What’s the Outcome of a Roadmap?

Selling coursebooks is a a multi billion dollar business where profit, not educational excellence, is the driving criterion.

Pearson’s latest series of English coursebooks is called “Roadmap”

 

and it promotes its latest star product in just the same way as if it were selling toothpaste: it makes the same sort of absurd claims for its new, eight-level general English course for adults as Colgate makes for its latest re-branded toothpaste.

Just as Colgate’s new improved toothpaste has no demonstrated new improved beneficial effect on bocal hygiene, equally the Roadmap series has no new improved beneficial effect on L2 learning. There’s nothing new or improved to be found and no reason whatsoever to think that Roadmap is any better than any other coursebook. 

Pearson spends millions of dollars on promotional, carefully crafted commercial bullshit aimed at maximising sales and profit with scant regard for the truth or for educational values. The criticisms made of coursebook-driven ELT apply just as forcefully to this series as to previous ones. The only difference is the way it ‘s been produced. 

Everybody involved in making this series is demeaned. Once the project – Roadmap – is given the green light, some high-up executive in Pearson is put in charge and a “team” is formed.  All the work is cut up and dished out to people – most of them working on zero hour contracts so as to minimise costs. Everybody works within the strict, suffocating framework of Pearson’s over-arching GSE framework. Everything they write is strictly scrutinised and revised to make sure that all texts and exercises use words and structures in line with the finely granulated, innumerable steps all students must take to ensure “real progress” in Pearson’s frightening world. It’s a badly paid, miserable, life-sucking nightmare. Still, somebody’s got to do it, right? 

In its huge publicity campaign, Pearson is paying for authors to fly to different countries to promote the series. The authors,  dubious stars in the ELT firmament who know next to nothing about language learning, must agree to do whatever their paymasters dictate, and they’ll soon appear in promotional videos, standing in front of iconic landmarks like the sublime clock in Prague, ironically clutching a hopeless Roadmap, mouthing pointless platitudes which, in the vision of some coked-up marketing guru, prove that Roadmap is the latest must-have coursebook, regardless of the fact that it consists of an overpriced collection of dud materials leading students up a dystopian garden path to nowhere.     

Pearson claims that the Roadmap series is unique because Every class is different, every learner is unique. This is, quite simply, bullshit: an empty load of marketing nonsense. Nothing substantial justifies this vaulted claim: the same old crap is delivered in the same old way, the only difference being that skills development is marginally separated. The Roadmap series is the result of a manager delivering a corporate vision: lock-step progression in pseudo-scientifically measured steps towards a reified, mistaken, commodified version of language proficiency. Look at the sample units and weep. Roadmap is Pearson’s version of  Colgate’s “everything’s-new-but-in-fact-nothing’s changed” toothpaste – the latest attempt to package and sell a useless product to a gullible public who, were they better informed, would reject it as the preposterous crap that it is.  

Two of the eight acredited authors of the Roadmap series are also the co-authors of the Outcomes series. Strangely, Andrew Walkley, one of versatile duo, has recently been explaining how the new edition of Outlooks Beginner is a “different kind of Beginner-level book”. It’s not just based on Lewis’ lexical approach, with all the criticisms of grammar-based coursebooks that this implies, it also uses a “spiral syllabus” which, Walkley confidently claims, re-cycles material far more efficiently than the rest. Such are the conflicting claims made for the two coursebook series that one wonders how the same authors can put their names to both of them. Should a coursebook be made up of 10 units containing “three core lessons featuring grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation”, or should it, as Walkley suggests, reject “having one block followed by another block” in favour of teaching “a little about form A, followed by a little bit on form B (perhaps whilst also re-using what we learned about form A), followed by a little on form C (perhaps recycling something of A and/or B), before we return to study something more about form A, etc.”? It reminds me of Groucho Marx’s quip “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others”.

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Imagine

Below is the final bit of a post I wrote when I first read Long’s 2015 book SLA and TBLT.  Nearly 4 years later, I’m half way through an on-line course for teachers about Long’s version of TBLT, and I think there are signs, however tentative they might be, that we’re making progress.   

………..

Let me emphasise what Long says about the dividends you get from undertaking his kind of TBLT. Yes, it involves “some front-end heavy lifting”, but it’s worth it – it pays big dividends, and the needs analysis & materials production doesn’t have to be re-done every time a course is offered. The more you look at it, the more feasible Long’s approach is. There’s a great deal of work done already, and the “front end” bit is such a worthwhile investment in high quality ELT that it seems to me to be an irresistible argument. I reckon that producing a TBLT syllabus of the kind Long proposes for local use could be done with an investment of around 200 hours of teachers’ time.

Imagine what would happen if the resources currently dedicated to producing and promoting coursebooks were devoted to producing and promoting Long’s TBLT.  Millions of dollars are currently spent on producing and promoting a single series of coursebooks of the sort Pearson manufactures, and that series is then used by teachers all over the world in a one-size-fits-all, grammar-based, PPP approach that we know is hopelessly inefficient. Not just inefficient, but an insult to our teaching profession. Coursebook-driven ELT robs us of our trade, shackles us, restricts us, suffocates us. We can’t do our job properly and our students suffer the consequences. It’s as if our training does no more than help us to use a crutch, the coursebook, that we never throw away and so we never get truly healthy and free. We work like cripples, hobbling around in a confined space, using all our ingenuity to circumvent as best we can the oppressive rules we’re forced to teach by, and we never actually do the job as well as we’re capable of.

Nobody in the ELT establishment has offered a good defence of coursebook-driven ELT; they all fall back on arguments of “convenience” and “flexibility” that do nothing to respond to the rational, evidence-based arguments put forward by Long and others against coursebooks. The argument in favour of coursebooks is the same argument that Ragnar Redbeard (a wonderfully invented pseudonym) suggested in Might is Right: power wins over moral right. To put it another way, it’s a fait accompli, a done deal, just the way things are. 

How much better it would be if the resources currently spent on making and promoting coursebooks were spent on designing the type of course that Long so persuasively and meticulously describes!  Imagine if the hundreds of millions of dollars currently spent on coursebook-driven ELT were spent differently; if Pearson invested in helping local ELT schools all over the world to offer locally produced courses that met local needs; if they made their business helping to identify target tasks, collecting and analysing genuine samples of target discourse, and producing materials to support the pedagogical tasks that flow from them; if they supported locally trained teachers with local, national and international events that helped them to better take charge of their own courses. Imagine Joe, a bright-eyed, young go-getter executive in Pearson suggesting this business plan to the board. When the inevitable question “How much would profits suffer, Joe?” comes up, he answers “They’re already suffering! How much longer are we going to produce dud materials for TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason)?”  

Imagine:

  • The British Council is stripped of its privileged position in the commercial market and its mission in TEFL becomes to lead real change and innovation. 
  • Cambridge Assessment scraps CELTA and appoints Glenn Fulcher as its CEO. 
  • Frank and open criticism of the ELT establishment is encouraged.
  • The cosy culture of “Using Cereals Packets to make your own Flash Cards” is replaced by a culture of critical pedagogy.
  • IATEFL and TESOL scrap the Exhibitors Hall at their conferences. 
  • ELT publishers stop producing coursebooks.

The whole edifice of the ELT industry comes crashing down, leaving the way free for something better. Something local, vibrant, relevant, learner-centred, and EFFICIENT. For this to happen we need a groundswell of local action, and a change of heart and mind. We really must take Long’s principled, practical, proven approach more seriously. It’s by far the best way I’ve seen to rescue ELT from the hopeless state it’s in, and it could lead to a situation in ELT where teachers, as Long says, “match the expectations we have that purveyors of services (physicians, lawyers, nurses, architects, engineers, etc.) will provide what we need, and not simply dish out the same product to everyone”.

We hide behind so many well-rehearsed excuses: It’s too complicated; I’m too busy; They’re too busy; My boss won’t let me, The students wouldn’t like it; It’s not so bad – I like order, you like order, we all like order. Etc., etc.,; we take what we mistakenly see as the easy way out and so on it goes. The establishment figures of ELT who block up the hall and just won’t get out of the way spin the same familiar message, the one they’ve been trotting out for 30 years now, that coursebook-driven ELT is just fine and dandy. Well, it isn’t. And there is now, thanks to Long’s evolving work, a splendid alternative. The times they are a changing.

 

Long’s References list.

Auerbach, E. R., & Burgess, D. (1985). The hidden curriculum of survival ESL. TESOL Quarterly 19, 3, 475-495.

Bartlett, N. D. (2005). A double shot 2% mocha latte, please, with whip: Service encounters in two coffee shops and at a coffee cart. In Long, M. H. (ed.), Second language needs analysis (pp. 305-343). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cathcart, R. L. (1989). Authentic English and the survival English curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 23, 1, 105-126.

Granena, G. (2008). Elaboration and simplification in scripted and genuine telephone service encounters. International Review of Applied Linguistics 46, 2, 137-166.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-based Language Teaching. London, Wiley. 

Serafini, E. J., Lake, J. B., & Long, M. H. (2015). Methodological improvements in identifying specialized learner needs. English for Specific Purposes 40, 11-26.

Russ Mayne’s Review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed

This is an abridged version of my previous post. 

In his review of Friere’s  “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in EFL Magazine, Mayne gives 4 criteria for assessing what he calls “education themed books”

  1. Interesting and original ideas
  2. Information about research into teaching
  3. Clear, well written prose
  4. Brevity

He goes on:

The first thing I noticed about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was that it is entirely conjecture. …. the entire work is a collection of one man’s opinions about teaching with a few nods to famous political and intellectual figures. Freire does not present educational research nor talk about the research of others.

Mayne fails to appreciate that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not about empirical research; rather, it’s about how education should be organised in society. Thus it belongs in the realm of political philosophy, along with books on liberal education by Godwin, Kropotkin, Dewey, Russell, Illich and Goodman, for example. These classics don’t discuss reports of studies giving empirical evidence to support this or that hypothesis, they discuss the educational practices which recommend themselves as a result of an examination of philosophical questions, political principles, and ethical values.

At one point, Mayne seems to appreciate this when he says: 

it is perhaps more accurate to describe the book as a political text which discusses pedagogy than a pedagogical text which discusses politics.

I agree. The consequence is that Mayne is judging it by the wrong criteria and that his characteristic concern for “evidence” is misplaced.  When he says

…  Freire’s ideas about revolution are as evidence free as his ideas about education. Thus when he states “the earlier dialogue begins, the more truly revolutionary will the movement be” is nowhere supported by data,   

he’s applying the wrong yardstick – such statements should not be judged by the amount of supporting data offered in support of them. 

In his final section “Marxism”, Mayne says: 

Freire makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Marx …  the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’.

He continues, relying on Singer (2018) Marx: A very short introduction,

Marx’s history was Hegelian rather than scientific. He saw it moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The ‘end of history’ was communism. Marx ‘scientifically’ foretold it and Freire’s pedagogy is intend as the midwife of the final revolution.

As a matter of fact, Marx’s history was not Hegelian, and he didn’t see it as moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The communism Marx spoke of had nothing in common with Lenin’s, and Marx did not scientifically foretell the end of history. And I can’t recall Freire claiming that his pedagogy was intended as the midwife of the final revolution. Still, some of Mayne’s criticism is surely right. For example, in my opinion, Mayne is right to criticise Freire for not condemning leaders like Lenin, Guevara and Mao Zedong for atrocities which were carried out on their orders; the book suffers from the over-use of Trotskyist jargon; and Freire took too deterministic a view of how the contradictions of capitalism would unfold.

Nevertheless, Mayne’s review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed makes no attempt to summarise its main points or to give any fair or balanced assessment of it. Freire himself was not doctrinaire, or the kind of bigoted zealot Mayne’s remarks imply. He was deeply religious and deeply committed to his literacy projects. His book has been an inspiration to teachers working in some of the poorest parts of the world who have taken up Freire’s call for an approach to education which engages with those who have been marginalized and dehumanized by oppressive regimes. His banking metaphor of education is powerful precisely because banking is so closely associated with capitalism. 

To return to Mayne’s complaint that 

the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’, 

Freire was indeed trying to make those who he saw as oppressed aware of their situation, and he certainly hoped that they would act to change it, and this is Freire’s main – very considerable – contribution. Before the 1964 coup, Freire did a great deal in his literacy programme to improve the education of millions of the poorest people in Brazil.  Furthermore, Freire’s work has inspired hundreds of thousands of teachers world wide to take a liberal approach to education, and has contributed to the critique of mainstream education in advanced capitalist countries.

Mayne’s review makes too little effort to appreciate where Freire’s work is coming from, or to recognise Freire’s contribution to discussions about the philosophy of education and its political ramifications.    

References 

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. NY, MacMillan.

Godwin, W. (1793) An enquiry concerning social justice. 

Goodman, P. (1966) Compulsory Miseducation. NY, Random house.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. Penguin.

Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid. London, Freedom Press.

Russell, B. (1924) On Education. London: Allen & Unwin.

Plodding Through the Mire with Mayne 

Russ Mayne’s latest publication is an article in EFL Magazine about Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.

Mayne starts by telling us

Not knowing anything about Freire or Critical Pedagogy, I decided to read the book which has, according to the cover, sold millions of copies.

After that lucid explanation of his decision to read the book, Mayne continues:

When I read education themed books there are generally four things I hope to find:

  1. Interesting and original ideas
  2. Information about research into teaching
  3. Clear, well written prose
  4. Brevity

A book doesn’t have to meet all of these criteria to be good but meeting one or two would certainly be a good sign.

Yes, well, expecting a book to meet all 4 criteria is perhaps expecting too much, especially if you write prose like Mayne’s. He goes on:

The first thing I noticed about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was that it is entirely conjecture. As someone who places a lot of importance on research to inform my teaching practice I was somewhat alarmed to realise that the entire work is a collection of one man’s opinions about teaching with a few nods to famous political and intellectual figures. Freire does not present educational research nor talk about the research of others.

If you’re someone who places a lot of importance on research to inform your teaching practice, it would be reasonable to be “somewhat alarmed” at what you read in Freire’s book if and only if you were entirely ignorant of the genre to which the book belongs. Criticising Freire for not presenting educational research and talking about the research of others is like criticising Marx and Engels for not giving more precise information about the length, width and composition of the chains they refer to in their manifesto. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not about empirical research, it’s about politics. From Socrates on, philosophers and educationalists have written books like Freire’s, and while they could, I suppose, be clumsily described as “education themed books”, they’re not therefore obliged to enter into discussions of educational research. Books by Godwin, Kropotkin, Dewey, Russell, Illich and Goodman are a few examples of classics in the field of liberal education, where reports of studies giving empirical evidence to support this or that hypothesis are hard to find, but which nevertheless make valuable contributions to our understanding of education.

Mayne tries to apply his crude criterion of “evidence” where quite different criteria are called for. When reading Freire’s text, we have to appreciate that we’re in the field of political philosophy, where abstract constructs are used, political principles are avowed, and value judgements abound. Mayne actually gets warm when, at one point, he says (contemptuously)

Freire’s writing is more poetic than analytical

and towards the end he actually nails it – even though he seems to think he’s adroitly putting another nail in Friere’s coffin:

it is perhaps more accurate to describe the book as a political text which discusses pedagogy than a pedagogical text which discusses politics.  

Bingo! That’s a very good description of the book. We might all sympathise with the view that Freire’s prose sometimes suffers from an overdose of French and German philosophical terminology, but the terminology goes with the territory, so to speak. If you want to understand 20th century (political) philosophy, just as if you want to understand Chomsky’s theory of UG, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, you have to get to grips with the constructs and terms most commonly used. Freire leans quite a lot on the earlier, more philosophical, writings of Marx, and it’s essential to have a minimum grasp of his theory of dialectical materialism and terms like praxis if you want to appreciate Freire’s argument.

One of the quotes Mayne uses to illustrate what he sees as Freire’s “mysticism” is a good example

Education is thus constantly remade in the praxis. In order to be, it must become. 

Such a statement is not best understood as mystical, but rather the opposite. It’s an expression of the philosophical notion of praxis. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx “turns Hegel on his head” and describes praxis as understanding the world by acting in the world in order to change it. He dismisses the search for absolute truth and replaces it with action involving both thinking about and changing the world. Whether or not one accepts such an epistemological position (and I certainly don’t) is not the point here – the point is that Mayne’s criticism is based on misconstruing Freire’s argument and expecting it to conform with his own narrow view of what “education themed books” should be like.

Mayne’s review is shot through with the clumsy use of the same wholly inappropriate litmus test: evidence. At one point he says:

(As an aside Freire’s ideas about revolution are as evidence free as his ideas about education. Thus when he states “the earlier dialogue begins, the more truly revolutionary will the movement be” is nowhere supported by data.)  

What a way to read a book on the philosophy of education!

But Mayne saves the worst for last. In the final section on “Marxism”, Mayne says

Freire makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Marx …  the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’.

Mayne continues, reliably informed by Singer (2018) Marx: A very short introduction,

Marx’s history was Hegelian rather than scientific. He saw it moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The ‘end of history’ was communism. Marx ‘scientifically’ foretold it and Freire’s pedagogy is intend as the midwife of the final revolution.

Well Marx’s history was not Hegelian, and he didn’t see it as moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The communism Marx spoke of had nothing in common with Lenin’s, and Marx did not scientifically foretell the end of history. And I can’t recall Freire claiming that his pedagogy was intended as the midwife of the final revolution, either. But still, there’s a good argument in there somewhere, if only Mayne were able to make it while respecting what Marx, Hegel and Freire actually said. It’s certainly a good idea to challenge books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the time has obviously come when it becomes so iconic that people like JJ Wilson start referring to it at an IATEFL plenary. What’s more, Freire was wrong about a lot of things, including, as Mayne says, failing to condemn psychopaths like Lenin, Guevara and Mao Zedong who committed atrocities in the crazed belief that they were defending the revolution. Freire frequently contradicted himself and he took too deterministic a view of how the contradictions of capitalism would unfold.

Nevertheless, Mayne’s review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed makes no attempt to summarise its main points or to give any fair or balanced assessment of it. Freire himself was not doctrinaire, or the kind of bigoted zealot Mayne’s remarks imply. He was deeply religious and deeply committed to his literacy projects. His book has been an inspiration to teachers working in some of the poorest parts of the world who have taken up Freire’s call for an approach to education which engages with those who have been marginalized and dehumanized by oppressive regimes. His banking metaphor of education (and yes, Mayne, of course it’s a bloody metaphor) is powerful precisely because banking is so closely associated with capitalism, and nothing in Mayne’s confused remarks comes close to a coherent argument against Freire’s view.

To return to Mayne’s claim that

the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’, 

Freire was indeed trying to make those who he saw as oppressed aware of their situation, and he certainly hoped that they would act to change it. We may ask: What’s Mayne trying to do? When he suggests that Freire’s text is revolutionary propaganda, an attempt at brain washing, a betrayal of the quest for truth, he shows no awareness of the ideological baggage attached to his own prose. “Teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions” sounds very like the language Thatcher used when she was Minister For Education in the UK. Too often these demands for independent thinkers to come to their own conclusions are used to support neoliberal, individualistic, everybody-for-themselves values, where Freire’s concerns for social justice are coldly ignored.

By all means let’s scrutinise Freire’s work and challenge its iconic status. But let’s do it with intellectual honesty and rigour.

References 

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. NY, MacMillan.

Godwin, W. (1793) An enquiry concerning social justice. 

Goodman, P. (1966) Compulsory Miseducation. NY, Random house.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. Penguin.

Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid. London, Freedom Press.

Marx, K. (1843) Theses on Feuerbach Available here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm

Russell, B. (1924) On Education. London: Allen & Unwin.

Living in a glass house

A few days ago, Silvana Richardson tweeted

Strong words from Ms. Richardson. But is she in a position to throw such stones? Below are some extracts from her IATEFL 2016 conference plenary. My comments follow the ***s. 

Most SLA researchers assume that Native Speakers make the best teachers.  *** False.

Most SLA researchers view the L1 as “an obstacle”. *** False.

 Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar supports Native Speakerism, is ideologically biased, and has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs.

*** False. In Chomsky’s theory of UG, the term “native speaker” is used to refer to an “ideal” speaker; it’s a construct used in a very carefully-defined domain. Richardson seems unable to distinguish between a theory of linguistic competence and ethnographic studies of language use, where the term “native speaker” is often used to unjustly discriminate against a certain group of teachers. It’s quite common to find Chomsky’s theory so airily misrepresented, but, given his record of fighting social injustice, it’s surely ironic to hear Richardson accuse Chomsky of ideological bias.

Task-based language teaching and the lexical approach thrust a monolingual approach upon the world.  

*** False.  What unites the very different views of proponents of TBLT and Lexical approaches, such as the Willises,  Long,  Nunan, Ellis, Skehan (TBLT), and Walkley & Dellar (Lexical Approach), is their commitment to the fight for equal rights for NNESTs.

If you look at theories of SLA, you find yourself in a dark, narrow, confined cognitivist theoretical space which results in a narrow approach to teaching, learning and teacher education, and to native speakerism, monolingualism and monoculturalism. 

*** False. This  sweeping, unwarranted assertion shows little understanding of SLA research or of the people who do it. For a start, Richardson supports her own views by citing the work of Vivian Cook and Guy Cook, and then, twenty minutes later, she accuses both men of shunning the light. But it’s worse than that – the people Richardson portray working in a nasty, dark tunnel include her heroes! She seems not to appreciate that under the wide umbrella of cognitivists stand the emergentists, including, of course, the wonderful Diane Larsen-Freeman and Scott Thornbury. In fact, cognitivists include academics as diverse as Krashen, Pienemann, Gass, Towell, Hawkins, Doughty, Long, Skehan, Robinson, Pica, Schmidt, White, R. Ellis, Mackay, Brown, Bygate, Chaudron, Foster, Lightbown, Spada, Tomasello, MacWhinney, and Nick Ellis, to name but a few. Richardson’s remarks really don’t bear examination.      

A paradigm shift from “SLA” to “Plurilingual Development” will usher in a new world of ELT practice where NNESTs are no longer discriminated against. 

*** False. Blissfully unaware of her confusion, Richardson steps further into the mire by attributing ideological positions to two  groups inside the cognitivist camp. On one side are those she refers to as “the “cognitivists”. These are the baddies, portrayed as conservative reactionaries doggedly protecting the status quo. On the other side are the emergentists, including Larsen-Freeman. These are the goodies, the liberal vanguard, fighting to bring about the paradigm shift to “Plurilingual Development”.  Two points need making.

First, the most cursory examination of the ideological views of members of the two groups will quickly show that their views on education, social inclusion and politics don’t depend on what explanation of second language learning they favour. Some of the most radical political views are held by those who staunchly defend a generativist theory – including Chomsky himself, of course. The moral high ground doesn’t belong exclusively to those who believe that language learning is best explained by appeal to some elementary version of the power law of practice processing frequently occurring exemplars encountered in the input (sorry, in the affordances).     

Second, there is the question of the relative academic merits of these two groups. A quick way to judge is to watch Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 plenary and then to read as much as you can bear of Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) Complex systems and applied linguistics. I think it’s fair to say that the obscurantist writing and the lack of clarity are notable. and that those familiar with the topics dealt with will also notice the poor standards of scholarship and argumentation displayed. In contrast, if you read Topics 7 and 8 in Cook and Singleton (2014) Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition, I think it’s fair to say that the writing is clear and the scholarship exemplary.    

Apart from regular appearances in the Cambridge English Teacher, a now defunct, promotional arm of Cambridge Assessment English, I can find no published work by Richardson in any applied linguistics or  ELT journal. Richardson rebukes conference organisers and teaching associations for giving under-informed speakers a platform to spread half-baked ideas. Yet she herself continues to use the biggest platforms at the biggest conference to deliver ill-informed and poorly judged opinions on SLA research.  Mind the glass. 

Coursebooks: A Recap

In the light of two threads which I took part in on Twitter yesterday, I’d like to quickly re-cap my position on coursebooks.

In a number of posts, I’ve argued that coursebooks should be replaced by analytic syllabuses, for the following reasons:

1 Using a coursebook means that a lot of classroom time is devoted to talking about the L2 as an object. However, if communicative competence is the goal, better results can be obtained by devoting classroom time to students talking in the L2 about matters that are relevant to their needs. This, like the other reasons below, is based on a consideration of efficaciousness: coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious – the results are better if you emphasise learning by doing.

2 Presenting and practicing a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation, grammar, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) contradicts research findings about how people learn an L2.  Teaching via PPP doesn’t ensure that what is presented and practiced will be available to the learner for future spontaneous use. Furthermore, the assumption that the best  approach to ELT is to teach linguistic forms first, and then practice them might seem like common sense, but actually, it’s putting the cart before the horse.  As Hatch (1978) so famously said:

“Language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed”.

3 The cutting up of language into manageable pieces usually results in impoverished input and output opportunities. Short “safe” texts are too frequently used with display questions to produce poor quality Initiation –> Response –> Feedback exchanges (e.g.:  Where’s Paris?” -> It’s in France -> Good) between teacher and students.

4 Results are poor. It’s hard to get reliable data on this, but evidence strongly suggests that most students who do coursebook-driven courses do not achieve the level of proficiency they expected.

Defenders of coursebooks argue that all coursebooks can’t be lumped together in the same bag. I accept that some coursebooks don’t follow the synthetic syllabus I describe, but these are the exceptions. The coursebooks I’ve reviewed along the years belong to the same set: best-selling General English coursebooks, versions of which are sold all over the world. They all use a synthetic syllabus and they all make the same fundamentally mistaken assumptions about how people learn an L2. To accuse me, as someone did on Twitter yesterday, of making “an obvious and unhelpful over-generalisation” is mere hand waving, and to say, as he also did, that I fail to support my arguments with detailed reviews of coursebooks is quite simply false.

It’s also said that coursebooks are OK, the problem is that teachers use them too slavishly. But coursebooks are not OK: their job is to help teachers to implement a synthetic, usually grammar-driven syllabus, where bits of language are first presented and then practiced in a sequence going from the first to the last Unit of the book. The coursebook says Do this and then do that. It says: Present this bit of language using these texts and diagrams, and then practice it by doing these activities.

And that’s what millions (sic) of teachers do. Depending on a number of factors such as teaching experience and the attitude of the boss, teachers may skip some pages of the book, or change the order in which activities are done, or use some additional material, or do activities that are “off piste”. They may, that is, bend the rules a little, or quite a lot, but they’re still letting the coursebook guide the course. If they seriously depart from the prescribed PPP treatments of the designated bits of the L2, then they stop using the coursebook for its designed purpose.

On Twitter yesterday, Tim Hampson and Rob Sheppard say that they just take a few of their favorite things from a collection of  coursebooks, treating them like a materials bank. If this is really what they do, then they no longer implement the syllabus of any given coursebook and they have to answer the question: “What syllabus have you put in its place?” If they dedicate most classroom time to scaffolding students’ engagement in relevant communicative activities, then they have effectively abandoned the coursebook and put an ad hoc, learner-centred, analytic syllabus in its place.

In other posts, I’ve replied to those who say there are no practical alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT. I’ve discussed alternatives such as Dogme, immersion courses, Breen’s process syllabus, CLIL, some ESP and EAP courses, and, most of all TBLT. I’ve spent some time describing and discussing different versions of TBLT and supporting my opinion that Long’s version, as described in his 2015 book SLA and TBLT, is the best. I think that Long’s TBLT is highly recommended for those teachers who are doing many kinds of in-company courses, or who have private clients, or who are doing special needs courses, or who have the chance to design courses for a group of learners.

But I recognise that lots of teachers can’t chuck the coursebook in the bin just yet. At the moment, I’m doing a course with teachers where, among other things, we’re exploring ways in which those who find themselves using coursebooks because that’s what they’re told to do by their bosses can “loosen the grip” of the coursebook and slowly work towards a more learner-centred, TBLT approach.

P.S. I pursue a few of these points in more detail in the post: Why Teach Grammar

Notes on Thornbury’s Performance Approach to Language Learning

Scott Thornbury recently gave a talk called “Towards a performance-based approach to language learning”, which was skillfully summarised by Jessica Mackay. I base my notes on her summary and I recommend that you click on this link to see Jessica’s summary.

Performance as usage

Thornbury suggests that Chomsky’s focus on linguistic competence should be replaced by a focus on language performance.

Note 1.

This is well-trodden ground for Thornbury, but in this talk he doesn’t go over the ground in any detail. He makes do with the bulldog, bulldog bullldog .. example to stress how locked up in an ivory tower Chomsky is, and contrasts it with examples of what people actually say. This appeal to common sense and to how common people speak doesn’t last long – by the time Thornbury gets to the end of his talk he’s visited a succession of obscurantist works, starting with Malinowski’s special take on functionalism, through Goffman’s symbolic-interaction perspective, or dramaturgical analysis, Judith Bulter’s gender performativity and geneological feminism, Deborah Cameron’s neoliberal feminism, ending up in la la land with Lapaire, Holmes, and research into embodied cognition.

Getting off to a brisk start, Thornbury once again dodges the question of how children’s demonstrated knowledge of language can be explained by those like him who adopt a usage based, emergentist view of language learning. Recall that, years ago, in his discussion of Chomsky in P is for Poverty of the Stimulus , Thornbury answered the question thus:

The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized. General learning processes explain the rest.

If Thornbury wants to follow Nick Ellis in adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology, he needs to pay more serious attention to these questions:

  • How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate?
  • How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure?
  • How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero) including knowledge of what is not possible ? (Eubank and Gregg, 2002: 2).

And yet, he never has given any coherent answer to these questions, nor has he presented  his own usage-based theory of language learning. To read my comments on Thornbury’s attempts to explain his view of language learning, please see the post The Works of Scott Thornbury: Part 1 

 

Next, Thornbury invokes Halliday’s (1978: 38) suggestion that

‘Instead of rejecting what is messy, we accept the mess and build it into the theory’.

And follows with Hopper’s (1998: 166-167) observations that

language is akin to a collage, improvised from a collection of ready-made elements, and the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules.

Note 2

Thornbury doesn’t discuss the theory that Halliday built from studying messy performance data, or do more than repeat Hopper’s suggestion that language is akin to a collage. While Halliday’s systemic functional grammar certainly looks at the performance data, I doubt that Halliday would sign up to the the view which Thornbury’s trying to articulate in this talk.

As for the Hopper quote, accepting the assertion that the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules depends on accepting a usage-based theory of language learning. Instead of arguing the case for such a theory, Thornbury gives a quote as if it argues his case for him.

Next, Thornbury recommends seeing language as “accumulated by the process of repeated performance”. As an example, Scott showed the incomplete phrase:

“You must be ……….ing!”

While most expert users of English would give the complete sentence as “You must be joking”, a search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that the most frequent verb appearing in this structure is doing.

Note 3

What does it mean to say that language should be seen as “accumulated by the process of repeated performance?” Supposing that it makes sense, what reasons are there to suppport it? Is the example supposed to serve as evidence supporting this view?  Surely “You must be doing!” isn’t as frequently found in the COCA corpus as “You must be joking!”, is it? And anyway, how does this support Thornbury’s assertion that language is accumulated by the process of repeated performance? If the instinct of native speakers is to expect the missing word to be “joking”, and it turns out that we’re all wrong, what follows?

Finally, we get to the nitty gritty: Thornbury makes the big statement: humans are primed to look for and identify patterns in the mess of language performance data which they’re exposed to, and therefore, learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences” (N. Ellis, 1997).

Note 4

I’ve commented on Thornbury’s attempts to use usage based language learning theories in other posts (see The Works of Scott Thornbury cited above, or What good is relativism? for example), but since here he endorses Nick Ellis’ view of grammar learning, we might pause to look at other things he’s said on the matter. His “Slow release grammar” piece might be seen as an attempt to follow Ellis. He says:

If we generalize the findings beyond the single word level to constructions and then generalize from constructions to grammar, then hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

Elaborating on this, Thornbury explains that lexical chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Thus, language emerges as “grammar for free”.

How does this square with some of Thornbury’s other publications? Look at his CELTA books, or Grammar Practice Activities, for example, where a much more traditional view seems to be adopted. Then there’s his book Natural Grammar, which is in a class of its own. Does Thornbury’s increasing commitment to alternative views of grammar imply a further turn? Given that language is accumulated by the process of repeated performance, will he now recommend Hoey’s view (there’s no such thing as grammar), or some version of Construction Grammar, or perhaps Dellar’s view of “Bottom-up grammar”?

Back to the talk. Thornbury concludes the section with this:

What does it mean? Is it meaningful? Is it a legitimate inference? How can we decide if the state of affairs described in the antecedent (language is learned for worldly use) is a sufficient condition on the circumstance described in the consequent (the learning process must be use-based)? What are the constraints on “worldy use”? How can we test whether language is learned for wordly use? What might an unworldly use look like?

This is, of course, the kind of language that those trying to develop a sociocognitive view, or a sociocultural approach, or a complexity theory approach, or an identity approach, or a language socialization approach, or an embodied cognition approach, like to use. It’s not exactly a good example of the messy stuff of “performance language”, the sort of thing normal folk walk around saying to each other, now is it? Which raises the question of its existential, embodied status. What if it fails to make it into the COCA corpus? Does the fact that Thornbury’s said it once, and that there’s every chance he’ll say it again, improve its chances? Will it finally become a pattern that our children will be primed for?

Next time:

1. The Malinowski challenge

Thornbury introduces his Performance as embodiment section with the following quote from Malinowski:

“Ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience.”

  • Can you think of a word that might challenge this assertion? “Bollocks” obviously won’t do, but how about “tree” or “cat”?
  • For Malinowski all meaning is “occasional meaning”. Can you see any problems with that view? Does it, perhaps ignore the fact that occasional meaning can only be understood within the limits defined by the usual meaning of a word?
  • Do you agree with Malinowsky’s peculiar functionalist view of language? Is there any problem with equating language  with function? If the same result can be got from different verbal utterances that don’t mean the same thing; and the same expression with a single meaning can produce different results, might Malinowsky have taken things just a bit too far?

2. The Lapaire Tapes

What support from research into embodied cognition do you think Lapaire gets from this quote from Holme (2009: 53):

The body can be rethought as the expressive instrument of the language that must be taught.?

Does the quote help you to understand what Lapaire is doing in the video clip? Do you think you can use a similar approach in your teaching?