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

3 thoughts on “Dr Conti’s latest sales pitch

  1. Hi Geoff,

    fortunately I get your newsletter so I still get to read the follow up to this post, but unfortunately it isn’t here anymore for people to discover.

    Anyway, not to be gossiping, but earlier today Conti posted and removed a tweet that probably had some connections to your post. Mind I’m only inferring that there was a connection from the timing, somewhat the content, and no one else seems to be critiquing him. Perhaps there is another debate raging somewhere that I’m not aware of.

    In Conti’s removed tweet he refers to all his achievements, and then how he is accused of advocating for: “(1) no teaching of grammar/sounds; (2) teaching of de-contextualized chunks; (3) no teaching of culture; (4) teaching towards exams”.

    Having also read your other posts on The Language Gym and his work I imagine you would accuse him of 2, 3, 4, too. I don’t know who accuses him of point 1,but I would take that one as a compliment. Anyway, although Conti hasn’t come out looking particularly good in your exchanges he does always manage to wriggle out relatively unscathed. That is at the very least to those already receptive to his very practical “homeopathy”, of which there seem to be many. Perhaps he’s not so bad?

    I am sceptical of his theories on language and acquisition and his choice of research to support his views, but I have been tempted to try out sentence stealers in class (although of sentences of authentic texts, rather than de/un-contextualized ones). And he does propose a lot of tasks (renamed for his branding). I think that’s the level at which most teachers seem to be engaging with him and where he’s providing a lot of value for those teachers. Maybe even getting them to deliver better lessons than they would be otherwise? But I also think that’s why he’s somewhat immune to criticism. His tasks do something in class, and it’s probably better than what would be happening otherwise, even if it’s not as good as more principled TBLT would be.

    SO! I’m wondering, rather than questioning the foundations on which his tasks are based on and contradictions in his views of SLA, have you considered analysing his actual tasks? I don’t see anything special about glorified substitution tables either, but I’m sure there are some benefits to sub-vocalising delayed dictations, or other tasks.

    Overall you provide a great framework with which we can analyse the effectiveness of tasks, so it would be great to see you analyse tasks with that framework.


  2. Hi Cedrik,

    I deleted the post about Conti’s EPI because it included the word “Imposter”, which Conti tells me is reason enough for him to start legal action.

    I’ve looked at his “tasks”, and they’re not what I take tasks to be, they’re activities aimed at practicing items of language. Following Long (2015), I take tasks to refer to

    1. “Target tasks”: things students need to be able to do in the L2 as identified by a needs analysis.
    2. “Pedagogic tasks”: a series of classroom-based tasks where teachers use elaborated,multi-media, multi-modal texts as the rich input, and scaffolded, reactive feedback as the help needed in order to give students the ability to to carry out the target tasks.

    Conti uses Nunan’s definition of task, which is vague enough to cover most speaking activities, even artifical, controlled ones. and the only time these “tasks” are used is right at the end of the MARS EARS sequence in the “Spontaneous” phase, where they act as checks to see if thee students can now produce the items of language that have been worked on in the first 6 parts. Examples are ‘opinion-gap’ (giving opinions based on stimulus), ‘reasoning-gap’ (deriving information based on information provided), ‘information-gap’ (decoding and transferring information from one person to another). These are OK in themselves, but completely insufficient in the overall framework of MARS EARS.

  3. He certainly seems protective of his brand. . .

    Sorry, I was rather sloppy with the TBLT nomenclature there. Although I prefer a “meaning task/form task” spectrum to a “task/activity” spectrum in describing how students interact with language, I can happily go along with Long’s differentiation between what would be a task and an activity.

    By Long’s standard I wouldn’t say EPI offers tasks either, but I think exactly that is the reason the activities need to be analysed, rather than all of MARS EARS as a methodology; showing how the activities might have their strengths and weaknesses individually, but in a lesson(/curriculum) fail collectively to provide sufficient opportunities for language acquisition. Or, in other words, fail to be tasks.

    I know in a lot of ways you’re already doing that, but a bottom-up analysis would demonstrate your argument and make it more accessible to… me 😀

    Joking. I think I understand your critique of EPI/MARS EARS (even more laborious than PPP), so I would like others to consider it too. Especially teachers working with the framework. That way they can make small changes and move from sentence builder activities towards meaningful tasks, until focus on the transfer of communicative meaning makes the rest of MARS EARS more suspect.

    Anyway, thanks for the reply!
    And always looking forward to your posts

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