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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.