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”.