I sent Jim Scrivener “The 5 questions about ELT” with which I started this blog, and he suggested that we discuss them in an exchange of emails. Below is the result. We didn’t actually get through all the questions, so there might be a Part 2.
Maybe I can start by asking you the first of my questions for teacher trainers: What is your view of the English language?
I think language is the toolset of intelligent life – a huge and interconnecting set of linguistic and social systems that we only partially understand – but which allows us to become more intelligent and to play a role in the over-centuries growth of the intelligence of all humanity. The growth of our personal language is deeply intertwined with our experience of family, friends, life environment and the overall culture we live in and it’s especially to do with our interpretation of the expectations of others.
So,“language” combines deep rules, rules of thumb, lists of data, social conventions, formulae, copied habits, fashionable fads, personal experiments, etc. Some of this is very deeply processed but much is not – on top of the underlying rules and systems we try out new behaviours, words and expressions to see what impact they have. Much of this is entirely unteachable to a second language learner – because it has tobe learnt` through living – directly connected to growing up, personal life, character, events, negative experience etc. But – we can offer some of the underlying structure and allow individuals to start finding their own way of expressing themselves with the toolset as latecomers to a different language.
At the heart and foundation of everything – I do think that grammar has a special role. I still (unfashionably) see it as the necessary motherboard that the rest of the components organise themselves onto and from which the software makes the message. Communication is mainly built on grammar + variable data (e.g. lexis). I’m deliberately using a computer metaphor here. I don’t know if you’ve ever programmed computers – but it’s an instructive experience. One has a very limited set of language and grammar rules with which to produce unlimited results. Get the rules wrong and nothing happens or terrible things happen. Get it right and you can make the machine do almost anything you can imagine – from launching a spaceship to autonomously writing the words and music of a new song. It is the grammar that needs to be learnt – but once learnt there are no limits to how creatively you manage the variable data that it’s used with.
Similarly, with English (or any human language) I can’t do any of the communication I mentioned unless I can put pieces of language together in a way that makes some sense to another person listening or reading. It’s not quite as finickity as programming a computer but it needs to be close to an acceptable structure. I can’t get even a simple message across without that and I can’t fine-tune what I’m saying unless I share that rule-set – an understanding of how the community understands my fine-tuning. It’s grammar / discourse rules that provide that shared consensus. Lexis is important and infinitely expandable and changeable – but there is a finite grammatical system that remains relatively stable through the years – and on which the rest of communication depends.
Calling language “the toolset for intelligent life” is a splendid way to kick things off, and I’m glad that you don’t follow the lead of so many ELT trainers who call it “a tool for communication”; because of course, language isn’t just used for communication. It helps us to think, reflect and imagine; to moralise, believe and have faith; to wish, regret and daydream; and, as you say, to become more intelligent. Perhaps it follows from your taking this wider view of language that you see language as a complex formal system, described crucially, if not entirely, by a grammar, rather than as a huge collection of Saussurean “linguistic signs” which we amass through use.
If we can agree that we’re both “formalists”, standing resolutely against the smart new constructioners, we can surely agree not to waste time on the lexical chunkers, at least until they manage to explain their view coherently. The question remains: What is the grammar “that needs to be learnt”? What knowledge of the rules for constructing words and sentences is involved? And how does it combine with knowledge of lexis? What are the essential rules that learners need to know in order to endlessly and flexibly generate their own meaning? And what else do they need to know? Widdowson, after a lengthy discussion of formulaic language, claims that learners need to know how to apply “a scale of variability” to grammar rules.
Communicative competence is a matter of knowing a stock of partially pre-assembled patterns, formulaic frameworks, and a kit of rules, so to speak, and being able to apply the rules to make whatever adjustments are necessary according to contextual demands (Widdowson, 1989).
What do you think? What is the competence that we are trying to teach?
From the Cobuild project onwards I have been interested in the discoveries about lexis and I’ve been persuaded by the arguments for lexis being much more complex and important than the lists or sets of words that I used to teach when I started out. There clearly is a “grammar of words” beyond basic adjacent word collocation. I remember an eye-opening seminar from Jimmie Hill on how using a simple word like “book” has resonances and implications and imposed restrictions that ripple outward through the surrounding sentences.
But I think that, for a learner of a second language, once you’re a step beyond beginner level, when a few basic greetings and expressions get you a long way, knowing grammar is more useful than knowing lexis or functional expressions. Because at its heart, lexis isn’t a system, it’s a list. There are some systematic features but basically it’s a long, long list. So is functional language. Yes, I need to learn lots of words – thousands of them. But the way that I wield them is grammar.
So, for learners I think the priorities are something like: Beginner: Expressions, basic vocab, pronunciation (sounds & intonation); Elementary / Pre-Intermediate: Grammar and key vocabulary sets; Higher than that: Lexis – and all the rest of the complex jungle of it all. If I teach you a grammatical item – even if I give a discredited item a name like “first conditional” – then I give you something that you can work with to make your own sentences – and start to understand others when they communicate to you. And although I spent many years arguing that you can’t teach discrete item grammar and that acquisition doesn’t follow from such learning – I now doubt my doubts. I’ve seen too many students who, having had a lesson on, say, first conditional, are able to integrate that item with their own choice of lexis and intended meaning – and use it successfully to express themselves – and retain it over time. There is a value in explicit grammar teaching – if done well. As a minimum, it is a way of fronting and spotlighting useful things to learn.
There is no sense in the sequence of the coursebook grammar syllabus – of course – it’s simply a product of habit and inertia. But, no alternative order would be significantly better. And it actually doesn’t matter very much. The goal is simply to introduce items to students and the priority of “teachability” is more important here than “order of acquisition” or other SLA concerns. Students will learn some items. They won’t learn others. But they will, in many cases, over time, gather a workable set of ground-level tools that allow them to build their own communication.
You say grammar can be successfully taught explicitly. Well I wouldn’t argue with that, but I’m arguing more generally against coursebook-driven ELT. My claim is that a coursebook-driven approach flies in the face of 60 years research into how people learn an L2. It ignores the fact that SLA is a non-linear, dynamic process whereby learners pursue a zig-zag, U-shaped, unsystematic route as they develop their own mental grammar for themselves, and this route is largely impervious to explicit grammar teaching. Whatever success you as a teacher might have had teaching discrete formal elements of language, that’s no argument for using a series of coursebooks to teach people English, because there is, as you say, no sense in the sequence of the coursebook grammar syllabus.
When you say “it actually doesn’t matter very much”, I have to disagree. Every year, hundreds of thousands of students fail to make the progress they were led to expect. Presenting and practising a sequence of bits of language in the way coursebooks organise them guarantees that students won’t learn what they’re taught, because they can’t, because that’s not the way language learning works. They will, of course, learn something, and most of them will be persuaded to do the next course with the next coursebook, embarking on the next bit of their unnecessarily slow trudge towards an uncertain proficiency, hobbling on, blaming themselves, too often feeling like an idiot when they’re called on to use English spontaneously. What nobody wants to recognise is that they can’t communicate easily in English because they’ve spent most of the time being told about English instead of being encouraged to use it.
My argument is that ELT would be much more efficacious if it were based on an approach which respected learners’ interlanguage development and which encouraged their mental grammars to develop in their own ways, by giving them a more or less 5 to 1 cocktail of scaffolded opportunities to use appropriate oral and written texts for relevant communicative purposes, and explicit attention to formal aspects of the language.
OK – so this is one area where we seem to totally disagree. But maybe less than it seems. The route of language learning is certainly zig-zag and non-linear – no argument there. But I don’t think that that requires input to attempt to follow that route. And especially in a classroom of 30, 40 or maybe 50+ students we have to compromise on a possible sequence for offering language samples and information.
The best language teaching is likely to be in circumstances where there is a relatively small number of learners and the teacher is competent in language, aware of how humans learn and well-versed in a range of methodological options. In these (privileged and relatively rare) circumstances I would hope that the teacher would then be able to study how each individual was learning, where they had reached in their language competences and then explore a range of need-focussed, responsive, alert teaching options. Not using the coursebook would then be one entirely valid choice, and probably the most productive decision for the class.
But this is not the reality for a substantial number of teachers around the world: they have large classes; many have minimal training; they have minimal support; they are largely unaware of what is possible methodologically (due partly to poor quality of training); they may be weak in their own English level (or at least extremely wary of using it and making mistakes); they would struggle to create materials more valid or useful than those in the coursebooks; they may be fearful of being “found out” as wanting in some way – especially if they took even a small step away from what their managers expected them to do. I’m not saying that any of this is good or desired or cannot ever be changed. It is just the reality of the wider world. I sometimes wonder if your arguments for not using coursebooks come partly – as mine used to – from seeing most frequently lessons in a rather untypical segment of the globe – and not fully taking enough into account the significantly poorer situations that many teachers work with.
I should restate that I was very anti-coursebook myself for many years – but I now believe that I was wrong. My change of mind comes partly from my own teaching and training experiences but more so from observing many teachers in different countries around the world.
Let me go back to “teachability” as being a vital (and under-researched) factor. L2 learners in many parts of the world have teachers who are not especially good at English (sometimes below PET level) and who have little idea of methodology beyond how they were themselves taught. As a result, many teachers (and therefore their students) will absolutely flounder without the support of a coursebook to provide language and practice materials and a basic methodology.
The coursebook provides, at the very minimum, lots of samples of language. Depending on the book, these may be anywhere on the continuums from high quality and real to odd and rather inauthentic – but, whatever the quality, they are a language input. When there is no other exposure to language – perhaps not even from a teacher who only speaks L1 in class – the printed words and the recordings are an invaluable source. Beyond that, the book provides ways to practice items. You could criticise much of it as dull and predictable – but it is practice – and it does help learning to happen.
And, sadly, when a school decides not to use coursebooks, this often means that the replacement is not rich TBL but random unexamined googled gobbets of free downloaded exercises – typically poorly written and aimless without quality control.
I stand by my statement that the teaching sequence of language items “doesn’t matter very much” and that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t follow current beliefs about learning order. Whatever order a book was in, it would never mirror any individual’s learning.
I have made many (rejected) proposals over the years to publishers for coursebooks with radical syllabi. My first ever proposal was for a book that might still be considered radical if it was published today; it was task-based long before the pseudo task-based coursebooks came along. But if I was designing a coursebook freely without publisher control right now at this late point in my career, I might actually go with a discrete item syllabus (though I’d probably start grammatically with Past Simple questions and answers).
The current “received order” of syllabus, indefensible as seems to be, does have the advantage of possessing a certain teaching (not learning) logic. It allows the teacher to plan and teach with a sense of progression of items that jigsaw (in the teaching plan)one after the other over time.
As you say “Presenting and practicing a sequence of bits of language in the way coursebooks organise them guarantees that students won’t learn what they’re taught, because they can’t, because that’s not the way language learning works. They will, of course, learn something …” Yes – certainly this is not how we learn, but all the same, exposure to a range of items over time will lead to an unpredictable uptake of some – and, as you say, “they will learn something”. I suspect that that is the best that we can hope for in almost any language class whatever the syllabus, sequence or method.
I think abandoning the coursebook in favour of working only with language that arises for task need is going to make ELT absolutely unteachable for a large percentage of the world’s teachers. Take away this resource and almost nothing will be left.
You say “What nobody wants to recognise is that they can’t communicate easily in English because they’ve spent most of the time being told about English instead of being encouraged to use it.” And this is absolutely right. Of course students should not be mainly “told about English” – they need to be in a cycle of using the language with feedback and repeated improvements – and minimal “telling” when it’s necessary and useful.
But using a coursebook does not presuppose this kind of bad teaching. The fault here is not with coursebooks themselves but with how teachers use them, how they are trained to use them and how ministries, school heads and department heads require them to be used – and especially the requirements to “cover” material in specific periods of time. This is the real villain. Coursebooks are not the villain. When teaching, I would always prefer to have a coursebook to provide language, topic ideas, material, tasks, practice exercises etc but I don’t want anyone to tell me how to use this resource or how much I have to use it or when. This is, I believe, where trainers and anyone with any influence or authority should be intervening – to help teachers to “own” their coursebooks in order to teach the people in the room. I think it is possible to use a coursebook as a backbone of a course and teach a relentlessly exciting and needs driven personal course for a group of students – but without the need to invent each lesson as new from scratch – which is often a huge burden on pressurised teachers.
So that’s one way I’m out of step with a lot of contemporary ELT thinking. I also find myself increasingly unsure of the traditional binary description of language systems and skills – and with the current emphasis on the primacy of skills – and especially task achievement – over systems. I think I probably view things more as an inverted pyramid with grammar at the base – and growing from it – lots of twined strands of strategies (e.g. to better interpret listening items I can’t catch), lexis (holographic cross-referenced RAM of items), practice (e.g. reading faster and understanding more). I’m not saying that I don’t value skills teaching and task-based work– but I am saying that I think that we may have misjudged how they fit in with grammar, lexis etc.
The task does not come first. Language does. If I have no (or insufficient) language, I can’t do the task or I am dependent on constant interventions and drip-feed input while I do the task. But when I have almost enough language, I can hone it on tasks – and upgrade using small amounts of memorable help and feedback. Then, the task is invaluable as a way of allowing learners to work on integrating, coordinating and purposefully using what has been learnt. The task is practice and provides the “upgrade push” at the heart of learning.
I’ve started to think of “practice” less as a teaching / learning technique / tool and more as something fundamental to language itself. Practice isn’t quite the right word –I mean something that incorporates: trying out / testing / using / repeatedly using and measuring feedback – in a cycle. But I’ll call it “practice”. The “skill” a learner needs to work on isn’t “reading” or “writing” etc – but being able to use your current systematic knowledge and current data set of known items to push the limits of what you can do and achieve with it – again and again.
OK That’s a very long answer to a short (but huge) question. I think I need to pause for you to have a go back.
You argue that TBLT is only suitable for relatively privileged ELT contexts and that coursebooks are the best solution for “the realities of the wider world”. Yet more than 60 studies of ELT courses using a TBLT approach (reported in Bryfonski and McKay, 2017) show that obstacles (large class size, limited resources, cultural resistance) can be overcome, and that the results far outstrip those obtained in comparable environments using coursebooks. It’s simply not true that TBLT is too difficult or too demanding to be a realistic option for most ELT contexts; you just need to take off the coursebook blinkers.
If teachers are not especially good at English and have little idea of methodology, they will NOT necessarily flounder without the support of a coursebook; they can be shown as easily how to use materials to work through tasks as they can how to use a coursebook. I worked with Connie O’Grady in the early 80s (before coursebooks took over ELT) and we helped Spanish teachers in 2 big schools in Barcelona to implement TBLT courses of English which were very successful indeed. Other similar examples – from work done by Chris Candlin, Mike Long and John Fanselow to name but three – abound.
But this is where we hit some of my problems with research. I have no doubt that what you say is true – but … being trained and mentored by inspiring helpers like yourself or Candlin or Fanselow, etc., is a very privileged context. In short experiments of this sort there are no doubt measurable proofs of this success. But I’d challenge you to do this with, say, all of Nepal or Mexico over three years. There is an inescapable degree of resistance and inertia and, of course, a fading out of bold initiatives once the local trainer and teacher are two steps away from the initial inspirers and promoters.
You suspect that the best we can hope for in almost any language class whatever the syllabus, sequence or method is that the students will learn something; you fear that abandoning the coursebook in favour of TBLT will make ELT absolutely unteachable for a large percentage of the world’s teachers; you judge that if we take away the coursebook, almost nothing will be left. To put it bluntly, Jim, and with great respect, I think you’re wrong. The Bryfonski and McKay (2017) review; the work of Long, Crookes, Doughty, Robinson, Breen, Pica, Krashen, Wilkins, Willis, Faneslow, and a host of other scholars supports the view that there are realistic alternatives to the coursebook.
Your defence of coursebooks seems both pessimistic and half-hearted to me. Please don’t take offence, but it reminds me of the way some good people I know in the late 70s defended Franco by pointing to the wayward Spanish character and the need of such ill-disciplined, ignorant people for a strong leader.
At the end, you rally and say that coursebooks are absolutely fine as long as they’re used by teachers who know how to use them in the right way. But they’re not. Coursebooks implement a syllabus that is antithetical to language learning, and it’s only by completing subverting that syllabus – ignoring the sequence and order of its activities and substituting them for real communicative activites that address real needs – that teachers can do a decent job. And while the key point is that coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus which flies in the face of robust SLA findings, there’s also the view of most of the experts who have ever reviewed coursebooks. A host of scholars agree with Thornbury and Meddings that the carefully packaged junk food served up in coursebooks is not nutritious. Tomlinson and Masuhara, in their 2013 review of coursebooks, conclude that English File, Outlooks and other such series are bland, unappealing, unchallenging, unimaginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial and dull, and that none of them is likely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
OK – Just a quick comment. I loved English File. I taught with the first edition and found it brilliantly constructed, hugely teachable, enjoyed by wide ranges of students and, more importantly, I saw it lead to visible, tangible, measurable learning. So, whatever the research says, my own classroom experience is entirely at odds with it. I have seen learners learn using many different coursebooks. Some are terrible; many are OK; a few are brilliant. And, though I hesitate to say it, many probably offer more varied and successful lessons than if I had burnt midnight candles inventing my own tasks and materials.
Let’s now deal with your more general points about tasks and language learning. I entirely agree with your view of “practice” – or “praxis” as Friere, or Gramsci might like to call it. Exactly as you say, learners develop competence by pushing the boundaries – again and again. But what’s wrong with using tasks to help them do this? Tasks aren’t content free. Let’s say you’re doing a course with a class of professional people who need English for their jobs, and it turns out that they all go to restaurants with foreign business colleagues, and they all find it difficult to handle the small talk. It’s easy enough to find material to prepare for the task (“Having a meal in a restaurant with foreign business colleagues”). You get the students to tell you about their experiences; ask them for their company’s guidelines; get excerpts from films, TV, or video recordings, menus; etc., etc. From all the data, you produce a schematic representation of the meal: arriving, sitting down, choosing the food, talking to the person next to you, dealing with exchanges with others, dealing with the bill, leaving. From there, you devise prototypical dialogues, and, building on these, you design a module for the course, consisting of six Pedagogical Tasks (PTs).
- PT1: Intro (Schema Building)
- PT2: The Real Thing. Recording of a dinner.
- PT6: Role Play 2: The Exit Task: a simulation of a dinner.
In a TBLT course like this, you start with a needs analysis to identify a number of “Target Tasks”. From these, pedagogic tasks are designed and then the materials are assembled. The pedagogic tasks include explicit attention to form. If it were practically feasible to organise a course which began with a needs analysis and ended up as a series of pedagogic tasks which involved students in using the language for 80% of classroom time, would you give it a whirl?
It sounds like a fine lesson and I can imagine teaching it. I have no problem with this at all – as a lesson in the context you state i.e. “you’re doing a course with a class of professional people who need English for their jobs, and it turns out that they all go to restaurants with foreign business colleagues”. But it’s a very privileged teaching context (and I’m also imagining the word “smallish” before the word “class”).
In global terms, in many other contexts, that lesson type is a complete non-starter. Imagine a poor state school in central China, more than 50 14-year olds in the one room with almost no space to move around, even between rows. The lesson you’re describing needs teacher preparation, teacher language skills and confidence, classroom management skills, behaviour management skills. It needs time for preparation and collection of materials in quantity (NB zero photocopying possibilities). It needs a bravery to explain to managers why the lesson isn’t from the coursebook or preparing for an exam. It needs a confidence of setting-up and listening and responding that is outside the experience of many teachers. Bear in mind that for a fair number of state school teachers internationally, the idea of students talking in pairs is still considered quite radical.
The problem is not your lesson. The problem is not the methodology. The problem is not the coursebook. The problem is the training that told these teachers how a lesson should be and the problem is how these teachers are managed so that they feel that they dare not take even small teaching risks for fear of management, student or parental disapproval.
These teachers need professional resources that have had some quality control and some prospect of allowing teachable lessons in difficult circumstances. They need help to find ways of using these resources more effectively. They don’t need us arguing that these materials are the thing that is holding them back – because this is just the sort of thing that is misused by school bosses who are seeking ways of reducing costs who will say “I went to a conference / I read an article … so we are going to stop using coursebooks”. And it is just the sort of thing that will lead to worse lessons based on half-understood googled bad ideas.
I’m not a teacher who believes that the communicative approach (in whatever form including TBL) is an imperialist imposition on other countries. It isn’t simply a western thing. But, all the same, we do need to find methodology and materials that are appropriate for teachers at their stage of understanding, development and in their contexts and with their resources. I see the coursebook as the best way of providing a pack of resources and gently helping teachers towards better learning–probably not because the coursebook itself teaches English well but because it helps lead to better teaching – and eventually to the point where it is itself rejected. I learnt to teach by using good coursebooks and especially good Teachers Books accompanying them – and then I rejected them as not good enough (and then I came back).In the absence of quality training and support round the world, the coursebook is a viable substitute.
Well thanks, Jim. Our main differences seem to be in our views of the merits of the coursebook and the difficulties of implementing TBLT. I think the coursebook is a fatally flawed resource which leads to skewed teaching, and I think TBLT is a much better, feasible alternative. You think the coursebook is – like democracy, perhaps –the least bad option for an imperfect world, and that TBLT is – like anarchism, perhaps –an unattainable, unrealistic dream. I suspect that most people will agree with you, which could explain my scepticism about what passes for democracy these days!
We haven’t covered Questions 3 to 5 very thoroughly, and I’m particularly interested in your “Demand High” initiative with Adrian Underhill. Maybe, after a restorative break, we can resume our chat. Till then, thanks again.
Bryfonski, L. and McKay,T. (2017) TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.
Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (2013) Adult Coursebooks. English Language Teaching Journal.
Widdowson, H.G. (1989) Knowledge of language and ability for use. Applied Linguistics, Vol. 10, No.2.