Materials for ELT – and Noticing

Further to discussions on Twitter with Matt Bury and Peter Fenton, here’s a summary of Mike Long’s view of elaborated and modified elaborated input, with some comments about noticing that just sort of happened. The main text is Long (2020), but I also refer to Long (2015) and to Jordan & Long (2022).  

Spoken and written input for language learning traditionally focus on the relative merits of authentic and linguistically simplified spoken and written texts. Long argues that elaborated input and, in particular, modified elaborated input, are better options, especially when the input texts are part of tasks.

Genuine (authentic) input

Authentic texts are spoken or written records of real-world communication among native or non-native speakers, i.e. texts not spoken or written in conformity with any particular linguistic guidelines or vocabulary list.

Widdowson (1976) rightly problematized ‘authentic’, pointing out that a text may be genuine in the sense of not originally having been produced for language teaching, but its use in a coursebook or classroom lesson may not be authentic. If a teacher records and transcribes segments of a radio news broadcast or undergraduate economics lecture, and then, with key information bits deleted, presents written excerpts to students, whose job it is to fill in the missing words or phrases as they listen to the recording, then the classroom activities based upon them are not authentic.

An obvious problem with genuine texts for language teaching is that most are produced for native speakers. Parts will be linguistically too simple, and (more often) other parts too complex to be processed. Teachers waste a lot of limited classroom time in an effort to make institutionally mandated, inappropriately complex (simplified or genuine) dialogs or reading passages comprehensible for students who were  simply not ready for them. The devices to which teachers resort to increase comprehensibility (schema building, vocabulary pre-teaching, visual aids, translation, grammatical explanations, vocabulary glossing, etc.) are precisely those that make classroom use of genuine (or any other) texts inauthentic.

Simplified input

Simplified texts typically take the form of graded readers and the dialogs and reading passages found in coursebooks. In many cases, simplified texts are themselves originals, written that way from the get-go, so strictly speaking, linguistically simple, not simplified. In either case, they are created using only those linguistic forms, verb tenses, grammatical structures, lexical items, and collocations thought appropriate for learners of a given L2 ‘proficiency level’. Learners are presented with examples of what Widdowson (1972) called target language usage (What am I wearing? Youre wearing a sweater), not use. The aim is to show the inner workings of the code, not how the language is used for communication.

I think this bit of Long (2020) is worth quoting:

Whereas real conversations are marked by open-endedness, implicitness, and intertextuality, there is a tendency for textbook writers to produce stand-alone dialogs (and reading passages) with a beginning, a middle, and an end, containing all the information needed for the inevitable comprehension questions, and no more. Did David take the pills? How many pills did he take? When did he take them? Did David exercise? And so on. (For detailed examples and discussion, see Long, 2015, pp. 169–204.) Little or nothing is left unstated, and allusions are rare. The Blands of Potters Bar greet one another, say something banal that includes several models of the “structure du jour”, and take their leave. Even in the hands of  the most skillful materials writers, the end-product can be painful, and the resulting classroom inter- action reminiscent of Becket on a bad day (Dinsmore, 1985). The artificiality is increased by the fact that materials writers’ intuitions are the basis for the texts they write, and every study that has looked at the issue (e.g., Cathcart,1989; Williams,1988; Bartlett, 2005; Granena, 2008) has found materials written that way differ markedly from real speech, a problem exacerbated when unfamiliar specialist discourse domains are involved.

Constantly recycling the same grammatical patterns and limited set of vocabulary items results in impoverished input, which is counter-productive from an acquisition perspective. Acquisition potential is sacrificed for comprehensibility thus excluding many new opportunities for learning. Comprehensibility is needed, but language acquisition from the input should not be sacrificed.

Below, Tables 1.1 and 12 juxtapose genuine and simplified versions of the same short text. Regarding the simplified text, Long comments

 in the simplified version, the series of short, choppy sentences creates an irritating, breathless, staccato effect, and can make processing for meaning harder. The intra-sentential linker, so, has been lost, and with it, the explicit marking (an example of redundancy) of the causal relationship between the driver fleeing the scene  and the woman’s inability to provide the police with anything more than a rough description. This, too, can make comprehension harder, as the causality is now left to inference on the  reader’s part.  There is unnatural repetition of full noun phrases (driver driver, woman woman) instead of target-like pronominalization and anaphoric reference (driver he, woman she). Examples of genuine NS language use (catch a glimpse, fled the scene, provide a rough description, bolded in Table 1.1 to make tracking them easier) are lost, replaced by higher frequency, less informative, unnatural-sounding items with  less precise meanings (saw for only a moment, immediately drove away fast, tell (the police) a little about him). Comprehensibility has been improved, no doubt, but of a text that has been bled  of semantic detail and realistic models of target  language  use.  Fortunately,  genuine  and  simplified  texts are not the only options.

Elaborated input

Long’s research into how native speakers (NS) modified the way they talked to non-native speakers (NNS) – so-called foreigner talk discourse  –  found that while NSs made some quantitative changes to the language they used, e.g., by employing shorter utterances and favoring yes/no or or-choice over wh questions, modifications of the Interactional Structure of Conversation were more pervasive and more important. In other words, comprehensibility was achieved not so much by simplifying the input as by changing the ways communicative talk was accomplished. Long says:

When NSs converse with NNS, they use a wide variety of devices for the purpose of input elaboration, including slower speech rate, relinquishing topic control, making new topics salient, preference for a here-and-now over a there-and-then orientation, decomposing complex topics into their component parts, eight types of repetition (exact and semantic, partial and complete, self and other), one-beat pauses before and/or after key information-bearing words, clarification requests, com- prehension checks, confirmation checks, lexical switches, synonyms, antonyms, and informal definitions.

Table 1.1 Traffic accident sentences

VersionSentence
Genuine The only witness just caught a glimpse of the driver as he fled the scene, so she could only provide the police with a rough description.
SimplifiedA woman was the only person who saw the accident. She saw the driver for only a moment. The driver did not stop. He immediately drove away fast. The woman could only tell the police a little about him.
ElaboratedThe only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only caught a glimpse of the driver, just saw him for a moment, because he fled the scene, driving away fast without stopping, so she could only provide the police with a rough description of him, not an accurate one.
Modified elaboratedThe only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only caught a glimpse of the driver, just saw him for a moment, because he fled the scene, driving away fast without stopping. As a result, she could only provide the police with a rough description of him, not an accurate one.

Table 1.2 Descriptive statistics for the traffic accident sentences

VersionWordsSentencesWords/SentenceMVs*MVs/Sentence
Genuine2612644
Simplified3957.871.4
Elaborated5422773.5
Modified elaborated56318.672.3

*MVs, main verbs and modals.

Genuine: The only witness just caught a glimpse of the driver as he fled the scene, so she could only provide the police with a rough description.

Elaborated: The only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only  caught  a glimpse of the driver, just saw him  for a  moment,  because  he  fled  the  scene,  driving  away fast without stopping, so she could only  provide  the  police with  a rough  description  of him,  not an accurate one.

The total word count is twice that for the genuine version, and the syntactic complexity over twice that of the simplified version. The increase in word count is a direct result of various kinds of input redundancy, which, by definition, result from elaboration. For example, informal definitions have been added to facilitate understanding of the (bolded) unknown lexical items and collocations. The bolded items were  lost in the simplified version, but now retained. Help with the meaning of ‘rough’ in a rough description is offered by the added contrast, not an accurate one. NNSs in most research comparing the comprehensibility of spoken and written texts have been found to understand elaborated versions almost as well as simplified versions, and both significantly better than genuine versions.

The Yano et al. (1994), Oh (2001) and O’Donnell (2009) studies showed that elaborative modifications were as successful in improving comprehension as simplification, and did so without sacrificing unknown lexical items. The finding suggests that whereas simplified input tends to bleed semantic content, elaborated input does not. The findings are positive from an acquisition perspective, too, as they mean that NS models of target language use need not be sacrificed on the altar of comprehensible input.

Modified elaborated input

Despite its overall advantages, input elaboration also has some undesirable side-effects, in particular, excessive utterance or sentence length When designing pedagogic materials, it is easy to provide teachers and learners with the advantages of elaborated input while eliminating the readability problem. In most cases, all that is required is to split unwieldy utterances or sentences into shorter ones, and where needed,  add intra- or inter-sentential  linking expressions to strengthen any vulnerable semantic relationships among the resulting parts:

The only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only  caught  a glimpse of the driver, just saw him  for a  moment,  because  he  fled  the  scene,  driving  away fast without stopping. As a result, she  could  only provide  the police with a rough  description    of him, not an accurate one.

All the important examples of native language use (witness, catch a glimpse, flee the scene, rough description, etc.), lost in the simplified version, are again retained, and the causal relationship between the driver fleeing and the witness only being able to provide a rough description is marked explicitly by addition of the inter-sentential connector as a result.  Modified elaborated input exposes learners to nativelike L2 use, increases comprehensibility by retaining the  redundancy and other features typical  of elaboration, and restores normal sentence length and reasonable syntactic complexity. Just as training wheels are removed from bicycles as children learn to balance, or crutches replaced by a walking cane as an athlete recovers from a broken leg, the cane subsequently discarded, so the devices  employed to achieve elaboration are gradually removed as learners’ proficiency increases, eventually giving way to genuine texts for advanced students.

The crucial requirement is that the focus be on communication through the L2, not on the L2 code itself. The easiest way to create that condition, and thereby ensure that modified elaborated input is produced, is for materials writers and classroom teachers to recognize a variety of relevant sources  of input. Those include teacher speech, input from classmates, and language use surrounding the performance of dynamic tasks. Then, just as caretakers effortlessly and instinctively modify the way they talk to infant children, so, after some simple training, materials writers and classroom teachers can produce appropriate modified elaborated input for L2 learners, including students learning subject matter or to perform tasks in the L2.

The Kicker

For most learners of an L2, a functional command of the L2 is more important than knowing about the L2 grammar. Learners depend primarily on their implicit knowledge – L2 knowledge they have but do not know they have. Implicit knowledge is the result of incidental L2 learning – picking up parts of a language without intending to, as a by-product of doing something else, such as reading a newspaper, watching TV, living overseas in an immersion setting, or working in the L2 on a problem-solving task.

Long recognizes that while it is important to increase classroom opportunities for incidental learning, there is insufficient time, and usually, insufficient input for classroom language learning by older children and adults to be accomplished purely implicitly, and far too many items for them all to be learned explicitly, either, of course.

Simply exposing learners to comprehensible input and relying on inductive learning to do the rest is to assume, wrongly, that the power of incidental learning, especially instance learning, remains as strong in older learners as it is in young children.

Long has argued for decades that a “Focus on Form” approach (deal with adult learners’ deficiencies by focusing on formal aspects of the language reactively, as they occur, thru negative feedback) is better than a grammar-based diet of “Focus on Forms” (i.e., lessons in which the primary focus is on language as object). He now asks: “Can the same results be achieved through even less intrusive means, specifically through enhanced incidental learning?”

Enhanced incidental learning refers to an internal process in the mind of the learner. It differs from input enhancement, which relies on a third party adding things like bolding, underlining, or italicizing words in written input, or stress, pauses, and increased volume in speech. While input enhancement attempts to promote conscious “noticing” of the target items, enhanced incidental learning is intended to increase unconscious detection, and thereby, the efficiency of the incidental learning process, without necessarily raising learning to the level of conscious awareness at all.

Conscious noticing, says Long, may be optimal for non-salient linguistic targets, but “can perception at the level of unconscious detection work with adults for vocabulary and collocations, at least, and possibly for perceptually salient grammatical issues, like negation or adverb placement?”

For me, this is a crucial question, almost hidden in the text. I don’t agree that conscious noticing is “optimal” for learning anything about language, but here, Long is entertaining an idea that he and I often argued about till I fell off my bar chair, my final words usually being something to the effect that noticing is probably the worst construct ever in SLA.   

Long asks if it’s necessary, or just facilitative, for teachers

to help learners notice a new form and establish a first representation in long-term memory – not to teach it in the traditional understanding of the term, but so that the representation thereafter serves  as a selective cue that primes the learner to attend to and perceive subsequent instances in the input during implicit processing?”

There’s a marvelous doubt percolating there – is “noticing” as a theoretical construct of any use at all?!  I was arguing amicably with Mike Long about this right up to when cancer so quickly snatched him from us. Noticing, Schmidt’s twice amended, much battered theoretical construct, is generally used, quite inappropriately and crassly in its dictionary sense, to justify explicit grammar teaching. The theoretical construct of noticing is more carefully used by those who suggest that SLA is a process involving “disabled” adult learners, who, while they learn an L2 pretty well in the normal implicit way, have trouble overcoming the influences of their L1. Nick Ellis says that adults learning English don’t “notice” non-salient, low frequency, etc., items of the L2, and they therefore resort to the norms of their L1, which leads to L1-enduced “errors” in their use of the L2. What’s needed to overcome these errors, says Nick Ellis, is for learners of English as an L2 to “re-set the dial” (i.e., the dial set by their L1). Re-setting the dial is best done, says Nick Ellis, by Long’s “focus on form” – quick interventions during meaning-focused communication which focus on form in such a way that a first representation of the recalcitrant form is placed in long-term memory, after which, the default implicit learning mechanism takes over again. To quote Nick Ellis: “The general principle of explicit learning in SLA is that changing the cues that learners focus on in their language processing changes what their implicit learning processes tune” (2005, p. 327). Mike Long, to my dismay, agreed with Nick Ellis. To borrow from Groucho Marx, I may be wonderful, but I think they’re wrong. I don’t think language learning is usage-based, I don’t think noticing is a useful construct, and I don’t think re-setting the dial is a good principle that usefully informs teaching.

Bimodal Input

Well, never mind. Whatever doubts I have about Long’s final views on SLA, he made a huge contribution to developing our knowledge of the field, and his suggestions for designing courses of English as an L2 remain among the best-informed, best-described and best-motivated of them all. Long insists that language learning is learning by doing and that therefore syllabuses should be analytic, not the awful synthetic bits of crap served up by coursebooks.

Long finishes his 2020 article by asking how incidental learning can be sped up and generally made more efficient. (See – in his heart, he really believes that we must leave behind all forms of instruction-based ELT!) He recommends the use of “bimodal input” – a growing and enormously important development in ELT materials. Input can be presented  in oral and written form simultaneously, as when a learner reads a story while listening to a recording of it being read aloud by someone else, e.g., in an audiobook. Other options include a combination of oral and visual, as when someone watches a video, written and visual, e.g., a silent movie with sub- titles, and (tri-modally) oral, written and visual, e.g., a movie with sound and sub-titles. Bimodal presentation doesn’t require all the work involved in making elaborated texts – recordings can simply use slow pace, with salience added to specific vocabulary items or collocations, through stress and one-beat pauses before and/or after key information-bearing items, with or without corresponding changes to the written version (italics, bolding, capitalization, color, etc.).

There remains the question of the content of the texts used. Use your own common sense, your own experience, your own judgement, your own political and cultural values, and your knowledge of the local context, to guide you. For additional help, talk to Tyson Seburn.   

References

Jordan, G & Long, M. ELT now and How it Could Be. Cambridge Scholars.

Long, M. (2020) Optimal input for language learning: Genuine, simplified, elaborated, or modified elaborated? Language Teaching, 53, 169–182

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquistion and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley, Blackwell.

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