How difficult is reactive feedback?

Introduction

In my previous post about Dellar’s comments on Dogme, I suggested that there are two big differences between using the Dogme approach and using a coursebook. First, in Dogme lessons there’s no planned explicit teaching of grammar or pronunciation, and second, there’s a lot more classroom time spent on engaging students in spontaneous conversation and oral exchanges. These differences are the result of fundamental differences in two distinct approaches to ELT, which I’ve discussed in lots of posts in this blog. They turn on the use of synthetic and analaytic syllabuses.

Coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus, where the role of speaking activities is to consolidate the explicit teaching of pre-selected language “items” which are the focus of each Unit of the coursebook. For example, if the second conditional and tourism are among the items covered in Unit 3, then one of the speaking activities in that unit might be to discuss how you’d react to missing your flight, or losing your passport, or having your credit card declined in a restaurant. The speaking activity is designed to practice the pre-taught “second conditional” and vocabulary about tourism. The speaking activity doesn’t last long, and the language that students are expected to use is as predictable as it is unlikely to happen – “If my credit card was/were declined,  I’d pay cash”, for example, is an unlikely student utterance.

I n the post, I argued that Dellar’s description of “what teachers need to be doing” while students engage in the tasks that typify a Dogme lesson is based on a misunderstanding of the extended communicative tasks that lie at the heart of Dogme, where the assumption (made by those who use an analytic syllabus) is that most of the learning goes on implicitly while students do the task, and thus, the attention to explicit teaching that he demands is largely unnecessary. However, I added that reactive feedback (what Long calls “focus on form”) done during the task, and a feedback session after the task, were important parts of the Dogme approach. 

A Twitter Exchange

The post sparked comments on Twitter about giving reactive feedback which took me rather by surprise. Matt Bury tweeted:   

I think one criticism is valid: It puts more emphasis on dynamic scaffolding (highly demanding) & less on planned scaffolding (minimally demanding) so considering the high teaching workload that most ELTs work under…

He continued:

I mean that dynamic scaffolding (i.e. During the lesson, Dellar’s “big ask”) is more demanding than planned scaffolding (i.e. Coming into the classroom having thought through the scaffolding your students will need to successfully use the language).  Planned scaffolding also enables ELTs to re-use it (systematically recorded & adaptable resources) & plan more strategically across several lessons at a time, thereby increasing the quality of instruction.

And he concluded:

In the long run, planned scaffolding tends to be more efficient, more effective & less work than dynamic scaffolding.

Chris Jones later made a similar point. He tweeted:

Nothing against Dogme but you assume teachers at any level of experience and in any situation can easily tune in to what students say, pick up on errors, decide where to focus and then provide recasts. I don’t think that is easy or actually realistic in many cases.

Asked to clarify “tune in” Jones replied:

Yes, tune in to the language students are using in order to help them with it. Are they not coming to class for that? Even if this way were practical, you know that you need experience to have some idea of how to scaffold and what to recast and what to leave.

Scott Thornbury chipped in:

Fair point Chris. But you don’t get good at it if you don’t try it.

to which Sue Leather responded:

Yes, that’s true. But… though I’m very much a supporter of dogme, as a trainer I have found it a hard sell in certain (cultural) contexts. Perhaps when teachers don’t have full confidence in their own English and/or pedagogic skills….

My initial reaction to these comments was one of surprise. I had assumed that teachers could learn how to give reactive feedback to students while they’re engaged in tasks, and how to conduct a subsequent feedback session quite quickly, without much difficulty. Well, it seems I might have seriously underestimated the difficulties. Let me explain my view.

My view of reactive feedback

In order to do the Dogme approach, teachers need to understand the purpose of reactive feedback (or “focus on form” (Long, 2015, pp. 27-28) as it is widely referred to) and to appreciate that it’s a radical alternative to “focus on forms”. Focus on forms makes the explicit teaching of a pre-selected series of linguistic items the main content of the syllabus. In contrast, Dogme adopts a “focus on form” approach which involves the brief, reactive use of a variety of pedagogic procedures, ranging from recasts to provision of simple grammar “rules” and explicit error correction, designed to draw learners’ attention, in context, to target items that are proving problematic. Focus on form has as its objective to draw students’ attention to items which they might otherwise neither detect nor notice for a long time, thereby speeding up the learning process. Furthermore,  following the research of Nick Ellis (2005, 2006) and colleagues who adopt an emergentist theory of SLA, focus on form can create and store a first impression, or “trace” as Ellis calls it, of the item in long-term memory, thereby increasing the likelihood that it will subsequently be detected when examples are encountered during subsequent implicit input processing.

Focus of form is one of the principal ways that an analytic syllabus deals with formal aspects of the L2. An analytic syllabus expects learners to work out how the target language works for themselves, through exposure to input and using the language to perform communicative tasks. There is no overt or covert linguistic syllabus; more attention is paid to message and pedagogy than to language. The assumption, supported by research findings in SLA, is that, much in the way children learn their L1, adults can best learn a L2 implicitly, through using it. Analytic syllabuses are implemented using spoken and written activities and texts, modified for L2 learners, chosen for their content, interest value, and comprehensibility. Classroom language use is predominant, while grammar presentations and drills are seldom employed.

So, the first step for teachers wanting to adopt a Dogme approach is to share the view of most SLA scholars that language learning is predominantly a matter of learning by doing, of implicit learning, and that, therefore, reactive feedback should play an important, but relatively minor, role in L2 learning. Now, I appreciate that most second language teacher education (SLTE) today, particularly pre-service “training” courses like CELTA, fails to give proper attention to how people learn an L2, and that, as a result, most teachers are unaware of the prime importance of implicit learning and of how the efficacy of explicit teaching is determined by the learners’ readiness to learn, i.e., by the current state of their dynamic interlanguage trajectory. Most pre-service teachers are taught how to use coursebooks, and, as a result, they’re encouraged to wrongly assume that explaining bits of the L2 is a necessary prior step to practicing them. The solution to this dire problem is obvious – a module devoted to how people learn an L2 should be a necessary part of SLTE.

Once teachers understand the psychological process involved in L2 learning, and the role of reactive feedback, they need to get the hang of using it. As I said in the previous post, Dellar’s list of what teachers “need to be doing” while students carry out a Dogme task is based on ignorance of the SLA literature and on what he thinks teachers should do during the speaking activities found in coursebooks. In fact, teachers with an understanding of how people learn an L2, who consequently opt to use an analytic syllabus, including Dogme and many TBLT syllabuses, rarely find it difficult to get students speaking; or to move from group to group listening in on what they’re saying, or to notice gaps in their language. And they don’t, pace Dellar, have to think about what they’re going  to gap on the board, or what questions they’re going to ask about it, or how they’re going “to get the students to use some of that language”.

The Problem

Nevertheless, during the task, teachers have to use a variety of pedagogic procedures in reaction to breakdowns in communication and certain errors, and they have to lead feedback sessions afterwards.

So how difficult do teachers find these pedagogic procedures?

The problem here is that, as Chris Jones said in his tweets, there’s very little empirical evidence from studies of Dogme classes to help us answer that question. He’s quite right, but In disagreement with Jones, I think that teachers implementing many TBLT syllabuses (including the types described by Long, Skehan, N. Ellis, R. Ellis, Robinson and Dave and Jane Willis  – see Ellis & Shintanti (2016) for a review) engage in the same kind of reactive feedback and feedback sessions as Dogme teachers, and thus we do have considerable evidence from studies on the effects of these pedagogic interventions in TBLT. Nevertheless, we don’t have much evidence about how difficult teachers feel it is to do this kind of teaching.

I’ve taught English as an L2 for over thirty years, rarely used a coursebook, and I don’t remember ever thinking that giving reactive feedback or leading feedback sessions was any more difficult than other elements of the job. That’s mostly because I taught in contexts where I got a lot of support from bosses (who, in the 1980s and early 1990s, organised and/or paid for courses on using analytic syllabuses) and from colleagues who participated with me in on-gong CPD where we honed the skills needed to do learner-centred teaching where explicit (grammar) teaching took a back seat. Those years are long gone. As I said above, ELT is currently dominated by coursebooks, with the result that teachers don’t get the training, practice and support they need to switch to a different type of teaching.  

The Answer   

I think the best way for teachers to learn how to incorporate reactive feedback and follow-up feedback sessions into their teaching is to read up on it (I recommend the section on corrective feedback in Ellis & Shintani (2016) Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research as a good starting place), watch experienced teachers, and then get experience doing it, ideally with the support of colleagues. Of course it takes time and practice to get good at making brief interventions during a task, at taking notes of interesting bits of emerging language, and at using these notes to lead a follow-up feedback session. But from what Scott Thornbury tells me about the teachers who’ve done Dogme courses, and from what I know about the teachers who’ve done TBLT courses, they learn fast, they feel it’s worth the effort, and they feel that it helps them to become more effective teachers.   

Context

Scott Thornbury makes a point (particularly when discussing ELT with me, I can assure you!) of emphasizing just how much context affects how we teach. He’s right to do so, but I think he’d agree with me that arguments suggesting that certain contexts are not “suitable” for Dogme or TBLT are mostly bogus. It is simply not true that Dogme or TBLT are not “appropriate” for certain cultural contexts, or for certain government regimes, or for big classes, or for certain types of learners – beginners, young learners, the elderly, etc. Many studies (see, e.g., the meta-analyses of  Cobb (2010) and Bryfonski, & McKay (2019)), show that TBLT gets excellent results in a very wide variety of contexts, and it seems to me reasonable to argue that Dogme and TBLT can be adapted to any context.

“Non-native” Teachers

Sue Leather’s suggestion that Dogme meets resistance among “teachers who don’t have full confidence in their own English and/or pedagogic skills” is, I think, extremely important. I should preface this discussion by making it clear that I condemn any discrimination against teachers of English as an L2 based on the fact that English is not their L1. There are countless great teachers of English as an L2 whose L1 is not English, and I support onging attempts to outlaw any school or university which demands that teachers of English as an L2 have English as their L1. I’ll now discuss the problem of the many non-native speaker teachers whose lack of proficiency affects their teaching, summarising part of Chapter 10 of Jordan & Long (2022).   

More than 90% of those currently teaching English as a foreign language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most non-native English speaker teachers work in their own countries, where the government’s Ministry of Education produces a curriculum and stipulates the entry level qualifications required to work as an English teacher.

In China, for example, the Chinese Ministry of Education launched a nationwide BA program in TEFL in 2003 which became the recognized Pre-Service English Teacher Education program for those wishing to teach English as a Foreign language in primary, secondary and tertiary education in China. Studies by Zhan (2008), Hu (2003, 2005) and Yan (2012) revealed that many of the student teachers had considerable difficulties in expressing themselves clearly and fluently in English, and that their lack of confidence in speaking English contributed significantly to the subsequent ‘mismatch’ between the objectives of the course and the ways student teachers subsequently did their jobs in their local contexts. The course’s promotion of communicative language teaching failed to change the type of teaching the student teachers subsequently carried out: in their classrooms “the tyranny of the prescribed textbook” was still in evidence (Zhan, 2008, p. 62).  Studies by (Hu (2003) and Yan, (2012) support the general view that, despite being told of the value of CLT, and despite stating in their answers to researchers’ questions that they firmly believed in the value of communicative activities, when the teachers’ classes were observed, it became obvious that their lessons were teacher-fronted, and that the vast majority of the time was spent using a coursebook to instill knowledge about English grammar and vocabulary.

Similar results were found in studies carried out in other countries. Regarding the language problem, a 1994 study by Reves & Medgyes asked 216 native speaker and non-native speaker English teachers from 10 countries (Brazil, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of participants were non-native speakers of English, and in their responses, 84% of the non-native speaker subjects said that they had serious difficulties using English and that their teaching was adversely affected by these difficulties. Difficulties with vocabulary and fluency were most frequently mentioned, followed by pronunciation, and listening comprehension. It’s ironic that the  problem goes back to failures in their own teachers’ ability to implement a CLT approach.

Cultural factors play their part in how teachers go about their job, of course, but I reject the suggestion that Chinese teachers, for example, are so imbued with a Zen cultural heritage that they find it impossible to abandon centuries-old teaching practices. Appealing to cultural stereotypes in this way is surely offensive and ignores the real experiences of Chinese teachers, many of whom sincerely desire change. Likewise, in other parts of the world where a mismatch between pre-service English teaching courses and outcomes has been found, explanations which stress differences in cultures and in teachers’ subjective ‘knowledge bases’ fail to give enough attention to the restraints imposed by objective factors, including that many teachers lack confidence in their English.

Just to complete the picture, we should appreciate that the state-run English teaching courses offered in China and elsewhere are based on interpretations of ideas about CLT which stem not so much from the ideas which emerged in the 1970s, but rather from more recent ideas, promoted by those working for commercial ELT companies who all work to maximize profits, and who are all therefore keen to package ELT into a number of marketable products. The CELTA course is a good example: it is an easily marketable, highly profitable product in itself, and it involves the use of other, related, well-packaged, marketable products, including coursebooks and exams. It is only to be expected that SLTE courses designed by Cambridge English should encourage coursebook-driven ELT, and it is equally predictable that the British Council, with its own chain of English language schools and close ties with Cambridge English, should do the same. Likewise, when overseas ministries of education turn to Cambridge English and other such providers for help in introducing a communicative approach to ELT, it is to be expected that these providers recommend using their own products, coursebooks and tests among them. We could hardly expect them to encourage the implementation of Dogme or TBLT! Furthermore, we cannot expect the Chinese Ministry of Education (or the Turkish, or Vietnamese, or Brazilian, etc., etc., ministries) to appreciate the differences between “real” CLT and what the British Council, Cambridge University Press, and others say it is.

Conclusion

It’s been salutary for me to read the comments made on Twitter by Matt Bury, Chris Jones and others which highlight the difficulties of pedagogic procedures which I had assumed weren’t particularly challenging. There’s no doubt that we need more research investigating how teachers actually carry out reactive feedback and follow-up feedback sessions, and that more attention should be paid to Instructed Second Language Acquisition. We also need more discussion among teachers, and I think the Twitter exchanges show that, despite their limitations, they can be very useful in raising important concerns.

I end with Matt’s final comment:

 To be clear, I share Geoff Jordan’s criticisms of how ELT coursebooks are typically designed; I think the gap between Instructed SLA theory vs coursebook instruction couldn’t feasibly be bigger.

References

British Council (2015). The English Effect Report. Retrieved March 15, 2021 from  https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/english-effect-report-v2.pdf

Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2019). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research, 23(5), 603–632.

Cobb, M. (2010). Meta-analysis of the effectiveness of task-based interaction in form-focused instruction of adult learners in foreign and second language teaching. Doctoral Dissertations. 389. https://repository.usfca.edu/diss/389.

Ellis, R. & Shintani. N. (2016). Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Routledge.

Hu, G. (2003). English Language Teaching in China: Regional Differences and Contributing Factors. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 24, 4, 290–318

Hu, G. (2005). English language education in China: Policies, progress, and problems. Language policy, 4, 5-24.

Jordan, G. & Long, M. (2022). ELT: Now and How It Could Be. Cambridge Scholars.

Long, M. (2015). SLA and TBLT. Wiley.

Reves,T. & Medgyes, P. (1994). The non-native English speaking EFL/ESL teacher’s self-image: An international survey. System, 22, 3, 353-367.

Yan, C. (2012). ‘We can only change in a small way’: A study of secondary English teachers’ implementation of curriculum reform in China. Journal of Educational Change, 13, 431 – 447.

Zhan, S. (2008). Changes to a Chinese pre‐service language teacher education program: analysis, results and implications, Asia‐Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 36, 1, 53-70.

One thought on “How difficult is reactive feedback?

  1. One thing I found strange about Hugh’s comment was that it’s not something that’s unique to dogme or TBLT. I did my initial teacher training in the era of the course book and I was still taught to include reactive feedback to every speaking activity. I still remember wandering the classroom listening for examples of ‘good language’ and ‘bad language’ and desperately listening for anything I can make a teachable point out of. And we were taught a number of things to do afterwards to (eliciting corrections, suggesting alternatives, adding collocations, etc). And then when I taught my first ever proper class with Market Leader, again, I spent those big long speaking case studies listening for language to board. But on my CELTA, if we didn’t do it, we would struggle to pass the lesson.

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