and know-how, and link up with other workers in other sectors. This is the most important fight we face, and it’s political. The State can’t fix it.

Native speakerism.

David’s first question is: “Is there such a thing as a native speaker?”

Pace the offensive work of Adrian Holliday and the echoes it finds on the Marek Kiczkowiak Academy website, the answer is: yes there is. A native speaker is someone who has spoken a particular language since they were a baby, rather than having learned it as a child or adult. In more than 500 studies over the past 70 years, a native speaker is easily recognised. The “native speaker” term is widely used in SLA research, where four of the most common quantitative measurements are: the type-token ratio as a measure of lexical diversity; the T-unit as a measure of syntactic complexity; the error-free t-unit as a measure of grammatical accuracy; and average speech rate as a measure of fluency.  

As to the rest, there is surely consensus: we must embrace diversity and support the fight for NNESTs to be given their due respect and equal job opportunities.

Grammar synthetic syllabus.

As David says:

 textbooks follow a synthetic syllabus of verb tenses and a set belief in an order of acquisition. Language is dolloped out in bits and pieces – controlled. But does SLA – Second Language Acquisition research support such. Many would say not.

There is overwhelming evidence from seventy years of SLA research to support the claim that a grammar synthetic syllabus is inefficacious.

David then asks

Why is this type of organization of content so popular and such a big part of all teacher training? Why aren’t task based approaches and analytic syllabuses given much credence?

The answer is simple: commercial interests promote coursebook-driven ELT. ELT is a huge, global commercial enterprise, valued by Pearson at $200 billion in 2018. Coursebook-driven ELT, based on the implementation of a synthetic syllabus, is, from a commercial perspective, the best way to package and deliver a range of products from materials to exams to teacher training programmes. 

Teachers and Research.

David asks:

Why don’t teachers read and follow the “evidence” and teach using practices that are supported by research?

The short answer is that many of those responsible for teacher training do a lousy job. They ignore the fundamental question of how people learn a second language. See posts on my blog which review the work of “leaders” such as Jeremy Harmer, Hugh Dellar, Penny Ur, and more of the usual suspects. All of them are in the pay of commercial interests pushing the case for coursebook-driven ELT.  

David continues:

Should a teacher do this or just follow their “gut” based on what they have tried and seen work on the ground, in their own classrooms? Why does research have such a hard time reaching the eyes and ears of teachers?

Teachers should be aware of what we know about second language learning and question their “gut”. Research findings don’t reach them because the interlocutors don’t tell them about it, because they have a stake in coursebook-driven ELT.

Teaching Practices

David asks some key questions here. Each deserves a detailed answer which I’ll attempt in a separate post.

 

Conferences

David questions the benefits of conferences in terms of teacher professional development. It’s obvious that the big ones are showcases for commercial interests, though of course there’s tremendous value in teachers just getting together. Does the role of the “parachuted in” guru still hold water? No it doesn’t – and it never did.  

Discrimination

David asks:

Why are there so few minorities teaching’ Why do job ads still ask for a “native speaker” or an “energetic” (meaning, code for “young and blonde”) teacher? Why are so few females in positions of power, administration and on conference programs?   

Because ELT is a commercial enterprise, reflecting the values of a neoliberal world economy.

Ed Tech.

David asks

Does this really benefit a language learner? If so, how? Will technology replace teachers? Will technology make teachers less valuable and poorer? Is the disruption of ed-tech worthy or contributing to teacher precarity. What is good ed-tech, what is bad ed-tech? Do the scions of Silicone Valley actually know anything about how people learn best and best practices for language learning (does Duolingo grammar translation work?)?

Ed tech will transform what we do as language teachers. In ten years’ time, simultaneous translation devices will have superseded the need for most of what we’re doing today. ELT will be totally unrecogniseable. The big companies like Pearson know this, and they are yet to articulate their response. If I were younger, I’d be looking for the niche stuff. In any case, needs analysis, and a tasks-based approach to teaching is sure to finally take over from today’s already outdated model.     

Certification / Testing

David asks lots of good questions here. All the present certificates to teach English will soon be completely obsolete. Teachers will need a very different skill set, and I doubt degrees in education will help. As for all the high stake exams – another huge industry – they’ll be swept away. They’re not reliable in terms of what they’re supposed to test now, and they’ll be replaced by much more sophisticated tools – criterion-based performance tests of defined skills.

OER

David asks: Why hasn’t Open Educational Resources succeeded within ELT?  The answer’s obvious – money – but it will succeed just as soon as it’s worthless from a money point of view. As for ELT materials like coursebooks, they’ll all be swept away once simultanteous translation devices take hold.

Inductivism vs Deductivism

David says:

 Implicit vs Explicit teaching. Why do teachers teach like they do? Why is language instruction so formal, PPP and about teaching explicit language points, rules, lists, structures? What does SLA have to say about this?

Implicit vs explicit learning is not a question of “inductivism vs. deductivism”. Inductive and deductive reasoning in language learning go on in the head of the learner as parts of a dynamic process of interlanguage development. This process is only marginally affected by explicit teaching.

Why do teachers teach like they do? Because that’s how they were taught and how their teacher trainers say they should teach. But our planet isn’t flat and people don’t learn how to use an L2 by being told about it.  

Online Teaching

David asks

Has the pandemic changed education fundamentally or will we all return to our brick and mortar classrooms in a year or so?

I think the pandemic has changed education fundamentally. In the case of ELT, things will never be the same. Quite apart from the fact that virus pandemics are now the new normal, simultaneous translation technology is the big game-changer – it signals the death of General English Coursebooks and everything associated with them.

Here’s my advice:

Study language learning. The usage-based theories, such as Nick Ellis’ version of emergentism, are gathering traction. I think they’re wrong, and that Suzanne Carroll is more likely to be proved right. In any case, the applications are huge and jobs in this area will abound.

Find a niche. Ditch General English. Join groups investigating how to teach machines how natural languages work; look for the needs of well-defined small sets of people who need English for specific purposes. Bone up on needs analysis, on the identification of target tasks. Study materials development – particularly what Long calls “enhanced texts”.

Join – or form – a cooperative. Get together with IT and communication people.

Adopt a Vegan Diet and remember: ‘Tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round.     

2 thoughts on “Key Issues in ELT: A Reply to David Deubelbeiss

  1. Hello Geoff, I read this post with interest, in particular the comment about the future of testing. You say that you think high stakes tests are not able to reliably test what they claim to be testing. An awful lot of research and detail goes in to making, for example, IELTS or Aptis. Would you say the exam specs themselves are not built on accurate models of language competence, or that the tools they use to examine, e.g. multiple choice questions and essay writing, are not able to test the abilities they claim to be testing?

    With regard to the idea that these high stakes tests will be replaced with more sophisticated performance based tests, how do you see that working? I don’t disagree that it would be nice to have far more personalised, context specific, authentic means of assessing student ability, but I would have thought that in reality this is impractical from a volume perspective – so many thousands of students to assess and not enough examiners or time to assess them properly. Is there also an issue of how to reliably and objectively grade students in performance tests. Perhaps in another field performance tests can be more reliably scored – the mechanic either fixes your car or he doesn’t – but what do you imagine for a performance test that universities could use to inform them whether a student has the required level of English to study at their institution? IELTS, again as an example, seems to be doing an ok job of this, though obviously there are many aspects of language ability that holding a 6.5 does not inform the university about. Practically speaking though, i wonder what the alternatives are.

  2. Hi Jamie,

    Any test must specify its intended use. Tests like IELTS don’t specify the use carefully enough. They’re linguistically focused and put testees in one of the CEFR bands of proficiency which are based on vague can-do statements ranked by teachers with almost no support from empirical research. See Fulcher’s stuff (lots available in his great website http://languagetesting.info/gf/glennfulcher.php) for more.

    My remarks in this post about testing are too strident and need qualifying. The IELTS tests, and the Cambridge tests, aren’t useless, but they’re tests of what people know about English more than what they can do with it, and they’re systematically misused by universities, governments, and employers. Such tests, done by millions, perpetuate misconceived notions of language competence and have very negative washback effects. “How much do you know about English?” is the wrong question. “Can you use English for what we need you to do with it?” is a better one. As Long (2015) says, lots of task-based, criterion-referenced performance tests, especially for certification purposes in the vocational and occupational sectors, are now being produced. Predictive validity is the name of the game. See Brindley (2013) Task-based assessment in Chapelle, C.(ed.) The encyclopedia of applied linguistics, Oxford, Wiley (great book, BTW).

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