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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is un12.jpg

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is un12.jpg

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.

17 thoughts on “The IATEFL Conference 2021 and the Elephant Who Is Studiously Ignored

  1. I always enjoy reading your posts! They put my inner thoughts into words.

  2. thanks for the post and your efforts to push back against the prevailing paradigms. i agree that corporate interests and profits seem to hold sway here and it doesnt really match the research. and as you say, the current paradigm of explicit teaching of tokens, slavishly follwing the course book etc isnt really questioned but, i wonder how you would go about teaching a lower level class, learners with very basic command of grammar and limited vocabulary. not a lot on the front end, and more explicit teaching on the back end, no? i dont see a lot of task-based materials for those on the lower end of the competence scale. perhaps i should get busy.

  3. Hi Derek,

    You’re right – there isn’t a great deal of material for beginners if you want to avoid coursebooks, so it’s up to the bosses of places who are brave enough to try TBLT, Dogme, CLIL, etc., to pay materials writers to provide materials. Long (2015) calls the simplified texts you find in coursebooks for beginners “Impoversished” – they take out all the rich content from texts and concentrate on teaching “basic” grammar and vocab. Long’s alternative is what he calls “elaborated” input, where you retain some of the linguistic richness of the text, but elaborat on it, so as to make the meaning clear. In his 20i5 book , “SLA & TBLT”, he devotes a chapter to task-based materials, goes to some length to explain the idea of elaborated input, and gives some examples of materials for beginners.

  4. Thanks Geoff, it’s good to hear your strong message that “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. ”

    Can I say your criticism of the identity strands in this years IATEFL is based on what you take the nature of language to be? So for example you say that learning a language is not like learning another school subject because you take langauge to be a very abstract mental representation?

    If so then can we say the identity focused strands are focusing on another aspect of language, that it is a socially mediated construct and hence the focus on related issues?

    ta
    mura

  5. Hi Mura,

    My critisism of the identity strands at the conference refers to the new socio-cultural perspective of SLTE, which rejects the traditional “transmission of knowledge” approach to teacher education and replaces it with a focus on helping teachers to reflect on and articulate their own personal theories, knowledge, and beliefs. Wood (1996) made teachers’ ‘beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge’ an acronym – BAKs. – and those who take a socio-cultural perspective think that BAKs should be the leading priority in SLTE. While I quite see the value of discussing teachers’ BAKs, I think a more central part of SLTE should be understanding how people learn an L2 and taking a critical look at coursebook-driven ELT.

  6. Hi Geoff,
    It has been a while since I presented at IATEFL (I have only presented twice at their conference) and both times it was a dispiriting experience. I attended a few interesting presentations (vague memory now) but my overriding memory was of a vast sea of people, commercial stands, and various luminaries with huddles of delegates in hotel bars. It was also of witnessing clearly enthusiastic teachers earnestly looking through the programme for the next presentation, the next insight. Both times, on returning home, I simply felt alienated, no sense of solidarity of common cause, just a sense there were pockets of people who were trying to say or do things differently in a sea of buying, selling, bartering, (self) promoting. Occasionally, I felt intellectually stimulated, mostly not, occasionally, I felt that this was my fault, an outsider who did not understand the rules of the conference game, who would with experience. The conferences seemed a weird mixture of apparent (and real) earnestness with blaring commercialism. A cacophony of contradictions, UK-centric, UK-obsessed, commercially riven and driven.
    I gave up and put my energies elsewhere and chose to ignore the conference. I have little to offer there and it would seem it has little to offer me. I understand why colleagues persist with IATEFL and understand that some good can come from that, that it can (and should) change, that some participants do what they can. The overriding impression though is that, for me, I prefer to ignore it and prefer to put my energies elsewhere.

  7. Hi Geoff,
    If the critical theorists run true to their creed you will be targeted for your rational approach to language teaching. It won’t be nice. You can’t reason with a relativist view. I fully agree that the Chinese Wall approach to language learning is out of touch with reality (one brick at the time), that we must try to understand what happens when we learn a language and should teach accordingly. On the other hand, I wonder how much of your crusade against textbooks is still worth recruiting for? I would assume that much language teaching has moved to other formats. I doubt that publishers are in big business with textbooks? Does CUP and the other presses support the university or vice versa? Are there numbers for 2019 and 2020 with the Covid-induced run to online teaching? Has the internet broken up textbook monopolies? My impression is that language learning has diversified significantly and many take to Netflix, Duolingo, or the unemployed translator next door to learn English. Could it be that the “textbook” market is located in Asian countries that might be more inclined to promote “top-down” approaches to learning.

    Best,

    Thom

  8. Hi Geoff,
    Sorry if my talk enraged you. You’re right of course that I didn’t refer to the bigger picture, namely the fact that any kind of pre-determined, prescriptive set of materials is, by definition, problematic, as it flies in the face of widely accepted SLA theory. I didn’t do this because I (perhaps naively) thought that this was already implicit within the overall context of my talk, given the fact that the emancipatory approach to ELT that I’m proposing is heavily informed by critical pedagogy and participatory methodologies, which eschew prescriptivism as a basic principle. I’ve already spoken and written in some detail about that side of things elsewhere, so I started my talk by referring to a recent article that explores that sort of thing in more depth.
    My aim at this year’s IATEFL was to try to demonstrate how an emancipatory approach to materials design can yield materials that are likely to be far more engaging and participatory, and also create a lot more scope for critical engagement with social justice issues. I was not trying to suggest that people should continue to plough through books like outcomes and then, when they find a bit that they don’t like, they can just change it a bit to make it more emancipatory. Nor was I suggesting that everybody must stop using coursebooks and do exactly what I say instead – which, of course, would be equally prescriptive.
    The alternative materials that I suggested are only one possible alternative out of millions, and they may also be entirely inappropriate for some groups of learners in some contexts – and that’s kind of your point, I guess, if your point is that it’s more efficacious that learners themselves inform and co-create content. I thought that this was a given, but it clearly wasn’t, as you took my talk as a proposal to replace one set of prescriptive tasks with another set of equally prescriptive tasks. Perhaps I should have added a slide before proposing my emancipatory alternative that said “Assuming this topic is of some interest and has some potential use/relevance for your learners!”, and then another one at the end that said “OR NOT THIS!”
    In my defence though, I never actually said that everyone should do exactly what I’m suggesting instead of what the makers of Outcomes want them to do. But that seems to be your takeaway, and Peter Pun (who left a comment on my blog) seems to have thought something similar. So I should have been clearer about that.
    Hope all is well with you,
    Steve

  9. Hi Thom,

    The General English coursebook series in its many guises remains the central pillar of current ELT practice. It combines with CEFR proficiency levels and high stakes exams like IELTS and teacher training courses like CELTA to drive a multi-billion dollar ELT commercial industry. There are cracks in the walls – Dogme is thriving, there’s more interest in TBLT and CLIL and there are, of course people taking advantages of the Covid 19 induced turn to online teaching. But the global dominance of coursebook-driven ELT remains firmly in place, as witnessed by the content of the 2021 IATEFl conference. And it remains largely unchallenged, which is the point of my post. For more than 30 years, ELT practice has been dominated by an approach based on false assumptions about L2 learning. That approach continues to be largely unquestioned.

  10. Hi again, hmm. I am not sure IATEFL is a good indicator. Something like the Oscars would tell us about what is happening in the entertainment industry (gaming is bigger than movies and music; YoutTube and social media is killing traditional media). IATEFL tells us about IATEFL…how a conference is run,..how they pay the bills. I used to be part of organizing committees in local conferences. Not much glory there. I once shared a bus ride with David Graddol and other than talking about our experience with multiples, it would be interesting to hear a follow up on his predictions. Too bad he is not here to tell. I wonder if somebody continued along his interests.

    Thom

  11. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply.

    I think an emancipatory approach to ELT must start by recognising that coursebook-driven ELT is the result of commercial interests. It drives an inefficacious approach to ELT which fails students and leads to the precarity of teachers’ professional lives, well described by the work of Paul Walsh, among others. That, surely must be the focus of our efforts to change things. We need change, and that will only come thru the general recognition among teachers that ELT is a profit-based industry, where, just as in every sector of the economy, most people lose. Students lose, teachers lose,

    My own focus is on the pedagogic inefficacy of coursebook-driven ELT, because, as an academic, I know a bit about about how people learn an L2. My argument is simple: it doesn’t work! And alternatives like Dogme and TBLT, given the chance will work better. Now, why does this inefficacious approach persist? Because it’s the best way yet devised of delivering products for sale. We agree, I’m sure.

    I’m very sceptical of what passes for critical pedagogy.

    Anyway, thanks again for this, Steve. I want to say how much I appreciate your work. Your reply speaks for itself. Lots of love to you, good buddy.

  12. I share a lot of Alex Ding’s sentiments above. I’ve only ever been to one IATEFL conference and felt a little bit underwhelmed by the whole experience. I think that part of the problem with IATEFL is that it suffers from a kind of identity crisis in that it’s not really clear what or who it’s for. It seemed to be trying to be all things to all people, but it obviously can’t ever possibly hope to achieve that.

    Ostensibly, it’s an international conference open to all, but a conference that is held in the UK every year (except when it’s online of course) can hardly claim to be international. There also seemed to be an unstated assumption in many talks that the audience were primarily operating in the context of private language schools in the UK and Europe. However, there were also many people attending who were outside this context and may well have felt that IATEFL wasn’t all that relevant to them.

    I agree with the overall point that the conference doesn’t do a very good job of presenting research findings into SLA, but I don’t think that’s uniquely an IATEFL thing. Whilst I also agree that commercial interests might play a part in that, there are probably other factors too. I would imagine that many of those who work in the UK/European-centred private language school context and present at IATEFL don’t have access to recent SLA research. Therefore, it’s a bit difficult to present ideas about research that you don’t know anything about!

    Also, in defense of those presenting at IATEFL, 25 minutes is not a lot of time to say much of interest, so any presenter is going to have make difficult choices about what to include and what to leave out. I listened to Steve’s talk last night and I certainly didn’t take away from it that he was endorsing the kind of methodological approach presented in Outcomes, or any other coursebook. Of course, one might argue that by ignoring these obvious shortcomings, he was tacitly supporting the methodological approach presented, but I think that would be a little unfair. If he were going to talk about the problems with those two pages with reference to SLA research, then his talk would have gone on a lot longer than 25 minutes, and would have been about something completely different!

    So, while I think your overall criticisms of the conference are fair, I’m not sure it’s fair to single out individual presenters for not talking about what you want them to talk about, especially as Steve’s talk seemed to be one of the more interesting talks on offer at IATEFL.

  13. Of the range of events at ELT conferences, from plenaries and presentation to sales pitches and workshops, the focus on actual conferring takes a back seat. That’s my experience anyway, and whilst such conference conferring might be confined to coffee breaks and evening sessions in the bar, social networking and catching up with old friends normally takes precedence. Perhaps this is understandable. Talking shop all the time can be – too much! So, when should conferring, the primary reason for conferences, take place? As it is, ELT conferences are sponsored by the publishing companies and they largely dictate the agenda, to their advantages. That’s the simple business of marketing. But wouldn’t it be better to watch the presentations etc on-line first, or read the articles & books first, before a conference, and then spend the conference time actually conferring about the subjects? Perhaps that way the elephant in the room wouldn’t be ignored.

  14. Hi Phillip,

    You make a very good point – the best part of all the conferences I’ve been to is the socialising. I think your suggestion about getting all the input before you go to the conference is great!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s