HI,

3

This blog is dedicated to criticism. It offers

  1. Critical suggestions and resources for those doing post graduate courses in teaching English as a foreign language.
  2. A critical appraisal of what’s happening in the world of English Language Teaching.

The commercialisation of the ELT industry (estimated to be worth more than $20 billion) and the corresponding weakening of genuinely educational concerns, means that today most teachers are forced to teach in a way that shows scant regard for their worth, their training, their opinions, their job satisfaction, or the use of appropriate methods and materials. The biggest single reason for this sorry state of affairs, and the biggest single obstacle to good ELT, is the coursebook.

Using a coursebook entails teachers leading students through successive units of a book. Each unit of the book concentrates on a certain topic where isolated bits of grammar and vocabulary are dealt with, on the assumption that students will learn them in the order that they’re presented. Such an approach to ELT flies in the face of research which suggest that SLA is a process whereby the learner’s interlanguage (a dynamic, idiosyncratic, evolving linguistic system approximating to the target language) develops as a result of communicating in the target language, and is impervious to attempts to impose the sequences found in coursebooks.

The publishing companies that produce coursebooks spend enormous sums of money on marketing, aimed at persuading stakeholders that coursebooks represent the best practical way to manage ELT. As an example, key  players in the British ELT establishment, the British Council, the Cambridge Examination Boards, the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA teacher training bodies among them, accept the coursebook as central to ELT practice. Worse still, TESOL and IATEFL, bodies that are supposed to represent teachers’ interests, have also succumbed to the influence of the big publishers, as their annual conferences make clear. So the coursebook rules, at the expense of teachers, of good educational practice, and of language learners.

By critically assessing the published views of those in the ELT establishment who promote coursebook-driven ELT, this blog hopes to lend support to those who fight for a less commercial, less centralised, more egalitarian, more learner-centred approach to ELT.

Guest Post: Ljiljana Havran Reflects on Learning English as an L2

A few days ago, in reply to a comment by Aleksandray Grabowska, I invited bloggers for whom English is an L2 to tell us how they learned English. Today, I’m delighted to introduce Ljiljana Havran, the first to respond to the challenge (to be followed soon, I hope, by Aleksandray and others).

Ljiljana has an MA from the University of Belgrade and has been teaching General and Aviation English at the Aviation Academy in Belgrade for the last 18 years. She has a great blog,  Ljiljana Havran’s Blog: My English language teaching & learning adventure, where she combines excellent practical advice and teaching tips with critically acute, progressive views of ELT.  Apart from sharing many views on ELT, Ljiljana and I also like the same poets, jazz bands, parts of the UK and Belgrade pastry shops.

Over to Ljiljana.

It is my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post is inspired by Geoff’s recent posts on explicit and implicit learning and knowledge. My main aim is to reflect on my L2 learning experience, especially in relation to the role of explicit and implicit learning. I want also to support the claim that implicit learning is the default mode in second language acquisition and that therefore the use of a synthetic syllabus and a PPP methodology is very inefficient in instructed SLA.

My L2 Learning Experience

Dorset Jurassic coast @elt_pics used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license 

I started learning English in primary school when I was ten years old. In my primary and secondary school we would often listen to the teacher read a text from the textbook, and then after reading the text we would be called on (one at a time) to read several sentences. After we had finished reading we were asked to translate the text into Serbian. The teacher helped us with new vocabulary items by writing the meaning of the words on the board, in Serbian.  Afterwards, we would do reading comprehension questions in our textbooks: one by one each student would read a question and then give his/her response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would ask another student to provide the correct answer, or the teacher her/himself gave the right answer. There was a lot of “chalk and talk” in classes, and a lot of L1 use, especially while doing grammar exercises and preparing for tests.

My secondary (grammar) school teacher struck me as special because of his teacher personality: he was well educated, more proficient in English and excellent at encouraging a friendly, relaxed learning environment. His grammar explanations were short and to the point, he often used synonyms and explanations in L2 while teaching vocabulary, and his pronunciation was very clear and correct. We revised grammar structures and vocabulary by doing grammar drills, re-telling the paragraphs of the literary excerpts in the textbook, and we practised translating (isolated) sentences from L1 into L2 while preparing for tests.

During my primary and secondary education my English classes were very teacher-centred (grammar-translation method was a common method in our schools). We used textbooks (with literary excerpts and grammar exercises out of context), based on a linear model of language acquisition which operates on the premise that learners acquire one target language item at a time, in a sequential, step-by-step fashion. This implies concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study. Thus after the eight years of learning L2 I was better at doing grammar tests and translating some (abridged) literary excerpts (intermediate level) than using English in everyday situations; I could not understand the TV programmes or the films with standard dialect.

Before enrolling at the Belgrade Faculty of Philology (English and Italian language and literature), I went to Brighton on a summer course for exchange students. I spent a month with a local family, immersed in the English culture and language. I enjoyed listening to beautiful English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught in Serbia). A communicative language teaching approach was used by the teachers during the summer course: a lot of interesting listening and speaking activities, role plays and games, chatting with English teachers and foreign students at school and during our school trips and parties, were really refreshing and an invaluable experience for me. English use in everyday situations rapidly broke down my inhibitions; I became more confident and truly motivated to improve my language skills and be more fluent in English.

Moving from the intermediate to an upper-intermediate and advanced level of language proficiency required years and years of work and effort. After graduating from the University of Belgrade, when I started teaching English to secondary school students, I was much more confident about the language theory (particularly grammar) than my language skills.  I was genuinely interested in going to ELT seminars and conferences to improve my teaching techniques. Very soon I realized that I needed to improve my language proficiency level, too, if I wanted to use the CLT approach that I found more useful for my students. I had a strong desire then to sound more like a native English speaker. I found a very good native English teacher in Belgrade and really enjoyed the one-to-one classes for about a year. We negotiated the topics, I brought to classes some interesting texts/ newspaper articles, we discussed the English books he recommended, and some films I loved, etc. We focused especially on conversation in order to enrich my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation. I was well aware that having a native like competence meant speaking idiomatically and using frequent and familiar collocations and phrases, so my main goal was to learn and use automatically these familiar word sequences.

I succeeded in acquiring an advanced level of proficiency, and practising connected speech and intonation (the most challenging part of learning L2) helped me a lot to improve my listening. However, I got to grips with the fact that native like speech and intonation was an unattainable goal for me and, actually, completely unnecessary for my profession. I have been teaching English and ESP (Aviation English) for more than 20 years (my MA thesis was on ESP: Language-related Miscommunications and Misunderstandings in Pilot/Controller Communications). I created the aviation English syllabus in my school and wrote two Aviation English workbooks for 3rd and 4th year students, with my own materials used in the classroom.

During the last four years I have improved my writing through blogging. Since I don’t have the time to read SLA research I found Geoff Jordan’s blog very useful. I have got a lot of insights on learning L2 also through teaching English to teenagers and talking to them about teaching/ learning.The teenage (intermediate level) students who are fluent in English when asked to explain how they study the language, usually say that they have never studied it. This may sound strange to someone, but it is completely true. They have been immersed in English for years: watching Cartoon network and other popular English/American channels (films are not dubbed into Serbian!), listening to music on the YouTube channel, playing games and chatting with their foreign friends, reading e-books, and news articles. They have acquired fluency by being exposed to many Englishes (varieties/ dialects/accents) on a daily basis since they were very young.

This young generation of EFL learners has learned L2 without learning the grammar rules first (as my generation did). They find learning English from a coursebook boring and outdated because a lot of English is available online and outside the classroom. I strongly believe that EFL classes will be much more interesting and effective if teachers provide opportunities for students to use L2 communicatively and spontaneously. Students will be more motivated if their teachers devote most of the class time to negotiating meaning and meaningful tasks and only a small proportion of time to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary, and if they use mostly English in classes and react to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Against Walkley and Dellar’s Lexical Approach

Theories of Language 

1. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of language.  They talk about two opposing views. The first view, the “wrong” one, is that “language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.”  This is called the “grammar + words” view; it’s described  on page 9 of Teaching Lexically and subsequently referred to dozens of times throughout the book. The description is a derelict misrepresentation of grammar models of the English language such as those found in Quirk et.al. (1985), or Swan (2001), which describe the structure of English in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology.

2. The second view , the “right” one, is an attempt to summarise Hoey’s (2005) view that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form a sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. As Hoey himself  points out,

If this view of language is correct, if grammar and semantics are post-hoc effects of the way lexical items have been primed, … there is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical. All one can say is that a lexical item or items are used in a way not predicted by your priming…. everybody’s language is truly unique, in that all our lexical items are primed differently as a result of different encounters.

3. Few linguists or teachers accept such a view. Hoey argues that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax, but, while nobody these days denies the importance of lexical chunks, very few want to ignore the rules which guide the construction of novel, well formed sentences. After all, pace Hoey, people speaking English (including learners of English as an L2) invent millions of novel utterances every day, and they do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge. Walkley and Dellar acknowledge the importance of grammar, indicating some limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model, but they nowhere clarify these limits.

4. While Walkley and Dellar repeatedly stress that their different view of language is what drives their approach to teaching, they fail to offer any  coherent account of “a lexical view of language”.

Theories of Language Learning 

5. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of how people learn an L2: no examination or evaluation of theories of SLA is attempted.

5. Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory is adopted without any proper description or evaluation being attempted. The bare claim is made that when we learn a lexical item, it becomes primed for collocation, grammatical category, semantic associations and colligation, and that’s how we learn language.

6. When one looks at serious attempts by Nick Ellis and others to develop a theory of language learning based on usage and statistical learning, where priming  is an integrated component, the inadequacies of Walkley and Dellar’s “explanation” are particularly apparent.

There is need for a detailed theoretical analysis of the processes of explicit and implicit learning. What can be learned implicitly? If implicit learning is simply associationist learning and the induction of statistical regularities, what aspects of language can be so acquired? Just how modular and inaccessible are the implicit learning processes for language acquisition? What are the various mechanisms of explicit learning that are available to the language learner? If the provision of explicit rules facilitates, or is Implicit AND Explicit Learning necessary for, the acquisition of certain forms, what are the appropriate nature of these rules? What are the developmental paths of implicit and explicit learning abilities? Are there sensitive periods for implicit language acquisition?  (N. Ellis, 2015, p.2)

7. Instead of stating a coherent view of (second) language learning, Walkley and Dellar offer 6 “principles of learning”, which aren’t principles at all. They say:

“Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:

  1. Understand the meaning of the item.
  2. Hear/see an example of the item in context.
  3. Approximate the sounds of the item.
  4. Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  5. Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  6. Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts”.

We’re not told what “an item” of language is, though there must be tens of thousands of them, or how they all get learned in this 6-step process.

8. Note that the key Step 4 is bolted on to Hoey’s explanation of language learning. Hoey says Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning is correct: explicit learning only functions as a monitor, and priming is the unconscious process through which language acquisition happens. Walkley and Dellar turn to Schmidt for the “paying attention and noticing” bit of priming, but they fail to explain how Schmidt’s hypothesis works inside the framework of Hoey’s theory.

Teaching Lexically  

9. Teaching Lexically involves using a product (Breen, 1987) or synthetic (Long, 2015) syllabus, and  “doing things to learners” (Breen, 1987). In Teaching Lexically, teachers make all the decisions. They work with a pre-confected syllabus and students are expected to learn the “items” that the teacher selects by going through the 6 stages listed above.

10. The goal is to teach lots of lexical chunks. The chapters in Part B of Teaching Lexically on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

11. Walkley and Dellar promote the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, they run counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching where students are seen as learners whose needs and opinions have to be continuously sought out and acted upon.

12. Walkley and Dellar take an extreme interventionist position on teaching. The language is divided into items, small numbers of which are presented to learners via various types of texts, and practised using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items. Most of class time is given over to explicit teaching.

13. Translation into the L1 is regarded as the best way of dealing with meaning. Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching so the lesson is conducted mainly in the L2. This is only to say that while using the L1 can be helpful, it should be done sparingly.

14. Walkley and Dellar see explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and they assume that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions clash with SLA research findings. As Long says:

“implicit and explicit learning, memory and knowledge are separate processes and systems, their end products stored in different areas of the brain” (Long, 2015, p. 44).

15. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

16. Learners of English as an L2 require knowledge of about 5000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech and 9000 for reading. Since there clearly isn’t enough time to handle that many items in class, massive amounts of extensive reading outside class, scaffolded by teachers, should be encouraged.

17. As for lexical chunks, there are hundreds of thousands of them. As Swan (2006) points out, “memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them”. So how does one select which chunks to explicitly teach, and how does one teach them? Walkley and Dellar give no satisfactory answer to the question.   The general line is: work with the material you have, and look for the lexical chunks that occur in the texts, or that are related to the words in the texts. This is clearly not a satisfactory criterion for selection.

18. Walkley and Dellar make no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners.  They simply assume that by going through the 6 step process, and devoting a great deal of time to Step 4, the explicit teaching will turn into implicit knowledge and communicative competence. Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.

Discussion 

19. One of the most important questions confronting those designing English as an L2 courses is this:

What proportion of class time (from 0% to 100%) should be devoted to a focus on the L2 as object and what proportion on the L2 as a medium of communication, given that both are necessary parts of any ELT course?

In my reply to Walkly, I quoted  Wong, Gil and Marsden (2014) who concluded that, despite other differences, most SLA researchers agreed on the relative importance of the roles of implicit and explicit learning.

“Implicit learning is more basic and more important  than explicit learning, and superior.  Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous  speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.

20. While research shows that explicit instruction can have beneficial results, nobody who has studied instructed SLA recommends devoting most of classroom time to it. There are greater gains to be made in interlanguage development by concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge than by concentrating on the presentation and practice of bits and pieces of language. Activities which develop the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback should take up the majority of classroom time.

21. We know that teaching is, as Long (2015) puts it, “subject to the learner’s cognitive ‘veto’” but we can still manipulate the linguistic environment so as to affect whether implicit or explicit learning takes place. We can choose the type of input to which learners are exposed, the relevance of the input to the learner’s needs, the sequence and salience of linguistic features within that input, and the tasks we give learners. Some tasks, like dictation, oral drills, written fill-in-the-blanks exercises,  focus on language as object and encourage intentional and explicit language learning. Others, like “solving a problem through small group discussion, reading an interesting story, or repairing a bicycle while watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube”, to give Long’s examples, encourage a focus on meaning and communication, and in the process create opportunities for incidental learning.  Our decisions about how to manipulate the linguistic environment should, I suggest, be made in a principled way that respects what we know about the process of SLA, and reflects our pedagogical principles.

22. For the reasons discussed above, my argument is that Walkley and Dellar’s views are mistaken, misguided, and misleading. They give no adequate account of language or of language learning, and they promote an approach to teaching which is unlikely to be efficient in helping learners develop communicative competence or to achieve a functional command of the L2.

References

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design, Part 2. Language Teaching, 20, 2.

Ellis, N. (2015) Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity
In Rebuschat (Ed.). Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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

Swan, M. (12005) Practical English Usage. London, Longmans.

Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, Sidney and Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Walkley and Coursebooks: Part 2

In Complicating the coursebook debate, Part 3: Coursebook use  Walkley continues his defence of coursebooks. He starts by quoting this from a post I wrote called “The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption”:

The coursebooks listed are similar in that they consist of a number of units, each of them containing activities involving the presentation and practice of target versions of L2 structures, vocabulary, collocations, functions, etc., using the 4 skills. All of them assume that the teacher will lead students through each unit and do the succession of activities in the order that they’re set out. And all of them wrongly assume that if learners are exposed to selected bits of the L2 in this way, one bit at a time in a pre-determined sequence, then, after enough practice, the new bits, one by one, in the same sequence, will become part of the learners’ growing L2 competence.

I’ll now summarise the points he makes and reply to them.

Point 1

Coursebooks vary in many ways, and they’re used in an incredible variety of ways.

Reply

To the extent that coursebooks follow the format outlined above, and to the extent that teachers generally follow the coursebook (doing the warm-up before the listening exercise, reading the text before doing the discussion, etc., and doing Unit 1, then Unit 2, then Unit 3, etc.) the variations referred to don’t affect the argument in any serious way. Of course teachers make creative use of coursebooks, but unless they use them only here and there, unless they deliberately subvert them, the coursebook plays a defining role in the organisation and content of the course it’s used in.

Point 2

I don’t believe that everything I present and encourage practice of will be learned, let alone learned in the same pre-determined sequence as its presented in.

Reply

Walkley doesn’t expand on this, or explain just what he thinks happens to his students when he presents and practices bits of the L2 that are presented in the coursebook.

Point 3

From the point of view of ‘Natural Approaches’ such as Task-Based Learning or Dogme, in their strongest forms there seems to be a denial that teaching or the study of lanuage has any benefit at all. I would argue that is because these theories were born out of a concern about the development of grammar and grammatical accuracy, with vocabulary only getting a look in at a later stage in these theories’ development.

Reply

I’m not sure what “Natural Approaches” Walkley is referring to, but no Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) approach I’ve heard of denies the value of teaching or studying language, and neither do Meddings and Thornbury (Dogme’s founders). The objection is to spending too much time on it.

Note: TBLT and Dogme are not theories.

Point 4

There is, though, a clear benefit to be derived rom studying vocabulary. Non-coursebook users also need to consider how many tasks can be covered in one lesson, how quickly the complexity of these tasks can develop and how often similar tasks can be repeated within a lesson and across lessons. For the weaker forms of TBL which may both present models of tasks and use of materials banks to focus on form, we need to ask how those models and materials are different to those that may be found in a coursebook.

Reply

The difference between TBLT materials and those found in a coursebook is that in the  case of TBLT,

  1. they’re informed by a needs analysis and other consultations with the students who will do the course at a local level;
  2. most of the materials are used as input which helps in the performance of communicative tasks, where the L2 is used to perform particular functions, not studied as an object.

In the case of Long’s TBLT, his use of “input simplification and elaboration” is the key.  In the case of Dogme, the materials differ in that students themselves are encouraged to contribute a lot of them, and, as with TBLT, they are not used in the service of a synthetic syllabus. (See Meddings and Thornbury (2009) and my post on Two types of TBLT for a fuller discussion.)

Point 5

If you look at the ‘activities’ in Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate you’ll see that “the various speaking tasks don’t suggest that new bits will be learned one by one in the same sequence as they are presented in”, and “there is no reason why you couldn’t do the tasks in a completely different order”. Nevertheless,

“the sequence of activities derives from the goal of wanting students to have a realistic conversation about giving good and bad news and to express their own feelings about how others are feeling. So firstly, while we pick out some vocabulary and grammar to focus on in the exercise sequences, we would expect this to be a relatively minor part of the conversation that students practice. A teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material. With many of the tasks that we suggest students do in our books, there is a similar kind of relationship between input and skills. If students and teachers don’t take advantage of these opportunities or take a narrower view of the material, hey, what’cha gonna do?”

Reply

First, one might have some questions about the goal of Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate (What sense does such an abstract goal have? What’s “realistic”? What feelings? What are the contexts? Etc..).

Second, what criteria inform the “picking” of the bits of vocabulary and grammar which are focused on “in the exercise sequence”? Frequency? Level of difficulty? Appeal to students of “Intermediate General English”??

Third, if you look at Unit 2 of the book, you’ll see that it concentrates on explicit instruction and makes it likely that a majority of total class time will be spent learning about bits of the L2 rather than using the L2 for communicative interaction. Walkley’s comment that “a teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material” is telling: he wants to do even more teaching.

Point 6

Walkley ends by saying that when using Outcomes, he has somtetimes started with the conversation practice, taught aspects of language not included in the unit, dropped some tasks, adapted the exercises, and “asked students to look at some vocabulary from the unit before starting”.

Reply

See the reply to Point 1 above.

Walkley fails to address the main issue, which is that most coursebooks, including his Outcomes series, embody a synthetic syllabus where the target language is treated as an object of study, and chopped up into bits which the teacher presents to students and then practices. Coursebook-driven ELT flies in the face of what we know about how people learn an L2, and requires all the creativity and ingenuity that teachers possess to rescue it from being both ineffective and tedious.

Reference

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009)Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta Publishing.

A Reply to Walkley’s Defence of Coursebooks

In a post that I missed a couple of months ago, Andrew Walkley replied to criticisms of coursebooks. 

Before we look at his comments, let’s briefly recall what we know about SLA, drawing in part on the first issue of the Instructed Second Language Acquisition Journal , which has articles by Bill VanPatten and by Mike Long.

One of the most robust constructs in SLA research is “Interlanguage Development”. As Doughty and Long (2003) say

There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development, such as the well known four-stage sequence for ESL negation (Pica, 1983; Schumann, 1979), the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (Doughty, 1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1982), and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (Johnston, 1985, 1997). The sequences are impervious to instruction, in the sense that it is impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages altogether (e.g., R. Ellis, 1989; Lightbown, 1983). Acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability (Pienemann, 1984). 

See my post on Interlanguage for more on this.

If  SLA involves ordered development and this ordered development is impervious to instruction, what’s going on in learners’ minds?  VanPatten (2017) reviews some of the explanations on offer. Chomsky (1957) suggests that language is special and involves a language-specific module for learning. Krashen (1981) closely follows with his “Natural order” hypothesis and the distinction between acquisition and learning. Other approaches look to the processing aspects of language, including Processability Theory (e.g. Pienemann, 1998); processing constraints more generally (e.g. O’Grady, 2015); and general learning mechanisms that are not related to language. These types of approaches include emergentism and usage-based approaches (e.g. N. Ellis and Wulff, 2015) as well as dynamic systems (e.g. Larsen-Freeman, 2015). (See VanPatten, 2017 for all these references.)

Probably the most important issue in the various accounts of language learning concerns the roles of implicit and explicit learning. With regard to this fundamental question, despite important disagreements among those adopting generativists, processing or usage-based approaches to L2 learning, and despite the related differences in interface (strong/weak/no) positions on explcit and implicit knowledge, there is widespread agreement that, as Long (2017) puts it “the relevant goal for instruction is implicit learning, resulting in implicit L2 knowledge”.  Long continues:

In an article on classroom research, Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) noted that while generativists and general cognitivists disagree over the viability of inductive learning as a substitute for innate linguistic knowledge, both camps consider implicit learning more basic and more important than explicit learning, and superior. This is because access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content. ….Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) conclude:

“In sum, we argue that the distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge needs to be more robustly recognized in research design, and suggest that implicit knowledge should be the target of research, regardless of theoretical premise” (2014:557).

Long agrees, as do Nick Ellis (2005), Robinson (1996), Williams (2005), Rebuschat (2008), Rastelli (2014), and most of those cited above. All the research indicates that learning an L2 is not best facilitated by presenting and practicing bits and pieces of language according to criteria such as “difficulty” or “frequency of occurrence”, but rather by developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback.  At the same time, we should note that the evidence clearly indicates a role for explicit instruction, even if it’s a much smaller role than implicit instruction. To cite Long (2017) again, he points to the case of Julie (Ioup et al. 1994) whose achievement of near-native L2 through long-term residence without the aid of any instruction at all suggests to him that most of an L2 can be acquired implicitly given sufficient time and high enough aptitude for implicit language learning. But, as he concludes “the problem for instructed Instructed Second Language Acquisition is that vanishingly few L2 learners have both”. Neither expicit nor implicit learning alone can get those who sign up for any kind of L2 learning course to their goals, but if the goal is a functional command of the L2, then implicit learning should be the default and should take up most of the time.

Walkley’s Reply

What, then, of Walkley’s reply to my claim that most coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus based on 3 false assumptions about SLA? With regard to Assunption 1 (declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through a process of presentation and practice) he responds by saying that “passing on knowledge is a starting point, not a final destination”. He says:

There is no doubt that knowing that the past tense of “has” is “had” doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use “had” fluently and correctly in real-time communication.  Of course the job is not finished when irregular past tenses are presented and practised in class. But that’s true of all types of classroom teaching. Would the job be finished if the past tense of “had” was required during a task and ‘emerged’ or was ‘noticed’ or ‘recast’ or whatever?  Of course not! Students will continue to make mistakes because whether this information is passed on to students through a task or a ‘bit of classroom practice’, the information still remains essentially declarative at that point.”

What we know about instructed SLA (ISLA) indicates that most of the knowledge “passed on” by explicit language instruction doesn’t become inplicit knowledge and is of little use in achieving a functional use of the L2. If a synthetic syllabus devotes most of the time focusing on the L2 as object, the learners will get too little opportunity to gain implicit knowledge and to drive forward interlanguage development. Walkley assumes that all types of classroom teaching involve passing on explicit knowledge about language as a necessary “first step”, and that spending a lot of time passing on explicit knowledge about language is common to all teaching approaches. He’s wrong on both counts.

Next, Walkley takes my remark that SLA is more like learning to swim than learning geography, and says:

 Jordan’s analogy with swimming is surprisingly helpful here, though perhaps not for reasons he realises. During most swimming lessons above absolute beginner levels, nearly all instructors work outside the water! They are telling students what to do (declarative knowledge) and getting students to proceduralise this – often through rather synthetic (and to my mind rather monotonous) tasks such as ‘practise breathing out underwater’ or ‘swim with your legs only’. ….

The lesson for teachers and learners is that you have to make use of the language you have ‘learned’ – and do so repeatedly over time. Certainly, a coursebook should give opportunities to make use of language and should ensure proper recycling over time, but it may not. A task-based syllabus should certainly provide opportunities to make use of language, but it may not be the same language over time. Although, of course, it might be! It all depends.

Again, Walkley assumes that all ISLA, no matter whether a synthetic or analytic sylabus is being implemented, and no matter what pedagogical principles inform the teacher, consists of teachers explicitly teaching students about the L2  (passing on knowledge) and then helping them practice it. Again, he’s wrong. One thing is using a coursebook to implement a synthetic syllabus. This imples concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study.  Another, different, and I suggest better thing, is using a needs analysis and a means analysis to identify target tasks from which pedagogical tasks are designed, and then making the pedagogical tasks the basis for an analytical syllabus where the time is spent developing the ability to function successfully in the L2 in well-defined areas. This implies concentrating on implicit knowledge, coupled with some explicit feedback.  I should add that the Dogme approach also rejects coursebooks, rejects synthetic syllabuses, and concentrates on developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through a predominantly implicit learning process.

In a section titled “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?”, Walkley addresses the second false assumption made by coursebook writers, namely that SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. (The assumption is false because all the items are inextricably inter-related.)  He writes:

…while I basically agree that SLA is not a process of mastering, one by one, accumulated structural items as in some kind of building block process, you could argue that the next point that ‘Teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA’ is slightly contradictory. It seems clear that language learners move from more or less ungrammaticalised words to grammaring the words they know in progressively more complex ways: this is the route. So in the case of questions, students at the lowest levels will generally start by just using a word, maybe with intonation or gesture – coffee?; then move to a string of words – you want coffee?; to grammaticalised strings – Do you want a coffee?; to more complex sentences – Are you sure you want a coffee? If you were a mad person and did these as consecutive lessons, your students would not be producing all these different question types.

The route he describes is not the route described by those who have studied the development of interlanguages (see Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) for sequence of interrogative forms), but even if it were, how would this challenge the claim that teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA? Walkley is yet again assuming that ISLA is characterised by teachers passing on explicit knowledge and then practicing it. From this “idée fixe”, he argues that it would be mad to “do” the different stages he describes of question formation in consecutive lessons. He’s right, of course, but nobody in the literature suggested such a thing in the first place; that is, nobody suggested speeding up the rate of interlanguage development by “doing” (i.e. explicitly  teaching) bits of the L2 “in the right order”. Note the question at the start: “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?” It is, surely, the wrong question, and one that explains Walkley’s misunderstanding about the conclusions drawn from interlanguage research. Pace Walkley, ISLA is not best seen as addressing the question of when to “pass on” which new bit of knowledge.

Nevertheless, that’s the way Walkley sees it, and if we share his (in my opinion, blinkered) view then there really isn’t much difference between using a coursebook and using a TBLT or Dogme approach, because they all involve the same basic thing: the teacher presents and practises bits of the target language. This approach to ELT is perfectly evident in Dellar and Wlakley’s book Teaching Lexically (see here for a full review).

Teaching Lexically is very teacher-centred. There’s no suggestion anywhere of including students in decisions affecting what and how things are to be learned: teachers make all the decisions. The teacher decides the mainly lexical “items” to be taught, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, plus how they are to be recycled and revised.

There’s an almost obsessive concentration on teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The need to teach as much vocabulary as possible pervades the book. The chapters in Part B on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

The book promotes the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, it runs counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as John Dewey, Sebastian Faure, Paul Friere, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman, and supported in the ELT field by educators such as Chris Candlin, Catherine Doughty, Caorl Chapelle, Grahame Crookes, Rebecca Brent, Earl Stevick, John Faneslow, Vivian Cook, Sue Sheerin, Alan Maley and Mike Long.  All these educators reject the view of education as the transmission of information, and, instead, see the student as a learner whose needs and opinions have to be continuously taken into account. For just one opinion, see  Weimer (2002) who argues for the need to bring about changes in the balance of power; changes in the function of course content; changes in the role of the teacher: changes in who is responsible for learning; and changes in the purpose and process of evaluation.

Teaching Lexically involves dividing the language into items, presenting them to learners via various types of carefully-selected texts, and practising them intensively, using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items.  As such, it mostly replicates the grammar-based PPP method it so stridently criticises. Furthermore, it sees translation into the L1 as the best  way of dealing with meaning, because it wants to get quickly on to the most important part of the process , namely memorising bits of lexis with their collocates and even co-text.  Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching, where the lesson is conducted almost entirely in English and the L1 is used  sparingly, where students have chosen for themselves some of the topics that they deal with, where they contribute some of their own texts, and where most of classroom time is given over to activities where the language is used communicatively and spontaneously, and where the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Teaching Lexically sees explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and it assumes that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions, like the assumptions that students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it, clash with SLA research findings. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

As Long (2017) argues

“the direct effects of instruction are limited to manipulations of the linguistic environment, with only indirect effects on learning processes. The learner’s use of this or that cognitive process can be intended by the instructional designer, but cannot be stipulated or guaranteed. For example, explicit instruction is designed to invoke intentional learning – a conscious operation in which the learner attends to aspects of a stimulus array in the search for underlying patterns or structure. Intentional learning usually results in explicit knowledge: people know something, and know they know. But students may learn some things incidentally and implicitly from the input used to deliver the explicit instruction”.

On the other hand,

“instruction can be designed to create optimal conditions for incidental learning, but that does not guarantee that incidental learning will transpire, or that if it does, the result will be implicit learning, or if it is, that implicit knowledge will be the end-product, or if it is, that it will remain implicit only”.

Long concludes that if we take the view that most students want teachers to help them to be able to use the L2 for communication, then the primary goal of teaching must be to develop implicit knowledge. Research findings on interlanguage development undermine the credibility and viability of explicit language teaching, synthetic approaches, and PPP.

Since purely incidental learning is impractical, due to the amount of input required and the length of time needed to deliver it, in  the interest of identifying the least interventionist, but still effective, forms of instruction, it follows that a major focus of ISLA research (not the only focus, but a major one) should now be on even less intrusive enhancements of incidental learning rather than focus on form.

References

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

Long, M. (2017) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

VanPatten, W. (2017) Situating instructed language acquisition: facts about second language acquisition. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

Where did that idea come from?

In his latest blog post, Where do ideas come from?, Harmer defends himself against an accusation of using somebody else’s work as if it were his own, although he doesn’t tell us whose work he used, or exactly what he did with it.

In a comment, Sue Leather said:

I wonder if there is something about power dynamics and gender here? A well-known male ELT person fails to acknowledge (whether by oversight or whatever) a lesser known female ELT person. If I read this correctly, this seems to be what has happened.

Replying to this, Harmer wrote in his usual clumsy style:

I do not see myself as having any power over anything – nor do any publishers I have ever worked with, for example, or conference organisers!

I believe (well that is my view of myself, but its only, of course, my view) I have been very supportive of others in the world of ELT, older and younger. If I have not, I deserve to be called out on it.

I suggest that all those who have come across Harmer during his long career as a manager, teacher trainer, examiner and conference speaker, and who have personal reasons for thinking that his conduct towards them was not best described as “very supportive” should accept his challenge and call him out on it. Meanwhile, I’d like to raise a more recent matter.

In November 2016, Eric Dostal, the founding director of CA Institute of Languages in Brno, Czech Republic, invited me to do a plenary at the International Language Symposium in Brno 2017.  He described himself as “the head of the committee”, “the person responsible for the show”; he informed me that the other invited plenary speakers were Stephen Krashen, Phillip Kerr, Linda Li, JJ Wilson, Hugh Dellar, Jeremy Harmer “and some secret surprise guests are all lined up and ready to give talks”; and he concluded:

Your name would add the spice that this event needs!

I accepted the invitation and sent Mr. Dostal outlines of possible talks I could give. He replied “It looks great!”, and that he would put my proposal to the rest of the organising committee.  On 23rd November I got an email saying:

You are in! I will keep you posted with developments. I will add you to the website and start marketing it a bit more.

I looked on the website for the conference, and there I was, alongside Krashen, Li, Wilson and others, photo, outline of plenary and all.

Then, on 23rd Jan.2017, I got this email

Dear Geoff,

Due to an over response of speaker acceptances we have had to reorganize our speaker roster for the Symposiums on 2017 and 2019. The committee has decided to shift your name to the second roster for 2019. For us this is a better fit.  I hope this does not cause any inconvenience. These are still early days.

Erik and the committee

I phoned Mr. Dostal and asked him for the truth. I said I didn’t believe that the reason for cancelling my invitation was that there was “an over response of speaker acceptances”, and challenged him to deny that pressure from one of the other speakers was the real reason.

The committee’s been got at, right? They’ve told you to get me off the guest list, haven’t they?

Mr. Dostal sounded very uncomfortable.

You’re upset, I know it’s a disappointment, I’m really sorry, I did everything I could.

So the committee insisted that I be “shifted” did they?

Well, yes.

Why?

Geoff, come on, I can’t go into details. I’m sorry.

Who’s behind this?

I can’t go into details.

And that was that. I cancelled the flights and asked him to make good the money that I’d spent on the tickets.

In July, I had a couple of emails from Mr. Dostal, repeating how sorry he was, saying how much he regretted what had happened.

I know of no conference where anything similar has happened, so my question is Where did the idea to “shift” me to the 2019 symposium come from? I’m convinced that it came from committee members who were anxious not to offend one or more of the other invited speakers. They felt pressure from someone powerful, and they put pressure on Mr. Dostal to do something that he himself felt embarrassed about doing. So my question to Harmer is this: Do you think your powerful position in the ELT industry had  anything to do with the decision to remove me from the list of guest speakers who were invited to the 2017 Brno Conference?

My Time at the LSE: Part 2

This is the continuation of My Time at LSE Part 1, which I wrote three months ago.

Note that I paid not a penny for my five years at the LSE; like everybody else in the UK at that time, if you got a place at university, your fees were paid by the government and you got a means tested grant to cover basic living expenses too. My parents were deemed rich, so I didn’t get the grant, and my dad refused to give me any money because I’d turned down the chance to go to Oxford. Anyway, I got a scholarship which matched it.

We should also note that in 1965, less than 5% of the UK population were enrolled in a university degree course. Today, those finishing a degree course in the UK find themselves in debt to the tune of around 30,000 pounds sterling, and over 35% of the population are doing a university degree course.

In 1965 I was half way through a B.Sc (Econ) degree at the London School of Economics, having made the philosophy of science my special subject. I talked a bit about the philosophy department of LSE in Part 1, and alluded to the famous confrontation between Kuhn and Popper which took place at Bedford College in July 1965. I was there, and I remember the electric, testerone-charged (no women were among the main protagonists) atmosphere which lasted from start to finish. In what follows, I rely on Steffano Gettei’s (2008) account. Quotes are from his account, but the colloquial was later reported in a 4 volume work (edited by Lakatos, I think) which he cites, which I’ve actually got somewhere in this damn room, but which for the life of me I can’t find right now.

The Debate

It was billed as The International Colloquial in the Philosophy of Science, and the provisional programme had Popper as chairman, and 2 main papers: Kuhn on Dogma versus Criticism, followed by Feyerabend (defending Popper) on Criticism versus Dogma. At the last minute Feyerabend said he couldn’t come (genuine ill health), and Watkins took his place.  The final programme was Popper as chairman and Kuhn and Watkins giving a joint paper on Criticism and the growth of Knowledge.  Lakatos had been very busy organising all this and handled the correspondence with Kuhn (furious at all the changes) with his usual cunning.

So we all trooped in and took our places in the audience. Everybody was there as they say, including Quine, who, as far as I remember, never said a word. We put up with all sorts of blather from all sorts of university big wigs and then here comes Kuhn. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite websites) says “His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited academic books of all time”.  He  looked jaunty compared to Popper, but he read every word from his notes, hardly looking up.

Kuhn on Science

Kuhn starts by challenging Popper’s claim that scientists start with theories and then test them. Kuhn says scientists first assume a “constellation” of theories shared by the scientific community, and premise current theory as “the rules of the game”. Scientists try to solve puzzles, and current theory is required to define that puzzle and “to guarantee that, given sufficient brilliance, it can be solved”. Very occasionally, repeated failures to solve puzzles within the context of the paradigmatic theory leads to a revolution in science. So Popper, Kuhn says, “characterized the entire scientific enterprise in terms that apply only to its occasional revolutionary parts”; he overlooks the function of normal science, and

neither science nor the development of knowledge is likely to be understood if research is viewed exclusively through the revolutions it occasionally produces. …. A careful look at the scientific enterprise suggests that it is normal science, in which [Popper]’s sort of testing does not occur, rather than extraordinary science which most nearly distinguishes science from other enterprises”.

Next, Kuhn attacks Popper’s view that science consists of learning from our errors. Well, learning from errors can only happen in periods of normal science and Popper’s use of the term “error” to refer to theoretical systems of the past, like Newton’s mechanics, is thus wrong.

Falsification

Kuhn then gets to the nitty gritty: Popper’s main idea of falsification. While Popper grants that conclusive falsification can never happen, he assumes that it can. “Having barred conclusive disproof”, says Kuhn, “he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification”.  Logic, says Kuhn, doesn’t decide what scientists do when faced with falsifications here and there (anomalies); rather they are moved by values, and so we have to understand the history of science in terms of the sociology of the scientific community. Scientists don’t behave as Popper claims they do: they’re not influenced by individual refutations, but rather by a mass of anomalies which makes them doubt the ability of the current paradigm and switch allegiance to another paradigm that deals better with the anomalies.

The criteria with which scientists determine the validity of an articulation or an application of existing theory are not by themselves sufficient to determine the choice between competing theories.

So Popper’s mistake is to ignore the characteristics of normal research.

In particular, he has sought to solve the problem of theory choice during revolutions by logical criteria that are applicable in full only when a theory can already be presupposed,

that is, during periods of normal science when research is guided by a paradigm.

Finally, Kuhn reiterates his main thesis: explanation in science is sociological.

It must, that is, be a description of a value system, an ideology, together with an analysis of the institutions through which that system is transmitted and enforced.

While Popper rejects a sociological approach to science, his own approach has obvious signs of ideology and a system of values for science.

Counter Attack

Then came Watkins. A decent man, a decent academic, but out of his league when compared to the big guns. He later pointed me out in an identity parade which led to my arrest on criminal charges, but that’s another story. Here’s a version of his defence of Popper, which doesn’t give an indication of Popper’s typical interruptions of what he was trying to say.

Popper’s Reply

For Popper, science is always revolutionary because science involves the evolution of critical thought. Discovery of something is always a discovery against something else, because, as in the case of Christopher Columbus, it collides with a constellation of established prejudices. Copernicus overturned Ptolemy, Newton went beyond Galileo and Kepler, and Einstein beyond Newton. Such changes are not rare events but rather the usual condition of scientific activity: science grows as “a revolution in permanence”.

While there’s a need for some dogmatism (“if we give in to criticism too easily, we shall never find out where the real power of our theories lies”), this doesn’t justify Kuhn’s belief that a ruling dogma dominates over considerable periods. Right through history, we can judge theories by their openness to criticism, and if we say that any particular hypothesis in our theoretical system clashes with reality, well that is itself a conjecture, a new hypothesis that needs testing. And,of course, always the whole constellation of theories is put in question.

Now here comes the kicker, and the root of what is still the argument between rationalists and relativists.

Kuhn suggests that the rationality of science presupposes the acceptance of a common framework. He suggests that rationality depends upon something like a common language and a common set of assumptions. He suggests that rational discussion, and rational criticism, is only possible when we have agreed on fundamentals

Popper replies

“the myth of the framework” is a logical and philosophical mistake.

It is, says Popper, the argument of the relativist. While we are, necessarily in every moment prisoners caught in the framework of our language, theories, past experiences and expectations,

we are only prisoners in a Pickwickian sense: if we try, we can break out of our framework at any time. Admittedly, we shall find ourselves again in a framework, but it will be a better and roomier one; and we can at any moment break out of it again.

(Sorry, but I can’t help intervening here to say how splendid I find this.)

We can always be critical, and Kuhn’s contrary thesis (i.e. the incommensurability thesis, the idea that different frameworks are like mutually untranslatable languages) is a dangerous dogma – “the central bulwark of irrationalism”.

The “myth of the framework” exaggerates a difficulty into an impossibility; in fact these clashes are fruitful and not a dead end; they lead to progress.

Kuhn sees incommensurability as an insurmountable problem, but we only need to confront problems, not deem them insurmountable, label them incommensurable and set them aside.

Well that was it, more or less. The consensus was that Popper had won the day. I remember feeling jubilant, and leaving the hall with LSE supporters feeling similarly buoyed up. Lakatos promised to meet us in the nearest pub and didn’t show up. I don’t know what happened to Popper or Kuhn that evening, but they certainly didn’t have supper together.

I’ve given a sketch of the most important event in academic history that I ever witnessed. It was thrilling to be in the same room as such brilliant people; thrilling to feel the charged atmosphere, thrilling to follow the arguments, thrilling to feel that my side had won. But I was also very aware of all the nasty bits: the huge egos, the bitchiness, the trickery, the lack of humour. Thinking about it now, the sexism of the all male star cast is what hits me most. In the LSE philosophy department, the big shots were all men, and they relied on the work done by their research assistants who were mostly women. Shame on me, I can only remember their first names: Helen, Rosy, Ruth, Jill, Ann, Julie. None of them is mentioned in the 4 volume report.

What to make of it all? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: an evaluation of scientific theories doesn’t depend on psychological or social factors related to their authors. That this scientist was a drunk, that one paranoid, and the other believed in fairies, or that they were all locked in a laboratory and told not to come out till they’d solved the puzzle, has nothing to do with an evaluation of the theory in question.

Khun’s nightmare must be to see how his suggestion that science is governed by “paradigms” has been adopted by relativists to support some of the worst academic work to be published in the last 50 years. The sociology of science is a subject taught all over the planet, often by charlatans, and it’s led to a proliferation of obscurantist nonsense being hoisted on gullible students everywhere. As I only recently discovered, the term “paradigm” is now used extensively in MA TESL programmes to “explain” where various views of learning come from. I discuss this in my post on paradigms, and elsewhere I’ve pointed out that, unless you adopt a relativist epistemology, the sociology of science has nothing to say about how to judge the merits of competing scientific theories which try to explain the phenomena we examine. Nothing!

In the end, it’s the epistemological question that really divides Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn argues for incommensurability: it’s impossible to switch from one theory to another without a different theory of rationality. Popper believes (as do I, and as do all rationalists), in objective truth, best formulated in Tarski’s correspondence theory of truth. Scientific knowledge is seen as knowledge without a knowing subject and scientific progress is progress towards truth, that is, the growth of knowledge.

In the world of ELT, there’s a growing tendency among those of a postmodernist persuasion to abuse poor old Thomas Kuhn and to use his texts in support of their daft views. They adopt their own silly version of Kuhn’s ideas and their tilt towards relativism because they suggest “exciting” new ways of looking at language learning and teaching. But they show no signs of understanding what they’re talking about. The issue is incommensurability. It all hinges on that, it really does.

Next time: Feyerabend comes to the LSE and talks of incommensurability and cabbages and kings.

Reference

Gattei, S. (2008) Thomas Kuhn’s Linguistic Turn and the Legacy of Logical Empiricism. London, Routledge.

ELT Writers’ Manifesto

Scott Thornbury’s post this Sunday is M is for Manifesto .  At the end of the post, he gives the original 10 Commandments of Dogme, which prompts me to offer something similar for those like him who profess to tell teachers how to better do their jobs. There is a band of ELT  writers who write  books on how to teach, or how to pass exams, or coursebooks, or  books on grammar, pronunciation, how to use your mobile phone, etc., etc.. When they’re not writing, they’re touring the world doing conference appearances and giving teacher training workshops, or they’re doing much the same thing on blogs and other social media. This band includes Harmer, Thornbury, Underhill, Scrivener, Maley, Graddol, Ward, Dellar, McLoughlin, Wogan, Ur, Larsen-Freeman, Soars, Johnson, Hadfield, Mercer, Richardson, Clare, Mercer, to name but a few.

 

Manifesto for ELT Writers

  1. Advice on teaching should be given using only the resources that the writers bring to the task – i.e. themselves – and whatever they actually know about. If a particular piece of advice contains material that is not part of their own rescources, it may only be included by taking the intended audience to the location where that material can be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students’ club). This is perhaps the most important item of all, intended to drastically reduce the amount of hot air and general baloney currently on offer.
  2. No recordings of conference talks, workshops or training sessions should be made public unless 12 just men and women drawn from the ranks of independent teachers (i.e. not employees of the British Council, IH, Bell Schools, etc.) have certified that the recording contains at least the germ of one, half-way interesting, original idea.
  3. When addressing an audience, the writers must sit down at all times that their audiences are seated, refrain from prancing around the stage, and above all, refrain from toe-curling attempts to mingle with the audience.
  4. All the writers questions must be “real” questions (such as “Do you like grammar presentations as much as I do?” Or “How much do you think I’m getting paid for doing this talk?”), not “display” questions (such as “Is the Pearson PTE test crap?” or “Are we overpaid?”)
  5. Slavish adherence to a method (such as Dogme, the Lexical Approach, and all those recommended in Thornbury’s The CELTA Course) is unacceptable.
  6. A pre-planned book or conference talk where the content is made up of pre-selected items taken from a bank of stuff written 20 years ago is forbidden. The Larsen-Freeman Limitor restricts the use the first person singular to 10; and The Harmer Humbug Restrictor bans the use of ill-formed sentences.
  7. Topics that are of genuine interest and use to the audience must be given priority over the usual dross that writers are publishers “value” (i.e. think will make the biggest profit).
  8. Charging readers and audiences different prices for the same product is disallowed. Furthermore, punters should be given maximum access to library copies of books and recordings of sessions. As in other forms of human social interaction, the capitalist way of doing things should open to criticism, better still, proscribed.
  9. No writer will even mention testing procedures until they’ve risen above their current state of abysmal ignorance on the subject. The same goes for SLA research.
  10. Writers will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not hypocritical bores.

A little knowledge ……..

Recently I got involved in a discussion with Marek Kiczkowiak, who runs the TEFL Equity blog, about the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs).  Marek replied to my comments with a post on his blog, titled “Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts”, where he argued that if any such differences existed between NSs and NNSs, they were fuzzy, ill-defined, subjective, imagined, abstract, theoretical, ideological, and refuted by as many studies as supported them. I wrote a second post replying to Marek, and in subsequent comments, I think we managed to resolve most of our differences.

A few days later, Scott Thornbury posted a late comment on Marek’s blog. This is what he said:

Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.

Thornbury’s suspicions are groundless. If “the Chomskyan project” refers to Chomsky’s theory of first language acquisition and of UG, then

  1. I’m not fervently committed to it, and
  2. the NS-NNS distinction is not absolutely central to it.

As to the first matter, you can find ample evidence to refute Thornbury’s accusation of my “fervent and uncritical commitment” to Chomsky in Jordan, 2004, and in this blog. In both places you’ll find criticism of Chomsky’s theory, of its reformulations, and of various attempts to protect it. Furthermore, I’ve consistently argued (always unsuccessfully against Kevin Gregg) that theories of SLA need pay scant regard to Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition. Thornbury concludes that, since I comment on his and other people’s misrepresentations of Chomsky’s work, I must be a brainwashed UG devotee; he’s wrong.

As to the second matter, pace Thornbury, Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition does not presuppose that the LAD, “like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period”, and furthermore, any such putative restriction has absolutely nothing to do with his main concern – the description of UG.

Hence, Thornbury is wrong about the motivation for my insistence on the NS-NNS distinction and wrong about its having an “absolutely central” place in “the Chomskyan project”. Thornbury’s mistakes stem from confusion about what Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition actually says, and confusion about what the so-called “critical period” in language acquisition refers to; his comments suggest that the enormous body of research on sensitive periods in SLA is the work of followers of the Chomskyan project, all bent on proving that the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters is a result of their being deprived access to the LAD.  This is obvious nonsense.

In studies of first language acquisition, the issue of a critical period was introduced by Lenneberg in 1967. The issue of sensitive periods in SLA also became a major issue, and remains so today. In order to get the background to the issue of sensitive periods in SLA, we need to return for a moment to Chomsky. How does UG relate to SLA?  There are four main hypotheses:

  1. There is no such thing as UG.
  2. UG exists, but second language learners only have indirect access to it via the L1.
  3. UG exists, but L2 learners only have partial access to it.
  4. Second language learners have full access to UG.

Hypothesis 1 Those who deny the existence of UG see no need to postulate a LAD, and no need to look for linguistic universals either. Thornbury is a fellow-traveller in the emergentist camp which rejects UG and we’ll look at his views in a moment. We might put the important work of O’Grady (see, for example, O’Grady, 2011) in a slightly different camp, since, while he rejects UG, he argues for the need to recognise the existence of innately guided learning of some sort.

Hypothesis 2  The best-known hypothesis regarding the second position is Bley-Vroman’s Fundamental Difference Hypothesis (Bley-Vroman, 1989a, 1989b). Brey-Vronan argues that the mind is modular, and that there exists a language faculty (UG) which is essential for the development of L1, but that UG is not directly at work in SLA.  According to Bley-Vroman, adult second language learners do not have direct access to UG; what they know of universals is constructed through their L1, and they then have to use general problem-solving abilities, such as those that operate in non-modular learning tasks: hypothesis testing, inductive and deductive reasoning, analogy, etc. The Bley-Vroman approach provides an explanation for the “poverty of the stimulus” problem of SLA – the complex L2 knowledge or interlanguage grammar which second language learners develop is (partly) a result of UG’s influence on L1.

Hypothesis 3  The partial access view claims that L2 learners have access to principles but not to the full range of parameters. Schacter (1988) and Clahsen (1987, 1988) have argued this case.  It differs from the “indirect access” position in that it predicts that no evidence of “wild grammars” will be found, and that L2 learners will not reset the values of parameters of the L2 when these differ from the L1 settings.

Hypothesis 4  The full access hypothesis claims that UG is an important causal factor in SLA, although not, of course, the only one. Those adopting the full access view (e.g., Flynn, 1987) claim more than that the L1 UG affects the second language learning process.  They claim that principles not applicable to the second language learner’s L1, but needed for the L2, will constrain the L2 learner’s interlanguage.

The work of the SLA scholars mentioned above indicates the diversity of their views regarding the importance of Chomsky’s work, but we may note that none of them gives any credence to the “milk teeth” view proffered by Thornbury.

When it comes to the issue of the so-called “critical period” in SLA, Long concludes that there are maturational constraints on 1) phonology, 2) lexis and collocation, and 3) morphology and syntax, in that order.

“Research findings suggest closure of sensitive periods for the acquisition of native-like phonology as early as age 4-6 for most people, of the lexicon, somewhere between 6 and 10, and of morphology and syntax by the mid-teens” (Long, 2015, p.39).

Whether or not they’re helped by any special genetic endowment, most children successfully learn their L1 from birth to age 6 incidentally and implicitly, without attention or awareness, suggesting that humans are biologically disposed to learning languages efficiently early in life.  After age 16, let’s say, learning a second language is more difficult; most people don’t reach an advanced level of proficiency, and very few cases (if any) have been found of across-the-board native-like attainment by a late starter. As Long (2015) points out, if there were no maturational constraints, then you’d expect to find very large numbers of adult learners who achieve native-like ability and pass all the tests to which researchers subject them; but you don’t actually find any such thing.

Thornbury misrepresents me, misrepresents Chomsky’s theory, misunderstands work on sensitive periods in SLA, and even misrepresents the views of emergentists.  Taking the view that “general learning capacities” explain language acquisition doesn’t imply, as he claims, that there’s no difference between native and non-native speakers (there manifestly is a difference as I’ve already argued in my 2 posts replying to Marek), or that there are no such thing as sensitive periods in SLA.

To summarise:

  • A body of research over 50 years confirms the view that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is rarely, if ever, attained by adult learners. The research doesn’t rely on a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.
  • There is wide acceptance among SLA scholars that there are maturational constraints on SLA. Again, this doesn’t stem from a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.

PART 2  

Marek replied to Thornbury’s comment with this:

That would definitely clarify a lot about his insistence that there is a clear, objective and fixed division between the two groups. I have a feeling that this is crucial to the whole SLA enterprise, really, since a lot of it is based on comparing learners’ interlanguage and progress to the ‘native speaker’. Unless you assume that all ‘native speakers’ have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to (and unless you assume that we know exactly who a ‘native speaker’ is), you can’t really do much SLA research. I do find it a bit strange, though, that in SLA the ‘native speaker’ is treated as the ultimate language learning goal (even though that ‘native speaker’ never learned their L1), but at the same time you fiercely defend the proposition that this goal can never be achieved. And as you point out, the ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers, is really the Chomskean NS, the idealised speaker-hearer. Have you read Evans’ “The language myth. Why language is not an instinct”? Very good book. Quite an eye-opener. Chomsky’s ideas have dominated linguistics for such a long time that it’s quite difficult to hear any voices of dissent, even though there are many. So a very refreshing take. Thanks for commenting!

I was sorry to see how enthusiastically Marek welcomed Thornbury’s “clarification”. There are several points to be made here.

  1. I didn’t insist that there is a fixed division between NSs and NNSs.
  2. SLA researchers measure learners’ progress in various ways – as do teachers. I don’t think this is “clarified” by Thornbury’s comments.
  3. You don’t have to assume that “all native speakers have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to” to do SLA research. If Thornbury’s comments led Marek to think so, then here they’ve done less than nothing to clarify the matter.
  4. The ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers is not the Chomskean NS. Chomsky studies linguistic competence independently of language use by asking native speakers to engage in introspection and make grammaticality judgments.
  5. Evan’s “The Language Myth” has been heavily criticised for its misinterpretation of Chomsky’s work, and not just by “Chomskyans”.

Here’s Scotts reply:

Thanks, Marek. Yes, I have read Evans. I’d also recommend Christiansen & Chater (2016) ‘Creating Language: Integrating Acquisition, evolution and processing’, which offers a coherent and research-informed riposte to what they call ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy. ’…. Also worth looking at is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Han & Tarone (2014) ‘Interlanguage: 40 years later’, in which she quotes Heidi Byrnes (2014) to the effect:  ‘In what has been called the “bilingual turn” in language studies, authors find fault with (1) the undue weight being given to an accident of birth and a concomitant denial of the effects of history, culture and societal use; (2) the undisputed authority and legitimacy in representing and arbitrating standards of form and use enjoyed by native speakers; and (3) the troubling disregard of current social, political and cultural realities of multilingualism and ever-changing forms of hybridity between multiple languages as learners adopt and adapt various identities in diverse circumstances of life’.

‘The undue weight being given to an accident of birth’ would seem to be part and parcel of ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy’.

And that’s that: Chomsky done and dusted!

Thornbury’s remarks lead me to suspect that he is a fervent – and dare I say uncritical – Chomsky basher, who dismisses Chomsky’s work without having made enough effort to seriously and honestly appraise it. And he’s not alone: there’s a growing band of such Chomsky bashers who reject UG and portray Chomsky as a right-wing establishment figure blocking progress. Comments by Russ Mayne come to mind, as does Silvana Richardson’s suggestion in her much applauded 2016 IATEFL plenary that UG theory is ideologically biased in such a way that it has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs. I should add that Thornbury’s last remark, his sage endorsement of the preposterous assertion about “an accident of birth”, strikes me as particularly shoddy, even if it is second hand.

What has Thornbury actually said about Chomsky and about theories of SLA which reject the poverty of the stimulus argument? In his A to Z of ELT we find P is for Poverty of the Stimulus. Here’s a summary of the main arguments:

  1. The quantity and quality of language input that children get is so great as to question Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus argument.
  2. An alternative to Chomsky’s view of language and language learning, is that “language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).”
  3. Everett is right to point out that since no one has proved that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, “talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation”.

Regarding the third point, I pointed out that Everett (in one of the most roundly criticised books on Chomsky published in the last 10 years) demands the impossible: one cannot prove that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, so his argument has no force. But Thornbury still didn’t get it.

Anyone who claims that children’s knowledge about an aspect of syntax could not have been acquired from language input has to prove that it couldn’t. Otherwise it remains another empirically-empty assertion, he insisted.

Such ignorance of basic logic and research methods is surely worthy of note.  Another sign of the limitations of Thornbury’s knowledge came when he reacted with total disbelief to my suggestion that Chomsky’s theory of UG had a long and thorough history of empirical research.

What!!? Where? When? Who?, he demanded to know.

Rejecting the poverty of the stimulus argument, Thornbury wrote:

Actually, the stimulus is quite enough to explain everything children know about language. Corpus studies suggest that everything a child needs is in place.

Asked how these corpus studies explain what children know about language, Thornbury replied:

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.

Pressed to say a bit more about this process, Thornbury said:

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

He didn’t explain what grammar he was referring to; or what findings beyond the single word level he was talking about; or how you generalise these findings to “constructions”; or how you generalise from constructions to grammar.

Thornbury’s view of language learning leans on various emergentist sources, including Larsen-Freeman, whose work I’ve discussed elsewhere. While he now refers to the more respectable works of Tomasello and Nick Ellis, Thornbury’s attempts to explain his own view remain vague and unconvincing, never rising much above the level of the claim that “general learning processes” going on inside “feverish young brains” that are “mightily disposed to mine the input” are enough to provide a theory of language acquisition.

In a 2009 article called “Slow Release Grammar”, Thornbury argues that emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development, that it explains language, language learning, the failure of classroom-based adult ELT, and the deficiencies of current syllabus design. In relation to language learning, he adopts Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level which is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used to support the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. But, hold on; Thornbury had previously told  us that many formulaic chunks

yield little or no generalisable grammar.

This must surely impede their wonderous ability to

slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin.

Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess? The article goes on to misrepresent emergentism by using Michael Hoey as its spokesman and making unwarranted claims about how lexical chunks explain English grammar.

Thornbury often says that emergentism gets crucial support from the study of corpora, but he fails to explain how we can infer from patterns found in corpora to how people think and learn. The assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of “frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to” must be supported by arguments about the learning process and by empirical evidence of such learning. There’s lots of work in progress (although Thornbury has never given a clear account of any of it), but to date it seems that the assertion is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that emergentism faces severe challenges as a theory. Among them are these:

  • General conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment don’t explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate.
  • Emergentists can’t explain cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure, including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • As Gregg points out, the claim that language is a complex dynamical system makes no sense.

Simply put, there is no such entity as language such that it could be a system, dynamical or otherwise……. Terms like ‘language’ and ‘English’ are abstractions; abstract terms, like metaphors, are essential for normal communication and expression of ideas, but that does not mean they refer to actual entities. English speakers exist, and (I think) English grammars come to exist in the minds/brains of those speakers, so it remains within the realm of possibility that a set of speakers is a dynamical system, or that the acquisition process is; but not language, and not a language (Gregg, 2010).

 

Thornbury teaches an SLA course in an MA programme at a New York university. One can only hope that during the course his pronouncements on Chomsky and on emergentism  are better-informed and more critically acute than those found in his conference talks, contributions to blogs, and published work. Thousands of fervent followers, committed to his view of ELT, deserve better.

References

For more discussion of Thornbury’s view of language learning, see

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989a) What is the logical problem of foreign language learning?  In  Gass, S. and Schachter, J. (eds.), Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition, 41-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989b) The logical problem of foreign language learning. Linguistic Analysis  20:1-2; 3-49.

Clahsen, H. (1987) Connecting theories of language processing and (second) language acquisition. In Pfaff, C. (ed.) First and second language acquisition processes. 103-116. Newbury House, Cambridge, Mass.

Clahsen, H. (1988) Critical phases of grammar development: a study of the acquisition of negation in children and adults.  In Jordens, P and Lalleman, J. (eds.) Language development. 123-48. Foris, Dordrecht.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flynn, S. (1987) A parameter-setting model of L2 acquisition. Dordecht: Reidel.

Gregg, K.R. (2010) Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549 – 560.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967) Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley.

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

O’Grady, W. (2011) How Children Learn Language. CUP.

Pope, A.  (17o9) An Essay on Criticism. 

Thornbury, S. (2009) Slow Release Grammar. English Teaching Professional.

 

Of native speaker denial

In reply to Marek Kiczkowiak’s tweets, where he questioned the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs), I asserted that there is a clear, measurable difference between them. Kiczkowiak has just replied, insisting that no such difference exists. Let me state my case a bit more fully.

Native speakers of language X are those for whom language X is the language they learnt through primary socialization in early childhood, as a first language. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs or NNSs because people vary, but there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to. For the last 60 years, the term “native speaker” has been used in the literature concerning studies of language learning, and one of the most studied phenomenon of all is the failure of the vast majority of postadolescent L2 learners to achieve what Birdsong (2009) refers to as “nativelike attainment”.

On the prevailing view of ultimate attainment in second language acquisition, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners. There are few exceptions to this generalization (Birdsong 1992).

Note that claims concerning the relative abilities of these two groups are of general patterns, thus not disconfirmed by individual cases. The claims, nevertheless, all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs, and the psychological reality of native speakerness. The specific claim that very few postadolescent L2 learners attain nativelike proficiency is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence (see, e.g., reviews by Long 2007, Harley and Wang 1995; Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2003; Patkowski 1994).

As I said in my last post, the psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. When monolingual speakers are presented with recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

When trying to explain why most L2 learners don’t attain native competence, scholars have investigated various “sensitive periods”. It’s widely accepted that there is a period of peak sensitivity which lasts from from birth until approx. age six (see, e.g., Hyltenstam,  1992;  Meisel,  2009;  Morford  and  Mayberry, 2000).

There follows an offset, perhaps lasting five or six more years where the acquisition of native-like phonology, lexis and collocations is concerned, and until the mid-teens for grammar, during which progressively fewer learners will achieve native-like abilities. After closure of the Sensitive Periods, a small minority of learners may achieve near-native abilities, and a tiny group may be able to pass for native on a few areas and/or tightly constrained tasks (e.g. Donaldson, 2011; Marinova-Todd, 2003; van Boxtel, 2005), but no-one will be able to achieve native-like abilities across the board. …….

Native-like pronunciation of an L2 or dialect is most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an age of onset (AO) between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO occurring during the offset period from 6 to 12; and impossible for anyone with an AO later than 12. ….

 Native-like morphology and syntax are most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an AO between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO during the slightly longer offset period from 6 to the mid-teens (15, plus or minus two); and impossible for anyone with an AO later than that. Beyond age 16 or 17, the degree of grammatical accentedness will, again, depend on such factors as L1 and L2 exposure and use, language aptitude, motivation, and metalinguistic knowledge, and so will only be indirectly and weakly related to AO.

The position for lexis and collocational abilities is less clear, chiefly due to the scarcity of studies to date. However, such research findings as there are suggest that acquisition in this domain, too, is subject to maturational constraints. (Granena & Long, 2013).

When I refer to the difference between NSs and NNSs, I refer to it in the context of this area of research, where the difference is clear, operational, and the focus of an enormous amount of empirical research. Attempts to explain the phenomenon of non-nativelike attainment by most L2 learners are ongoing and there are still lively debates about putative sensitive periods, but the phenomenon itself is, pace Kiczkowiak, surely worthy of more research.

Which brings me to Kiczkowiak’ criticisms.

Argument 1

Kiczkowiak refers to “studies which shed serious doubts on Sorace’s findings” (about grammaticality judgements ).

For example, Birdsong (1992, 2004), Bialystok (1997) and Davies (2001) also studied judgments of grammaticality and all concluded that statistically there was no significant difference in the judgments made by ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’. In other words, both groups have very similar intuitions about the language. And it is important to add that they all focused on adult learners who were well past the critical or sensitive period.

Three points:

  1. The three sources Kiczkowiak cites all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs.
  2. As noted above, Birdsong states that, with few exceptions, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners, an assertion that Bialystock agrees with.
  3. The different findings on grammaticality judgements say nothing about findings regarding pronunciation, morphology or lexis and collocation. They don’t, that is, seriously challenge the claim that few, if any NNSs achieve native-like abilities across the board. Nor does it argue against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 2

Next, Kiczkowiak tackles the question of critical/sensitive period. He refers again to the studies on grammaticality  and says

they show that ultimate attainment is possible even for adult learners.

What they actually show is that a few NNSs perform as well as NSs on such tests. This doesn’t refute the claims I refer to above, nor, again, is it an argument against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 3

Kiczkowiak says

there all those ‘non-native speakers’ out there who are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘native speaker’.

True, there are some NNSs who are “virtually indistinguishable” from NSs, but, once again, it doesn’t support the argument that the distinction between the two groups is “imaginary”.

And just by the way, Kiczkowiak’s example of the wonderful writer Conrad ignores the fact that Conrad had a noteable NNS accent when speaking English.

Argument 4

Kiczkowiak then quotes Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003, p.580)

the highly successful L2 speakers that we have characterised as having reached ‘only’ near-native proficiency are, in fact, native-like in all contexts except perhaps in the laboratory of the linguist with specific interest in second language learning mechanisms.

That some L2 speakers achieve such high levels of proficiency is a caveat which doesn’t alter the conclusion that

nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners

and, anyway, yet again, it’s not an argument that the distinction between NSs and NNSs doesn’t exist.

Kiczkowiak concludes:

So linguistically speaking, is there a difference between the two groups? There might well be. And the word MIGHT is important here.

He’s quite simply wrong: there IS a well-established difference; no “might” about it.

Still, Kiczkowiak’s main argument is this:

…we need to look beyond language proficiency as the defining characteristic of a ‘native speaker’. In fact, it is quite ironic that in the opening sentence of his blog post Geoff calls Russ Mayne (Evidence-based EFL) a “cheery cherry-picker of evidence”, when he himself has cheerfully cherry-picked the evidence limiting the discussion to SLA research, completely ignoring wider sociocultural issues that are also at play…. So I’m not saying the evidence Geoff presented is wrong. However, it is very limited. And thus questionable.

I didn’t cherry pick evidence. I limited the discussion to SLA research, and in particular, to psycholinguistic research that adopts a rationalist methodology based on the twin principles of logical argument and empirical evidence, because that’s where, in my opinion, the best work is being done to understand second language learning. In this necessarily limited domain, the distinction between NSs and NNSs is a real one, which is all I’ve ever claimed in this debate.

But Kiczkowiak wants to question this limited approach. He says:

As Block (2003, p.4) says, SLA has for a long time dealt with “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”. Who the ‘native’ or the ‘non-native speaker’ under study really is has very rarely been problematised in SLA. However, Block’s (and others’) calls for a more socioculturally oriented SLA have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The possible reason for this is exemplified really well by one of Geoff’s Tweets where he referred to what I’m planning to engage in the rest of the post as “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”. But wouldn’t the reverse hold true as well? Namely, that the psycholinguistic twaddle obfuscates a rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality?

Well, no, it wouldn’t. While psycholinguistic research has led to a better understanding of the well-defined phenomena investigated, sociolinguistic research has had less success. What is this “rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality” that Kiczkowiak refers to? The only source he cites is Block. What “reality” does Block describe? How does it help us to understand language learning? What does Block’s description of SLA research mean? What are “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”? I suggest that Block’s description of SLA research, and indeed the whole of his published work on second language learning, does little to persuade anybody that a more socioculturally oriented SLA is needed. There are, of course, better advocates for a sociolinguistic approach to language learning than Block, but even if Kiczkowiak had given a better account of such an approach, it would do nothing to rescue his denial of a clear difference between NSs and NNSs.

The clearly-defined difference between NSs and NNSs is useful when studying SLA. This has absolutely no implications for the fitness of NNSs as teachers, and I support those who argue reasonably for an end to the absurd demand that teachers in ELT be native speakers. The fight against discrimination against NNSs isn’t helped by Kiczkowiak’s unnecessary denial of a difference between NSs and NNSs.

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There is a difference between Native Speakers and Non Native Speakers

A few days ago, that cheery cherry-picker of evidence, Russ Mayne, retwittered this gem from Adrian Holliday:

I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined.

I replied

I think Dr. Johnson’s reply to Berkley will do here: Kick Holliday in the shin and say “I refute you thus”.

As usual, nobody took any notice of my smart alec reply, and Holliday’s tweet has so far got 44 “Likes” and has been re-tweeted 26 times. It provoked Marek Kiczkowiak, he of TEFL Equity Advocates, to say:

I’d also question whether we know what a NS is and what essentially makes them different from a NNS. Clear cut definition difficult I think.

and

Also questionable why learner’s progress should be compared to or rated by a NS, e.g. raters in pron research mostly NS

and

By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species, each with a set of immutable characteristics

I made a few comments on these tweets and promised to reply on this blog with my reasons for stating that pace Holliday and Kiczkowiak, there’s good reason to distinguish between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NSSs). Here they are. My thanks, once again, to Mike Long.

The psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. On a more objective level, when monolingual speakers are presented with (even very short) recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

What distinguishes them has been well documented in over 100 published empirical studies in the literature on age effects and maturational constraints. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs, or all NNSs, of course – for the simple reason that people vary. However, there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to.

For good examples of the numerous studies comparing NSs and NNSs, we may consider Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) and Granena & Long (2013).

If we take Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) first, we may note what they say at the start:

… what appears to be more compelling evidence for adult-learner nativelikeness can be found in studies that have focused exclusively on late, high-proficiency L2 speakers who have been preselected, or screened, for potentially nativelike verbal behavior. Characteristic of these studies is that they have employed quite sophisticated techniques for linguistic scrutiny, either through (a) great stringency and detail of the analyses, (b) demanding tests and tasks (e.g., through the choice of unusual target-language structures that are known to be difficult for learners), and/or (c) the use of multiple-task designs covering various linguistic domains rather than one or a few isolated structures, phenomena, or domains. These methodological features will be illustrated next through a review of a sample of studies.

and at the end

Our primary interpretation of the results is that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners and, furthermore, is much less common among child learners than has previously been assumed.

Here’s the conclusion from Granena & Long (2013). Note that “SP” refers to “Sensitive Periods” (sometimes referred to as “Critical Periods”) and “AO” refers to “Age of Onset”.

The evidence from this study, plus findings from previous research by others, leads to the conclusion that there is an SP for phonology, its offset beginning at age six, and possibly earlier (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than five, and larger mean differences between the groups), probably closing by age 12. There is an SP for lexis and collocations, its offset beginning around age six (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than age nine, and larger mean differences between groups), probably closing between ages nine and 12, earlier than the SP for morphology and syntax. There is an SP for morphology and syntax (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than 12, and larger mean differences between groups), its off-set beginning at age six, and closing in the mid-teens.

 Unlike phonology and grammar, lexical and collocational knowledge continues to develop throughout the life-span in both NSs and NNSs, but with explicit learning playing an increasingly important role, as the human capacity for implicit learning, especially for implicit item learning, gradually declines with age. It is for that reason that language aptitude can play a mitigating role, modifying the negative effects of increasing AO and age in general, in the lexical and collocational domain.

Just to deal with Kiczkowiak’s assertion

By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species,each with a set of immutable characteristics

No-one has ever suggested such a thing. NSs continue to add bibs and bobs to their repertoire throughout their lives (most obviously, but not only, lexis and collocations), and often lose stuff with increasing senility or after a brain injury. NNSs obviously do the same. Not different species, but measurably different.

NSs and NNSs are measurably different. I rest my case.

References

Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning 59, 249-306.

Granena, G., & Long, M. H. (2013). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research 29, 3, 311-343.

Treatise on Thornbury’s view of SLA with apologies to Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus used an austere literary style containing no arguments as such, just declarative statements that are meant to be self-evident. I borrow from his style to present this criticism of Thornbury’s views on language learning.

The best way to explain the phenomena we want to understand is to propose an explanatory theory or hypothesis which is open to empirical tests of its veracity.

If tides is the phenomenon, one theory that explains it is gravity (tides are caused mostly by a differential gravitational force). If L1 acquistion is the phenomenon, one theory is UG (humans’ brains are hard wired for language).

We won’t ever prove that any general theory is true, because you can’t go from the particular to the general.

Just because the sun has always been observed to rise in the East and set in the West doesn’t prove that the theory which explains it is true, or assure us that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow.

If the sun doesn’t rise in the East tomorrow, then we’ll have evidence that the theory which predicted it would is false. If it does, we can hold on to the theory: it’s the best explanation so far.

So while we can’t prove theories are true, we can prove that they’re false, by finding data that contradict them.

If we find movements of tides that contradict the theory of gravity (e.g., the moon is furthest away from point X on earth when the tide is highest), or the theory of UG (e.g., language X doesn’t have UG principle Y, or child X has no knowledge of this principle) then the theory is falsified.

Attempts can be made to rescue theories from falsifying data.

In order to test theories, they need to be open to empirical (replicable) tests, and we need to use logic and criteria of rational argument (coherence and cohesion).

This provides a rough guide to how to evaluate conflicting explanations of how people learn languages.

How does Thornbury evaluate conflicting explanations of how people learn languages?

In reply to Chomsky’s Poverty of the Stimulus argument (children know things about language that can’t be inferred from the input they get) Thornbury says

you have to prove that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input… otherwise it’s an ’empirically-empty’ assertion.

To support this assertion he cites Daniel Everett (2012) who writes

No one has proven that the poverty of the stimulus argument, or Plato’s Problem, is wrong. But nor has anyone shown that it is correct either. The task is daunting if anyone ever takes it up. One would have to show that language cannot be learned from available data. No one has done this. But until someone does, talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation.

Thornbury demands the impossible and the demand shows an elementary fault in logic.

Rather than demand proof that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input (a logically impossible demand), it’s his task to come up with counter evidence.

Needless to say, the daft quote from Everett, whose work is now thoroughly discredited (as even Thornbury has recognised), suffers from the same fatal weakness.

This is not, I insist, a silly semantic quibble: Thornbury’s demand for proof of what can’t be proved here is an indication that his criticism is illogical. I repeat: illogical.

In the same discussion Thornbury says Surely the onus of proof is on the nativists … to show that the stimulus is impoverished?.

Again we have the “proof” thing. That aside, it’s certainly reasonable to ask the nativists to provide evidence to support their theory, and in fact the nativists give a shedload of evidence to support their claim that the stimulus doesn’t explain what children know about language.

Recall Thornbury’s reaction to my reply to Russ Mayne’s ridiculous remark Chomsky spurned empirical research.  I said: Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research. Thornbury replied: “Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research”. What!!? Where? When? Who? This suggests that Thornbury has a very poor grasp of Chomsky’s work.

Given that his formal criticisms of UG is illogical, and given that he fails to appreciate how the theory is supported, the remaining question is: Does Thornbury show that the stimulus is, pace Chomsky, enough to explain language learning?

No, he doesn’t.

Thornbury has indicated here and there that he’s drawn to emergentist theories of language learning, but his attempts to make sense of emergentist arguments are hopeless.

Thornbury supports the fanciful, sweeping clap trap proposed by Larsen-Freeman, and shows about as much critical acumen when talking about emergentism as he does when talking about Chomsky.

Various scholars have been working on connectionist views and associative learning for over 30 years now.

Nick Ellis, and MacWhinney, for example, believe that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment.

MacWhinney’s Competition Model is a good example of an emergentist approach which rejects the nativist UG account of language and puts forward what Gregg (2003) calls an “empiricist emergentist” approach.

Gregg thinks that empiricist emergentism has been most forcefully and accurately advocated in a series of articles by Nick Ellis (e.g., Ellis; 1998; 1999; 2002a; 2002b; 2003) (Gregg, 2003: 43).

William O’Grady and his associates have been working for many years now on an alternative emergentist view that Gregg calls “nativist emergentism”.  O’Grady argues that the case for emergentism, but says that the need for certain types of innate concepts are required as all approaches to cognition recognize the existence of innately guided learning of some sort, and that there is a significant place for frequency in explanatory work on language but that its effects are modulated by an efficiency-driven processor.

Gregg gives this summary of UG versus emergentism:

“So the lines are drawn: On the one hand, we have mad dog nativist theories which posit a rich, innate representational system specific to the language faculty, and non-associative mechanisms, as well as associative ones, for bringing that system to bear on input to create an L2 grammar. On the other hand, we have the emergentist position, which denies both the innateness of linguistic representations (Chomsky modularity) and the domain-specificity of language learning mechanisms (Fodor-modularity (Gregg, 2003: 46).

Gregg says that at the root of the problem of any empiricist account is the poverty of the stimulus argument. Emergentists, by adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where some kind of innate architecture is allowed, but not innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations) have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do.

  • 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: 238)

How does Thornbury argue the case for emergentism?

Nowhere does he give any well-argued reply to the problems alluded to above; nowhere does he recognise the huge differences between the works of Nick Ellis and Larsen-Freeman, let alone discuss O’Grady; and nowhere does he give any coherent account of his own emergentist theory.

That’s what he doesn’t do, but what does he say? He says things like this:

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 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.

(This is a paraphrase of a previous post.)

In an article he wrote in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called Slow Release Grammar Thornbury says:

  • emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development
  • it explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT
  • emergence is also the key to successful syllabus design.

This is his argument:

Emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”. Pure Larsen-Freeman.

Language exhibits emergent properties.

There are 2 processes by which language “grows and organises itself”.

The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases).

The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar.

It is as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.

Thirdly, there is emergence in learning. Hoey notes how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing.

Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, in Hoey’s words, nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system.

Fourthly, the problems which adults have remembering and unpacking formulaic chunks don’t find their solution in most ELT classrooms where few opportunities for real communication are offered.

Wray says: Classroom learners are rarely aiming to communicate a genuine message…, so there is no drive to use formulaic sequences for manipulative purposes.

Even when adult learners do internalise formulaic chunks, they are often incapable of unpacking the grammar, perhaps because many chunks are not really grammatical (expressions like if I were you; you’d better not; by and large; come what may, etc, yield little or no generalisable grammar) and perhaps because they fail to notice the form.

Finally, we can put emergence into the classroom through the syllabus.

If the productive potential of formulaic language is to be optimised, at least four conditions need to prevail:

  • Exposure – to a rich diet of formulaic language
  • Focus on form – to promote noticing and pattern extraction
  • A positive social dynamic – to encourage pragmatic and interpersonal language use
  • Opportunities for use – to increase automaticity, and to stimulate storage in long-term memory, and recall.

If we examine the above, we note that Thornbury starts with Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”.

Thornbury tells us that many formulaic chunks yield little or no generalisable grammar, which surely must impede their wonderous ability to slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess?

Thornbury gives an inadequate and mangled account of emergentism which, according to him, says that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language.

Thornbury’s unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story.

At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory.

Last, and maybe least, we get Thornbury’s depressing picture of the arid desert which is the standard adult EFL classroom followed by the triumphant portrayal of an emergentist syllabus, where the “productive potential” of formulaic language is unleashed.

The illusive, definitive recipe of language learning has been revealed: lashings of formulaic language, sprinkled with a little focus on form, served on a bed of positive social dynamic, with the chance of asking for more.

In the likely event that the positive social dynamic gets out of hand in these joyous classrooms, and the adult students start running amok, babbling formulaic chunks of colloquial language at each other, I recommend that the teacher gives out copies of that most calming, not to say soporific, textbook Natural Grammar.

Thornbury claims to be a bridge between researchers working on SLA and practicing teachers. The justification for the claim is that yes he is. The question remains: do we need better bridges?

References   

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Gregg, K.R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 95.

Research Paradigms

I had a rather confused exchange with Steve Brown and Carol Goodey on Twitter on Saturday about paradigms. I thought they were using the term “paradigm” in the way that Kuhn uses it to refer to a dominant theory which defines the domain of research in a particular area, the procedures researchers should follow in their experiments, and the criteria by which they test and evaluate the theory. But they weren’t; they were using it to refer to “a belief system, world view, or framework that guides research and practice in a field”.  A “research paradigm”, it seems, comprises

a view of the nature of reality (i.e., ontology) – whether it is external or internal to the knower; a related view of the type of knowledge that can be generated and standards for justifying it (i.e., epistemology); and a disciplined approach to generating that knowledge (i.e., methodology). 

This quote is from an article that Carol Goodey cited by Taylor and Medina. It uses the same terminology as the article Steve Brown cited by Guba and Lincoln: “Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research”.

It turns out, then, that while Khun in the late 1950s sparked off a discussion of paradigm theories in science, a discussion that Popper, Lakatos, Fereyabend, Laudan and others joined in, Guba and Lincoln later articulated a discussion of philosophical aspects of “Research Paradigms”  which is now considered by many to be part of a necessary background for any discussion of (educational) research. It’s hardly surprising that Khun, Popper and company don’t discuss “Research Paradigms”, because they all take a realist ontology and epistemology for granted, and they all agree that scientific method requires hypotheses to be tested by means of empirical observation, logic and rational argument.  So what are all these  “Research Paradigms” about? We need to take a closer look.

According to Taylor and Medina, the most “traditional” paradigm is positivism:

Positivism is a research paradigm that is very well known and well established in universities worldwide. This ‘scientific’ research paradigm strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour, and is commonly used in graduate research to test theories or hypotheses.

Well actually, positivism is no such thing, or at least it wasn’t until the relativists made it so. As anyone who has studied philosophy will know, positivism refers to a particular form of empiricism, and is a philosophical view primarily concerned with the issue of reliable knowledge.

Comte invented the term and argued that each branch of knowledge passes through “three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; and, lastly, the scientific or positive state.” (Comte, 1830, cited in Ryan, 1970:36)  At the theological stage, the will of God explains phenomena, at the metaphysical stage phenomena are explained by appealing to abstract philosophical categories, and at the scientific stage, any attempt at absolute explanations of causes is abandoned.  Science focuses on how observational phenomena are related, and any generalisations are subjected to empirical verification.

Mach, the Austrian philosopher and physicist, headed the second wave of positivism, which rooted out the “contradictory” religious elements in Comte’s work, and took advantage of the further progress made in the hard sciences to insist on purging all metaphysics from the scientific method. Then came the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. There is, interestingly, a fifty-year gap between each of these three phases of positivism: like a bad penny, it kept coming back. Although it was thoroughly discredited in philosophical circles and among those working in the hard sciences by 1940, in the social sciences, biology, psychology and linguistics, it continued to have a powerful influence on research methodology right up until the nineteen fifties. The development of behaviourism was inspired by positivist ideology, by the desire to rid psychology of speculative thought and to put it on a sound “scientific” footing, and the predominant tendency for linguistics at this time to eschew “mentalist” models also has its roots in positivism.

The objective of the members of the Vienna Circle was to continue the work of their predecessors by giving empiricism a more rigorous formulation through the use of recent developments in mathematics and logic. The Vienna circle, which comprised Schlick, Carnap, Godel, and others, and had Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein as interested parties, developed a programme labelled Logical Positivism, which consisted first of cleaning up language so as to get rid of paradoxes , and then limiting science to strictly empirical statements: in the grand tradition of positivism they pledged to get rid of all speculations on “pseudo problems” and concentrate exclusively on empirical data. Ideas were to be seen as “designations”, terms or concepts, that were formulated in words that needed to be carefully defined in order that they be meaningful, rather than meaningless.

Their efforts lasted less than a decade, and by the time the 2nd world war started, the movement had broken up in complete disarray. In my opinion, the logical positivists represent the high point of obscurantism and blinkeredness: never has such a celebrated band of clever academics marched down such an absurd blind alley. In any case, the point is that when Taylor and Medina (like Guba and Lincoln, and Lantolf and so many other relativists) refer to “positivists” , they’re referring to their own invented set of researchers who have no historical reality, and when they refer to the “positivst paradigm” they’re referring to a general set of beliefs, etc., that misrepresents the views of scientists in general. Now let’s look at Taylor and Medina’s account of different research paradigms.

The “Positive Paradigm”

The positive paradigm “strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour”. It is adopted by those working “in natural science, physical science and, to some extent, in the social sciences, especially where very large sample sizes are involved”.  Its focus is “on the objectivity of the research process”. It “mostly involves quantitative methodology, utilizing experimental methods”. The ontology of this research paradigm is realism, the epistemology is objectivism, and a quantitative methodology usually governs the research process.

The “Post-Positivist Paradigm”

Post-positivism is a “milder form of positivism “that follows the same principles but allows more interaction between the researcher and his/her research participants. ….. This paradigm is the modified scientific method for the social sciences. …. It is very similar to the positivist approach of comparing mean scores but depends on non-equivalent groups that differ from each other in many ways”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume it’s the same as that of the positivist research paradigm.

The “Interpretive Paradigm”

“The epistemology of this paradigm is inter-subjective knowledge construction. Interpretive knowledge of the other is produced through a prolonged process of interaction undertaken by ethnographers who immerse themselves within the culture they are studying. Using ethnographic methods of informal interviewing, participant observation and establishing ethically sound relationships, interpretive researchers construct trustworthy and authentic accounts of the cultural other”.

“The most coherent quality standards that regulate interpretive knowledge construction are those of Guba and Lincoln (1989) who developed standards of trustworthiness and authenticity that are distinctly different but ‘parallel to’ the validity, reliability and objectivity standards of positivism. ……. Recent developments in the interpretive paradigm have highlighted the importance of the researcher’s own subjectivity in the (hermeneutic) process of interpretation”. Nothing is said about ontology, and the epistemology isn’t clear, but if it comes from Guba and Lincoln then it’s relativist.

The “Critical Paradigm”

The critical research paradigm addresses the question: ‘Whose interests are not being (and should be) served by particular social policies and practices?’ by enabling the researcher “to identify and transform socially unjust social structures, policies, beliefs and practices. Its primary purpose is to identify, contest and help resolve ‘gross power imbalances’ in society which fuel ethically questionable profit-making activities that contribute to systemic inequalities and injustices. ….. Critical inquiry focuses first on raising the conscious awareness of teachers about established values and beliefs that underpin their seemingly natural teacher-centred classroom roles (Taylor, 2008). Once this process is underway, critical theory is introduced (e.g., critical pedagogy, cultural inclusiveness, social justice) that stimulates teachers’ creative thinking about designing curricula and assessment that are more student-centred, inquiry oriented, culturally sensitive, community-oriented, socially responsible, etc.”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm.

The “Postmodern Paradigm”

“This paradigm uses the concept of ‘representation’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) which holds that what goes on in our minds and hearts is not directly accessible to the world outside us. There is no window in our heads that allows another person to look directly into our minds and see ‘exactly what we mean’; the best we can do is ‘represent’ our thoughts and feelings through various means of communication (e.g., language, art, dance, gesture)………. All scientific observations are ‘theory laden’ and scientific knowledge remains forever contingent and open to challenge”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume that they’re relativist.

Multi-Paradigmatic Research

“Rather than standing alone as individual paradigms for framing the design of a researcher’s inquiry, as does the positivist paradigm, the newer paradigms can serve as ‘referents’. In other words, we can design our research by combining methods and quality standards drawn from two or more of the newer paradigms. It is not uncommon for a research study to combine methods and standards from the interpretive and critical paradigms to create a ‘critical auto/ethnography’. And when new literary genres, modes of thinking and quality standards are added from Arts-based research such multi-paradigmatic studies become very powerful means of transformative professional development (Taylor, Taylor, & Luitel, 2011)”.

Discussion

I think Taylor and Medina have a clear agenda, and it’s not one I have much time for. But whether or not one agrees with the agenda, as a way of understanding scientific research, their article misrepresents both the philosophy of science and scientific method; and, furthermore, it complicates what is a simple choice between realist and relativist epistemologies.

Postmodernists and constructivists feel that the modern project has failed, and I have some sympathy for that view. There is a great deal of injustice in the world, and there are good grounds for thinking that a ruling minority who benefit from the way economic activity is organised are responsible for manipulating information in general, and research programmes in particular, in extremely sophisticated ways, so as to bolster and increase their power and control. To the extent that postmodernists and constructivists feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and to the extent that they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology, they are making a political statement, as they are when they say that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Culler, 1982: 67).  They have every right to express such views, and it is surely a good idea to encourage people to scrutinise texts, to try to uncover their “hidden agendas”.  Likewise the constructivist educational programme can be welcomed as an attempt to follow the tradition of humanistic liberal education.

Where the postmodernists are mistaken is in their assumption that their political analysis has necessary implications for the veracity or otherwise of any particular theory.  And where they seem to fail miserably is in the alternative they offer to a rationalist research programme.  When one adopts a “postmodernist research paradigm” what are the results for theory construction?  What are the results of all this analysis?  No causal explanations, or theories, are allowed, it seems.  All attempts to explain, refute, establish, confirm, etc., must be deconstructed and exposed as the logocentric-serving myths that they are; the task is to undermine, and overcome not just science but language and common sense.  To what end?

The constructivists obviously have a point when they say (not that they said it first) that science is a social construct. Science is certainly a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But, and here is the crux, this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper, in reply to criticisms of his naïve falsification position, defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual short-comings of its members are largely cancelled out.

As Bunge (1996) points out “The only genuine social constructions are the exceedingly uncommon scientific forgeries committed by a team.” (Bunge, 1996: 104) Bunge gives the example of the Piltdown man that was “discovered” by two pranksters in 1912, authenticated by many experts, and unmasked as a fake in 1950.  “According to the existence criterion of constructivism-relativism we should admit that the Piltdown man did exist – at least between 1912 and 1950 – just because the scientific community believed in it” (Bunge, 1996: 105).

The heart of the confusion for all those who take a radically relativist position, whether they be proponents of the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge, social constructivists, or postmodernists, is the deliberate confusion of two separate issues: claims about the existence or non-existence of particular things, facts and events, and claims about how one arrives at beliefs and opinions. Whether or not the Piltdown man is a million years old is a question of fact.  What the scientific community thought about the skull it examined in 1912 is also a question of fact.  When we ask what led that community to believe in the hoax, we are looking for an explanation of a social phenomenon, and that is a separate issue.  Just because for forty years the Piltdown man was supposed to be a million years old does not make him so, however interesting the fact that so many people believed it might be.

The postmodernist research paradigm claims that our beliefs are all we have, and that there is nothing “out there” that exists independently of them. Latour and Woolgar’s famous study (1979) is a good example.  While it might very well be the case that we believe that dinosaurs existed, and that DNA exists today, because the scientists tell us so, it remains, for those of us who want to take a realist, rationalist view of the world at least, an independent question of fact as to whether or not such things exist, i.e. whether or not our beliefs are true or false.

When Guba and Lincoln say “There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is socio-historically relative.”, this is a perfectly acceptable comment, as far as it goes.  If Guba and Lincoln argue that the observer cannot be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiry, then again the point can be well taken.  But when they insist that constructions are exclusively in the minds of individuals, that “they do not exist outside of the persons who created and hold them; they are not part of some “objective” world that exists apart from their constructors”, and that “what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole”, then they have disappeared into a Humpty Dumpty world where anything can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean.

A radically relativist epistemology rules out the possibility of data collection, of empirical tests, of any rational criterion for judging between rival explanations and I believe those doing research and building theories should have no truck with them. Solipsism and science, like solipsism and anything else of course, do not go well together. If the postmodernist paradigm  rejects any understanding of time because “the modern understanding of time controls and measures individuals”, if they argue that no theory is more correct than any other, if they believe that “everything has already happened”, that “there is no real world”, that “we can never really know anything”, then I think they should continue their “game”, as they call it, in their own way, and let those of us who prefer to work with more rationalist assumptions get on with scientific research.

Conclusion

I would stress the broadness of the rationalist definition of research and theory construction; the relativists often seem unaware of what science, and rational enquiry in general, involves. It seems necessary to point out to them that science is not the same as positivism, or empiricism and it doesn’t prescribe any fixed methodology. So all the “research paradigms” described by Taylor and Medina are acceptable in my opinion except the postmodernist one. On a cautionary note, I think it’s important to be clear about “where they’re coming from”; I don’t like their language and I suspect there’s a strong bias towards postmodernist approaches in that “school”.

In general, I’m afraid I don’t really see the point of these research paradigms if they’re not a way of arguing for a relativist position, but never mind: at least I know what they’re on about now. Just to make my own position clear, I don’t see myself as having a”Post-Positivist” research paradigm as Steve suggested. The rationalist position I hold is that knowledge of the world is gained in all sorts of ways, but that the most reliable knowledge comes from engaging in research which leads to the development of theories, i.e. attempts to explain phenomena. These theories are developed with various rules of logic and language to guide the process and are scrutinised so as to discover flaws in terminology or reasoning, and to build the clearest, simplest version of the theory.  Such theories should then lay themselves open to empirical tests: there must be the possibility of observing events in the world that contradict them.

References

(Citations from Taylor & Medina, and Guba & Lincoln can be found in their articles which you can download from the links above.)

Bunge, M. 1996: In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia. In Gross, R, Levitt, N., and Lewis, M. The Flight From Science and Reason. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 777, 96-116.

Culler, J. 1982: On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. 1979: Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts.  London: Sage.

More on Mediation


Scott Thornbury’s post M is for Mediation  was his third bite at the same cherry. Yet again he asked: How is information communicated to teachers? , reminding us that

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

Who can blame him for not mentioning that he’d already given the ELTRIA talk at the IATEFL conference in April. So anyway, in the blog post, he went over the by now familiar ground, and finished by asking

Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? 

To me, it’s the wrong question (surely we should ask whether it’s consistent with research findings, not whether it makes overt reference to them), and most of those who replied seemed to think so too, choosing to talk about the more general issues raised.

As usual, the discussion was interesting, and, as usual, Thornbury demonstrated extraordinarily nifty footwork, avoiding treading on anybody’s toes and somehow keeping a foot in every camp. He reminded me of those in the jewellery heist films who make their way towards the prize, all the while contorting their bodies in impossible ways so as to avoid the deadly laser beams.

I’d like to pose a slightly different question:

Are there any research findings about language learning and teaching that have important teaching implications, and if so, who should tell teachers about them?”

The argument that I’ve been trying to pursue recently is as follows:

  1. A very small subset of research findings on how people learn and teach languages has important pedagogical implications that teachers should know about.
  2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it.
  3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators.
  4. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers encouraged teachers to critically discuss and evaluate the small subset of research referred to above.

1. A small subset of research has important teaching implications that teachers should know about

The example that I bang on about is research in the area of interlanguage development. This research suggests that there are stages all learners go through when learning a second language, and consequently that teachers can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. It follows that basing ELT methodology on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammatical forms is mistaken. (Note that research (see review by Norris & Ortega, 2000) also indicates that explicit form-focused instruction can be effective in promoting learning.)

A few more examples:

  • There is no evidence to support the view that matching pedagogy to putative “learning styles” has any positive effects.
  • By manipulating certain factors and conditions of oral classroom tasks, teachers can guide students to producing either more fluent or more accurate language.
  • Certain types of L1 use in the classroom help, while others hinder, vocabulary learning.
  • “Focus on form” has a better long term effect on learning than traditional “Focus on Forms”.
  • Non-salient features of the L2 are the most difficult to learn.
  • Extensive reading speeds up learning.
  • A negative attitude towards the L2 culture inhibits learning.

It’s surely a good thing if teachers are aware of research findings which have potentially important implications for what and how they teach. This is not to argue that research findings should in any way determine ELT practice, or even play a major role in it. I agree with Ur that the main way teachers learn and become good at their jobs is through classroom experience, discussion with colleagues, and feedback from students.  I agree with Scrivener that teaching is not a science, it’s an art, a craft. I agree with those who say that lots of / most of / nearly all applied linguistic research is obscure, badly-done, badly-reported, and contradictory. I agree with Thornbury that “research relevant to ELT only very rarely deals with pedagogical issues”.

But good ELT practice needs to be based on a certain understanding of how people learn languages: we can’t just ignore the question of which among the range of competing, contradictory views of language learning is the most reasonable. And isn’t Thornbury’s own outspoken criticism of grammar-based teaching, which he so tellingly caricatures as the presentation and practice of McNuggets, partly based on his view of language learning, which is in turn informed by his reading of published research? Thornbury agrees that “there are robust research findings” and says that he still holds a cognitive view of language learning, although it’s now more influenced by sociolinguistic factors. Isn’t this a recognition of the place that research plays in his understanding of language learning, and doesn’t it indicate that his critical evaluation of different research programmes influences his work as a writer of methodology texts and as a teacher trainer?

2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it

In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up with research, and it’s reasonable to expect methodology writers and teacher trainers, who, after all, get paid for giving information and advice to teachers, to do so. Of course, teachers should make an effort to keep informed themselves, but I think it’s reasonable for them to turn to mediators rather than to academic journals, and to expect those who write methodology texts and those who organise and carry out teacher training to give them a well-informed and well-considered view of teaching which takes research findings into account.

How do mediators find the relevant research? Well, that’s their job, and individually they have to decide for themselves what to do. As the four writers who replied to Thornbury’s questionnaire made clear, there are different ways of keeping in touch, which include attending conferences, networking, using social media, taking advantage of meta analyses, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and keeping your ear to the wire, so to speak. The aim is thus to stay in touch with developments, have a general feel for what’s happening, and so be in a good position to dig deeper when necessary.

3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators

The problem is that many methodology writers and teacher trainers don’t seem to share this view of their responsibilities. The impression given from Thornbury’s latest data, scant though they are, and from reading the methodology texts of his study’s participants, is that they don’t keep up to date with what research tells us about language learning, or about other areas of ELT. If this impression is an accurate one, then surely it’s regrettable, and what I find odd (though not surprising) is that Thornbury makes no criticism of what comes across as complacency. None of his participants, for example, discusses the research findings of interlanguage development in their methodology texts, or expresses any concern about not doing so. Thornbury, in contrast, has discussed these research findings more than once. If Thornbury thinks it’s important for him to keep in touch with research and to use research findings to inform his views on methodology, why doesn’t he expect the same of others? Furthermore, if Thornbury thinks that research findings call into question the assumptions underlying a grammar-based synthetic syllabus and the PPP methodology which implements it, why doesn’t he mention this when discussing his findings?

We get a hint from this exchange.

Luiz Otávio Barros: … it seems that a lot of what has been researched and discovered in the past 30 years is at odds with what teachers are expected to do in class. So, SLA research can keep telling teachers – till it’s blue in the face – that linear syllabuses, grammar mcnuggests and controlled practice with a view to proceduralization don’t work… The whole educational system is set up in such a way that these claims are hard to embrace.

Thornbury: Thank you Luiz (and lovely to be communicating with you again!) If I may quote Penny Ur here (an excerpt of which I used in my talk), because it seems to chime with your own sentiments, …….

The quote from Ur might have chimed with Barros’ sentiments, but it did almost nothing to address the point he was making. Once again, Thornbury deftly ducks controversy, choosing not to be drawn on the political issue raised by Barros, namely that “the whole educational system” has little appetite for research findings which seriously rock the boat. Moderators work for publishers and for companies. The bosses of these commercial enterprises dissuade employees from making any serious attacks on current ELT practice – witness Thornbury’s publishers making it clear to him that they’re “not interested” in his McNuggets views. Barros, rightly I think, suggests that the ELT educational system is set up in such a way that teachers are unlikely to hear about “inconvenient” research findings. They’re unlikely to hear, for example, about the research findings which indicate that a grammar-based product syllabus delivered with a PPP methodology is inefficient; or that coursebooks have serious failings; or that the Pearson Test of English is bulit on sand; or that the Common European Framework of Reference is, as Fulcher says “a prime example of in the way political and social agendas can impact on language testing, and how language testing can be made to serve those agendas”. And so on and so on. In brief, moderators, no doubt voluntarily and in good faith, tell teachers what the bosses want them to hear.

4. Open Discussion is Needed

We should fight against the way sweeping generalisations about the obscurantism of research and the practical nature of teaching are used to dismiss research findings which challenge established ELT orthodoxy. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers, plus bloggers and other interested parties, engaged with teachers in open discussion about well-conducted applied linguistics research dealing with, among other things, interlanguage development, task design, error correction, vocabulary learning, extensive reading, pronunciation teaching, and testing & assessment.

Reference

Norris, J. & L. Ortega (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50, 417-528.

Two Very Different Plenaries: Norris and Thornbury

The Seventh International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching, held at the University of Barcelona, kicked off on Wednesday 19th April with a splendid, critically acute plenary by John Norris. Norris examined a number of meta-analyses on TBLT and gave a “synthesis of syntheses” which combined a succinct, well-organised and well-presented summary of research findings with an insightful discussion of their implications for teachers. Very good, nourishing stuff!

(Note: I rely on Twitter feeds and 3 eye witnesses for this account.) The ELT Research In Action conference, also held at the University of Barcelona, spluttered into life on Friday 21st April with a lack-lustre, re-hashed, badly-considered plenary by Scott Thornbury. Thornbury asked how methodology writers mediate between researchers and practicing teachers. To “explore” this question, he asked four writers of teaching methodology texts to complete a short, poorly-designed questionnaire, thus collecting a meagre amount of vague data from which a few unremarkable yet dubious conclusions were drawn. The flimsiest “study” I’ve ever seen presented in a plenary shone the dimmest of lights on an important issue, and through the gloom one could just discern Thornbury giving an unexplained thumbs up to the motley views of his puny collection of participants. Very thin soup!

Norris on TBLT

I’m waiting for the slides of Norris’ plenary to arrive, and so I won’t attempt to give a summary of what he said (but I promise that I will soon). Instead, I’d like to sketch the background to his talk and then comment on how he went about it, because, in stark contrast to Thornbury, Norris gave a demonstration of focus, scholarship, critical acumen, and the ability to present and analyse complex data.  It was well-conceived, well-organised, well-considered, and well-executed.

The talk reflects an increased interest in meta-analysis, which was very much “flavour of the conference” , with a surprising number of presentations examining different meta analyses of TBLT research. Meta analyses gather together a collection of published papers on a particular area and synthesise the results. Given the growing number of published studies on various aspects of TBLT, it’s not surprising that increased attention is being paid to ways of accurately synthesising results. The Journal Language Learning is good at publishing meta analyses, and Luke Plonsky has a good review of Meta-analysis in Applied Linguistics.

When it comes to studying TBLT, as Skehan (2016) makes clear, you can take an inductive or deductive approach. Regarding the former, task features are identified and then explored in terms of their relationship with performance, which is typically judged by measures of complexity, accuracy, lexis, and fluency (CALF). For example, Foster and Skehan (1996) contrasted the effects of planning with personal, narrative, and decision-making tasks. The study indicated specific connections between personal tasks and both increased accuracy and increased complexity, and between narrative and decision-making tasks and increased structural complexity.

In contrast, Robinson’s (2011) cognition hypothesis is an example of a deductive approach. Robinson (2011) argues for a principled sequencing of tasks in a syllabus, from less to more complex tasks, so as to help L2 development. To that end he uses the construct of “task complexity” and proposes a distinction between resource-directing factors and resource-dispersing factors, with each of these overarching categories then leading to specific performance predictions. Resource-directing variables make cognitive conceptual demands (e.g. + intentional reasoning) which direct learner attention and effort at conceptualization in ways which the linguistic L2 system can help them meet. In contrast, resource-dispersing variables make performative procedural demands which increase task complexity but without directing learner attention and effort at conceptualization to any particular aspects of language code (e.g. – planning time). Just as an example, resource-directing tasks are likely to give more opportunities for focus on form.

Notice how many terms and constructs are in use here. To simplify, we can say that tasks are seen as complex or simple and that performance is judged in terms of CALF measurements. Then, we can distinguish between Robinson’s daring hypotheses (where the distinction between resource-directing factors and resource-dispersing factors is vital) and the more cautious inductive work of Skehan & Foster and others, where, particularly for Skehan, task conditions are key. Skehan claims that the more deductively motivated studies have tended to generate results that focus on task characteristics, but the results are not consistent and don’t give clear support to the hypothesis. In contrast, he says, the more inductively oriented studies, whether of tasks or conditions, have tended to produce more consistent results.

In brief, when we look at TBLT, if we want to assess the efficaciousness of a task or a sequence of tasks, we have to agree on measurements of key factors (CALF); articulate constructs such as task complexity; clarify what we mean by “complex”; and “task difficulty”, for example; pay more attention to task conditions; distinguish between performance and learning (immediate and delayed); agree on the size of Cohen’s d factor required to calibrate results; and other things besides. And then we have to agree on procedures for putting together meta analyses. All of which means that some TBLT studies are better than others, that there are some contradictory results, and that there are disagreements among those working in the field. Nevertheless, precisely thanks to the demands for clarity, common terms, rigour, etc., progress is being made, and, as Norris showed, meta analyses are a good way of highlighting that progress.

Norris was talking to an audience of academics: they all knew about Robinson’s hypothesis, and task complexity, and CALF and Cohen’s d measurement of effect, and all that and all that. But I repeat, it’s the conception, organisation and execution of the plenary that’s worthy of comment. What Norris did in his talk was to take a well-focused question (What does research tell us about the factors that influence the outcomes of different kinds of pedagogic tasks?), and then present the hugely complex and conflicting evidence in an unusually clear, well-organised way, which included his own well-argued analysis.

  • This, he said, is a synthesis of what research is going on in TBLT.
  • These are the measurements and terms and constructs that we use.
  • This is what we’ve found.
  • These are the limitations.
  • This is what we still don’t know.
  • This is what we should pay more attention to.
  • This is the pay off. If we further clarify our terms and methods, we’ll find out more about the effects of different types of task on performance and learning, and that will have important implications for syllabus design and teaching practice. We’ll be better able to provide an evidence-based and well-argued case for what works and what doesn’t in TBLT, and to give better advice to course designers, materials writers and to teachers.

Let’s look now at how Thornbury gave his plenary.

Scott Thornbury’s view from the bridge

Thornbury used the same presentation slides as those we saw at the IATEFL conference (you can get a pdf file of them at this link.). As I’ve already said, I wasn’t there on Friday, but I’m using Jessica Mackay’s report and the notes of 2 members of the audience to help me, and as far as I can judge, nothing much new was said the second time round.

So, having noted that most ELT practitioners don’t read about research in their field, Thornbury wonders whether those who write methodology books about ELT see it as part of their job to take responsibility for bridging the gap between researchers and teachers. This leads to his main research question:

“How do methodology writers mediate … between researchers and practitioners?”

To find out, he sent a questionnaire to 4 authors of books on teaching methodology. Here are the questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

Note that Q.1 and Q.8 are irrelevant to the question, and that Q.5 and Q.6 are poorly articulated, overlap and in fact elicited almost no relevant data (check the pdf, file for yourself). At the IATEFL conference, Q.7 wasn’t even mentioned, but perhaps it was dealt with this time.

So the “findings” of Thornbury’s study consist of 4 people’s short responses  to 3 or 4 questions.

Here are their answers to Q.2:

  1. DH: Imperative! Teachers need to ground their teaching in research-based findings and assumptions. And, more importantly, teachers themselves should not shrink from engaging in their own classroom-based “action research.” It’s an all-important interaction.
  2. JH: I simply fail to understand people who deny the role of research in helping us understand our practice and improve it. Research is, after all, what all good teachers would do if they had the chance.
  3. PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
  4. JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching. … I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

And Q.3

  1. DB I do university courses myself and I read state of the art articles.
  2. PU I’m sure I miss a lot but really important things get cited in stuff that I read, so I get most of the major stuff.
  3. JS Twitter has alerted me to interesting articles and websites.
  4. JH: Teachers journals, published books etc -though I fear that I do not have enough time to do as much of that as I should. […] The large number of teachers’ conferences and seminars that I attend […] News media, magazines and, increasingly, social media where news about new research often breaks.

And Q.4

  1. JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.
  2. JH: I go for what seems plausible to me. But I have to be careful (and suspicious) of my own unreliable instinct … There IS an element of fashion in this too, of course. Readers of a general methodology book need to know what is most ‘current’.
  3. PU: One criterion is, obviously, that I feel the research is reliable –well-designed and carefully executed, with convincing evidence and logical conclusions. Another is that it’s not on a trivial or very limited subject.
  4. DB: The selection of findings to inform my writing is based on degrees of (1) validity through triangulation of findings, (2) relevance of findings to pedagogy, and (3) practicality of those findings for classroom teachers.

From this, Thornbury summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

In his abstract, Thornbury promised “to draw some principles that might guide others – such as teacher educators – who [play a similar bridging function]”.  Unless my informants misled me, the guiding principles were not actually “drawn”, rather, Thornbury simply recommended others to follow the good example set by his participants.

A Few Comments: 

  • On the basis of the data from 4 participants, Thornbury is not entitled to make any generalisations whatsoever about what methodology writers believe or do.
  • Mind you, given the vagueness of the 6 points in Thornbury’s summary, they could easily apply to everybody. It’s hardly surprising that his participants “have an interest” in keeping abreast of developments in research; or that they “try not to be biased”; or that they are “sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends” (though I’m not sure there was much evidence of “recognizing their inherent weaknesses”); or that they use a non-academic style to talk to teachers; or even that they “present options not prescriptions”.
  • Even these blurred generalities come from a fairly liberal interpretation of the data. Thornbury smooths over the important differences among the 4, uses one single sentence in the whole data to support the generalisation that “Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’” (whatever that might mean); and presents the 6 points as if they represented some fine distillation of the common wisdom of his participants.
  • Thornbury’s discussion of the answers given to Questions 2 and 4 is extraordinarily complacent. These are, in fact, the only interesting and significant glimpses we get into his participants’ beliefs and practices, and they suggest that at least two of the four writers care little for research findings, make scant use of them when writing their books, cherry pick the findings, and see nothing wrong with using research findings as a way to support their own hunches, feelings and beliefs about teaching. Thornbury offers no criticism whatsoever.

In brief, on the basis of the most cursory examination of a flimsy collection of data, Thornbury confidently concludes that methodology writers do a good job and that they serve as a model for others.

A Few Questions:

Why didn’t Thornbury ask a few more people to take part in his study?

Why didn’t he ask more focused questions about research? It’s mostly treated as some kind of homogenous lump, the only exception being when he refers to “new developments in SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?” (BTW, “new development in neurobiology” is code for complexity theory; you know, like when a flock of birds part when approached by a predator and then they re-group. A new level of complexity arises, emerges, out of the interaction of the parts and a pattern emerges from the interaction of the parts. That’s just what happens in language learning. Not clear? Well, have you ever noticed how one bit of broccoli looks just like the whole plant? Cont. p.89 )

Why didn’t he ask them what they thought the most important research findings in instructed SLA research were and how teachers should be informed about them?

Why didn’t he check to see if there was any difference between what the participants said in reply to the questions and what they said in their books?

And what about his own case: Why didn’t he tell us about how he himself performs “the bridging function”?

  • How does he link research and classroom practice in his 4 books on how to teach grammar, and in his books on how to teach speaking, how to teach vocabulary, and how to get through the CELTA training course? How important does he think it is to act as a mediator between researchers and practising teachers? How well does he carry out this function?
  • How does he explain the contradictions between what he says in these books and what he says elsewhere about classroom practice based on teaching McNuggets?
  • How do his methodology books chime with what he tells MA students at the New School in New York about the classroom implications of Larsen-Freeman’s version of emergentism (grammar for free through the miracle of “Affordances” and other hogwash)?
  • How does he reconcile the advice he gives in these books with his passionate promotion of Dogme?

And finally, and crucially: Why didn’t he ask his participants if they knew about the robust findings that have emerged from 40 years of research into interlanguage development, which show that teaching can’t influence the route of L2 learning, and which thus challenge any methodology based on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of grammar and lexis?

Which brings us to the two general questions:

  1. What should teachers know about research findings in applied linguistics?
  2. Who should tell them?

In reply to Q.1, first, they should know about interlanguage development; that’s without doubt the most important issue. All serious scholars of applied linguistics (including Larsen-Freeman last time I heard) agree that “the route of development (the nature of the stages all learners go through when acquiring the second language) remains largely independent of both the learner’s mother tongue (L1) and the context of learning (e.g. whether instructed in a classroom or acquired naturally by exposure)” (Myles,2009). If teachers really appreciated the implications of these findings, it could lead to a profound change in ELT.

Next, the concept of “focus on form” needs to be more generally understood. It’s generally agreed that second language teaching should be meaning-focused, but that it can be improved by some attention to form. This doesn’t mean a return to discrete-point grammar instruction, but that “focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long, 1991, pp. 45-46), and “focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features–by the teacher and/or one or more students – triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production” (Long & Robinson, 1998, p. 23).

Then there’s the work going on in the area of TBLT. As we’ve seen, it’s complex and complicated and “more research needs to be done” as they always say. But, nevertheless, information about the on going work can be made accessible to teachers and has the potential to greatly improve their practices.

Lots of other important work is also going on that can help pronunciation teaching, vocab. teaching, and teaching of the 4 skills.

Regarding Q.2, given that it’s completely unreasonable to expect most teachers to keep up with developments in the areas of research mentioned above, it’s obvious that methodology writers (among others) should act as mediators. These writers can’t be expected to read more than a fraction of the research, which is why reports of meta analyses are so useful. By keeping an eye on what’s going on in the journals, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and reading a few meta analyses, such writers can at least get a good general feel for what’s happening and then be in a position to dig deeper when necessary.

Pace Thornbury’s comfortable conclusions, it’s obvious that 3 out of 4 of his participants (not to mention him and various others) are not doing a very good job as mediators. If they were, there would be more widespread doubts expressed about the way ELT is currently practiced. Just for example, despite Harmer’s replies to Thornbury’s questions, his 500 page methodology book devotes more time to classroom seating arrangements than it does to discussions of how people learn an L2, and nowhere does it deal with the findings mentioned above. Douglas Brown comes out best, but even he fails to properly discuss the implications of the research findings on interlanguage  development.

As for Thornbury himself, his work continues to be inconsistent both in its quality and in its underlying principles. How can the man who slams “McNugget teaching”, who rails against coursebooks, who supports the mad rantings of Larsen-Freeman, and who proselytises the radical principles of Dogme, deliver this same threadbare talk twice in as many months? How can he claim that the 6 points he cobbled together from the limp replies he got from 4 people to a few poorly-articulated questions are sufficient evidence to persuade us that those “on the bridge” are doing a great job of mediating between researchers and practicing teachers?

References

Harmer, J. (2015) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Pearson. 

Long, M. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.), Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Long, M., & Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research, and practice. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (pp. 15-63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myles, F. (2009) Second language acquisition (SLA) research: its significance for learning and teaching issues. Downloadable here: https://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/421 Note: Good References and links to some very good resources.

Plonsky, L. (2016) Meta-Analysis in Applied Linguistics. See http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/ldp3/bib_metaanalysis.html

Skehan, P. (2016) Tasks Versus Conditions: Two Perspectives on Task Research and Their Implications for Pedagogy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 36 pp. 34–49.

Skehan, P. & Foster, P. (2008) Complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis in task-based performance: A meta-analysis of the Ealing research. In Van Daele, S., Housen, A., Kuiken, F., Pierrard, M. & Vedder, I. (Eds.). Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency in Second Language Use, Learning, & Teaching. pp. 207-226. Brussels: Contact forum.

Thornbury’s books can be viewed here: http://www.scottthornbury.com/books.html

Foreign language vocabulary: Effective practices for learning and teaching

(Here’s a PDF file of the Vocab. learning report: CASL Vocabulary learning technical report, 2012)

Below are three quotes from one of many “technical reports” published by CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language at Maryland University. My intention here is simply to draw your attention to this report on vocab. learning, and, maybe more importantly, to the website. It’s a great resource (Mike Long just told me about it); there’s a rich variety of all sorts of interesting, well-written, well-supported  stuff there, and, since it’s financed by US tax-payers’ money, it’s all available for free download.

Here are the quotes:

Storage and retrieval of FL words

“Initial encoding of new lexical items and repeated encounters leading to additional learning are not sufficient to support fluent language use. Students must be able to reliably store the new items in long-term memory and successfully and quickly retrieve them when needed. In order to understand the specific challenges encountered by foreign language students, it is useful to briefly discuss several critical issues related to bilingual memory and FL word retrieval. For the purposes of this review, FL students at early and intermediate levels of proficiency may be considered to be bilinguals who are much stronger in one of their two languages.

One of the most influential models of bilingual memory within a FL learning context is the Revised Hierarchical Model proposed by Kroll and colleagues (Kroll & deGroot, 1997; Kroll & Stewart, 1994; Kroll & Sunderman, 2003; Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). This model attempts to capture the findings from many empirical studies to explain how the relationship of the L1 lexicon and FL lexicon change in relation to one another, and to the conceptual system, as FL proficiency develops. As shown in Figure 4.3, this model of the development of the mental lexicon incorporates a level of lexical information that is connected to, but separable from, conceptual knowledge, which is argued to be universal in its basic architecture.

The arrows in Figure 4.3 represent the relative strength of connections among different aspects of a bilingual’s memory system, with thicker arrows (Concepts -> L1 and FL->L1) representing stronger, more established relationships, and thinner arrows (Concepts -> FL and L1->FL) representing weaker, or less well established connections that may be strengthened as learning proceeds. These differing connection strengths are employed in the model to capture specific findings from the research literature, such as: Students find it easier to retrieve the L1 translation equivalent when given a FL word than to retrieve the FL word when starting from an L1 word as a prompt.

Beginning learners may rely on the L1 lexicon as a “stepping stone” in order to access concepts when presented with an FL word. For example, a beginning learner whose target language is Spanish and whose native language is English, when presented with the word “casa,” may first retrieve the equivalent English word “house,” and then use “house” to retrieve all of the underlying meaning and associations present for that English word.

Since the publication of the original Revised Hierarchical model, further research from a number of investigators has provided strong support for parallel activation of both the L1 and FL mental lexicons during both word recognition and word production (Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). Because both languages are active by default in the bilingual, researchers have conducted further investigations of how bilinguals are able to function effectively in either the L1 or the FL without massive interference from the other language. The ability to manage this type of  interference is important as bilinguals reach higher levels of proficiency, to enable fluent comprehension and production. However, it may also be important for less-proficient bilinguals to allow them to function fully in either the L1 or L2 without intrusions from the other language. Evidence suggests that the executive control system is necessary to accomplish this task (e.g., Abutalebi et al., 2008; Hernandez, Martinez, & Kohnert, 2000; Isel, Baumgærtner, Thrän, Meisel, & Büchel, 2010). Executive control is an aspect of cognition that is closely related to the control of attention and to aspects of the working memory system (Wagner, Bunge, & Badre, 2004). While it is currently unclear whether or to what extent executive control may be important for word learning specifically, its importance for later stages of FL use, including switching between languages and managing interference, make it an important aspect of effective and fluent bilingual proficiency and word usage in real-world tasks.”

Five Principles for enhancing vocabulary learning

“Research in cognitive psychology and education has produced a set of general learning principles that may be used to guide instruction and learning strategies. As these principles have been derived from hundreds of studies of learning across many different topics, they should provide a solid foundation for adult learning within a school environment. Additional research may provide guidance in terms of which aspects of word knowledge are most likely to follow these general principles, and which aspects, in contrast, may rely on principles specific to FL vocabulary learning. Based on current knowledge, however, the FL instructor can feel confident that incorporating

  1. Dual Coding,
  2. Spacing,
  3. Testing,
  4. Feedback,
  5. and Desirable Difficulties

will provide students with a higher level of learning success and effective long-term retention.”

These five principles are all succinctly described and the case for why they help so much is clearly argued.

Quantitative Research Summary

“The overall pattern of results in this quantitative research summary provides valuable information for the design of foreign language vocabulary learning programs. First, vocabulary learning may be aided by explicitly drawing learners’ attention to specific vocabulary items. Second, vocabulary learning can benefit substantially from reading, and reading leads to greater gains in vocabulary than does listening (alone) or list study. In addition, reading-based vocabulary learning can be augmented significantly by providing learners with glosses so that definitions and/or translation of unfamiliar words can be readily accessed during reading. The results also suggest that while plain text glosses are beneficial, text glosses with pictures and/or videos may provide a small amount of additional benefit. Of course, the utility of additional visual information in glosses is limited to vocabulary items whose meanings are readily depicted in pictures and videos.

On the other hand, while the keyword method seems to lead to reliable gains in vocabulary acquisition relative to experimental controls, comparison of the keyword method to other methods (e.g., rote memorization, word study based on semantic grouping) suggests that at least  some other methods lead to larger vocabulary gains.

The results reported above also support the idea that providing explicit instruction with respect to learning strategies can be beneficial to anguage learners. However, given the small number of studies of this issue included in this descriptive summary, and the substantial differences between the approaches of these studies, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about which learning strategies should be taught. Finally, increasing the depth of processing of vocabulary items leads to substantial gains in word learning. Completing fill-in-the-blank passages leads to gains above and beyond gains acquired from reading, and writing sentences and/or longer compositions leads to larger gains than does completing fill-in-the-blank passages.

Hence, the results of this descriptive quantitative summary indicate that foreign language vocabulary gains will be maximized by the inclusion of substantial reading augmented by easily accessible definitions and translations for unfamiliar words and, where possible, additional visual ‘glosses’, as well as active processing of vocabulary items via associated writing exercises. Teachers can profitably draw learner attention to unknown or unfamiliar items, and direct teaching of learning strategies may be beneficial as well.”

P.S. If you can only afford one book on this topic, it must surely be Nation’s.

Nation, I. S. P. (2010). Learning vocabulary in another language (12th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Some Advice on Doing an MA Dissertation Part 1

Introduction

For an MA Applied Linguistics / TESOL you’ll be expected to write a substantial (15 – 20,000 word) piece of academic writing in which you:

  • Identify a clear focus and develop an area of interest in a coherent and rational way. This is a serious bit of academic work: it’s not journalism, or an opportunity to display your own prejudices and preconceptions!
  • Show a deep awareness and appreciation of other (academic) work done in the area, and have a point of view on it.
  • Demonstrate the ability to reflect critically on the area you explore.
  • Show you are able to collect, analyse and interpret empirical data (although a theoretical study is also possible).
  • Show you are aware of the implications of your findings, often, but not necessarily, for professional contexts.
  • Say something new – something that nobody has said before!

It normally involves a small-scale study but it can be literature-based, written predominantly as a result of reading and thinking. Universities prefer dissertations in MA TESOLs to have an applied perspective, wherever possible. By “applied perspective” most universities mean that the study should relate to a particular context and should draw on your professional experience. The application may be to the classroom, but this is not compulsory. For instance, a sociolinguistic investigation may have a wider application for a group of learners in a particular society. An SLA investigation could relate to a naturalistic setting, for example, a study of early child bilingualism. In each case, there may be implications for the TESOL classroom. As you have done with previous modules, you are expected to link theory to practical implications in a manner that is appropriate to your study. Dissertations should show in-depth acquaintance with the literature of the subject area, but should also be a vehicle for the expression of personal views.

I’m going to assume that you’ll do a small-scale study. More than 90% of all MA students do this and I strongly advise you to follow suit. If you want to base your dissertation on a literature review, you can do so, of course, but it’s really quite unusual and markers tend to be a lot more demanding of those dissertations where no study is involved.

 Deciding on the topic and the focus of the study

By the time you come to the dissertation part of the MA, you should already have some idea of what you want to do your research on. Play to your strengths; if you did a particularly good paper on any prior part of the course, then consider expanding on it, as long as you don’t use any parts of the text again. If you like grammar, or IT, or teaching young learners, or designing materials, or sociolinguistics, or whatever it is, then look there, and don’t think that you should do something you know nothing about, just to learn more

Maybe you already have a clear idea of what problem you want to explore, in which case, all you have to do is articulate the question and decide on the research tools. But if you’re still groping for a topic, then start with the “ball park”: what area, out of all those you’ve looked at so far in your studies, do you find most interesting? And inside this area, can you think of a problem, a knotty question, or a divise issue, or a weakness, that needs addressing?

Let’s say that you work in Spain teaching English in a primary school. You’re aware that results are poor: most Spanish children finish primary school with very little ability to communicate in English, as measured by results in the Cambridge PET and CET exams, for example. You believe that a contributing factor in these poor results is that most primary school teachers of English in Spain use a rather old-fashioned “PPP” (Presentation, Practice Production) approach to teach a grammar-based syllabus. A variety of issues present themselves here, but let’s say you focus in on the teachers themselves. Why are the teachers not embracing a more up-to-date, “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT) approach?

Once you get this far, you need to consider your study.

  • What are your resources?
  • Can you use yourself as a teacher trainer or trainee in the study?
  • Can you ask teacher trainers and teacher trainees to fill in a questionnaire? How many?
  • Can you interview some of them?
  • Can you observe teacher training sessions?
  • Can you record them?
  • Can you get access to other data, like teacher journals?

Before you decide on the final Thesis Question, carefully consider what kind of data you can feasably collect in the time frame, and what your limitations are. Just for example, it’s unlikely that in 6 months you’ll be able to do a study where significant improvement in overall language proficiency is measured.

So, to return to your study, how can you investigate what you suspect is teachers’ resistance to CLT? Well, surely the best thing to do is to ask them. But ask them what, precisely? In order to make a questionnaire, and /or an interview template, you need to articulate an overall Thesis Question and then 2 or 3, more specific, research questions.

You could start with the question “Why don’t primary school English teachers in Spain adopt a CLT approach?”. For your own purposes here (and later because you’ll need to address the question more fully), you should be clear what you mean by “a CLT approach”. After that, you could generate these research questions:

  1. What are the perceptions of primary school English teachers in Spain of the CLT approach?
  2. What do primary school English teachers in Spain think are the obstacles to the implementation of the CLT approach?

No matter how you finally go about your study, you have to start by identifying a problem; not an interesting area, not a theme, not a subject, .. a problem! All good research starts with a problem. The problem then has to be articulated as a general Thesis Question, from which Research Questions follow.

These research questions must be formed in such a way that data collected in various ways can answer them. Finally, you have to decide what research tools you’ll use to gather data. It’s important to be clear about the distinction between qualitatitive and quantitative research.

Quantitative Research tries to be objective and is the preferred method of the hard sciences. It relies on empirical observation and it usually reduces the evidence from observations to numbers, focusing on counting and classifying features, and on constructing statistical models and figures to explain what is observed. It makes use of tools such as questionnaires, surveys, measurements and other equipment to collect numerical or measurable data.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is primarily subjective; researchers often get subjectively immersed in the subject matter. It uses text rather than numerical data, and aims to give a complete, detailed description of the research topic. It is usually exploratory in nature. It uses data-gathering strategies such as individual in-depth interviews, structured and non-structured interviews, focus groups, narratives, content or documentary analysis, and participant or non-participant observation. The data is collected by the researcher himself or herself instead of through the inventories, questionnaires and other means used for quantitative research. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The researcher can gain an empathetic understanding of the behaviour of others, but the data collection is bound to be subjective and can even include bias.

For the last 15 years or so there’s been a lively discussion going on in the field of applied linguistics, and particularly in SLA research circles, about the best way to do research. The two opposing sides in this discussion can be seen as supporting predominantly quantitative or qualitative research programmes. In a special edition of TESOL Quarterly in 1996 devoted to ethnographic, subjective research in SLA, the contributors argued for a position totally opposed to the those who adopted a rationalist, empirical approach, and presented research papers that struck the rationalists they were attacking as being almost incomprehensible. In the Applied Linguistics journal, Block (1996) wrote a critique of the papers by Long, Beretta, Gregg, Crookes, and others which had appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to theory construction in SLA (1993), suggesting that they were guilty of “science envy”, that there was no need to recognise accepted findings, no need for replication studies, and an urgent need for SLA researchers to throw off the oppressively restricting constraints of the “scientific” approach, so as to embrace a more relativist, more ethnographic approach.

Interesting though this debate is (I enthusiastically participated on the rationalists’ side), I don’t think it should bother you much as you prepare for your small study. Both types of research have their place in small studies, and very often quantitative data gathered from a questionnaire are combined with qualitative data from interviews. This is actually the path I will recommend.

Research Strategies

We usually distinguish between three research strategies:

  1. Experiment. Here we measure the effects of manipulating one variable (e.g. class size) upon another variable (e.g. results in an end of term proficiency test). The approach usually involves hypothesis testing.
  2. Survey. Here we concentrate on the collection of information in a standardised form from a group of people. The approach usually employs a questionnaire or structured interview.
  3. Case Study. Here we aim to assemble a detail picture, including in-depth insights, about a single ‘case’, or a small number of related ‘cases’. The approach may involve collection of information via a range of data collection techniques including observation, interview and documentary analysis.

Although these three strategies might look very different, in fact they don’t provide a logical partitioning covering all possible forms of enquiry, and there’s no need for you to agnonise about which category your study falls into. As I’ve already hinted above, I encourage you to use a hybrid strategy falling somewhere between these ideal types, e.g., some survey data combined with a small number of case studies, perhaps focusing on selected variables.   The survey provides a general, representative, picture; the case studies, chosen often on the basis of the survey, illuminate, enrich and bring to life the survey findings.

Questionnaires

By far the most popular and most frequently-used research tool for M.A. students is the questionnaire. A questionnaire is defined as “a self-report instrument used for gathering information about variables of interest to the investigator”. They are referred to as postal or email questionnaires. They consist of a number of questions or items which respondents answer by themselves. The questions or items can be structured or unstructured. That is, the categories of response may be specified or left unspecified. The key element in the self-completion questionnaire is that the researcher is not present when the questionnaire is being filled in. As Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) point out (Questionnaires in Second Language Research: Construction, Administration, and Processing, Routledge) questionnaires are used to gather three types of data:

  • factual (who the respondents are),
  • behavioural (what the respondents have done or are doing),
  • attitudinal (what the respondents think about things. In this, the most important category, Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) distinguish between attitudes, beliefs, opinions, inteterests and values.

The advantages of the questionnaire as a research tool are:

  • they make efficient use of time (the questionnaire can be completed by respondents in their own time and questionnaires consisting of closed questions allow for quick summaries and analysis of responses);
  • anonymity (the questionnaire provides the security of anonymity that few other research techniques offer);
  • standardised questions (in a questionnaire all respondents are presented with the same questions; there is no interviewer coming between the respondent and the question, but there is no scope for negotiating or clarifying the meaning of the question.

These are also the reasons why so much care should be taken drafting questions and why piloting is essential.

The limitations of questionnaires are:

  • they tend to lead to description rather than explanation
  • there is no interviewer to interpret or explain the meaning of questions, or to probe or explore answers
  • resulting information can be superficial. When designing a questionnaire :

These limitations can be overcome to somer extent by following a questionnaire with structured interviews to elicit further clarification.

When designing a questionnaire,

  • Keep it simple. Too many questionnaires are too long, too complicated, and too demanding of the respondent.
  • Make the questions specific. More general questions lead to a wider range of interpretations by respondents and are poorer predictors of behaviour. So, for example, the general question “What newspapers do you read?” should be replaced by the question “Which of the following newspapers have you read this week?).
  • Third, and this is by far the most important issue, use closed questions. Closed questions are often criticised because they force people to choose among stated alternatives rather than replying in their own words. But, precisely because closed questions give the response options, they are more specific and more likely to communicate the same frame of reference to all respondents. There will be times when open questions are preferable, of course, but if you use them,try to keep them to a minimum.

And when it comes to writing the questions, keep these ponts in mind:

  •  When in doubt, leave it out. When you finish the first draft of the questionnaire, go through it and ruthlessly discard any questions that are repetitive or redundant. Ask yourself “Is this question realy necessary?” Redundant items waste everyone’s time, mostly your own.
  • Be careful with the language level: questions have to be phrased in a way that matches the vocabulary of your respondents. Don’t use language that patronises or puzzles your respondents.
  • Be clear. Questions should be clear and unambiguous. Avoid double negatives and long-winded questions. Don’t ask double-barrelled questions. Categories of response should be clear so that the difference among categories is obvious to the respondents.

The Likert scale Questionnaire

The Likert scale questionnaire is the most widely-used questionnaire format among MA TESOL candidates. It was developed by Rensis Likert, a sociologist at the University of Michigan from 1946 to 1970 and is designed to measure attitudes. A typical item in a Likert scale questionnaire looks like this:

The president is doing a good job.       1  2  3   4  5

1 = Strongly disagree

2 = Somewhat disagree

3 = Neither agree or disagree

4 = Somewhat agree

5 = Strongly agree

To make a questionnaire that explores attitudes towards a defined construct (in this case, participants’ attitudes towards the president’s performance in office), you first generate items and then select from among them those that in pilots of the questionnaire proved to be valid, unidimensional (all measuring a common trait), and well discriminating.

The most important thing to note is that a proper Likert scale questionnaire measures the person’s attitude towards a given construct by combining (adding or averaging) their responses across ALL ITEMS. A Likert scale is NOT an individual item; it is always a set of several items, with specific format features, the responses to which are added or averaged to produce an overall score or measurement.

Many MA students make questionnaires using some response scale such as

1 = Strongly disagree

2 = Somewhat disagree

3 = Neither agree or disagree

4 = Somewhat agree

5= Strongly agree”

or

1 = Extremely Poor

2 = Below Average

3 = Average

4 = Above Average

5 = Excellent

using a variety of items that are do not explore the same topic. For example, an MA student used the 5-interval response scale “strongly disagree to strongly agree” in a questionnaire that asked teachers in Portugal to respond to 20 items which included

  • My boss is a good manager
  • My students are polite
  • My classroom is well-equipped.

While each item might say something about how satisfied the teacher is with his or her job, the sum of the responses to all 20 items can’t be used to measure anything very interesting.

So the summing or averaging across several items is essential for a true Likert scale questionnaire. In order to report on such a questionnaire, you sum the values of each selected option and create a score for each respondent. In the example above about an online software purchase, the scores can be from 4 to 20. This score is then used to represent a specific trait – satisfied or dissatisfied, for example – and to create a chart of the distribution of opinion across the population. For further analysis, you can cross tabulate the score mean with contributing factors. But it’s important to stress that for the score to have meaning, each item in the scale should be closely related to the same topic. I should add that the questionnaire can have different sections, each one a set of closely-related items.

Note several characteristics or features that define a Likert scale:

  1. The scale contains several items.
  2. Response levels are arranged horizontally.
  3. Response levels are anchored with consecutive integers (e.g. 1,2,3,4,5).
  4. Response levels are also anchored with verbal labels which connote more-or-less evenly-spaced gradations.

It is absolutely essential that you get a good understanding of Likert scale questionnaires, and of questionnaires in general. I recommend that you get a copy of Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) Questionnaires in Second Language Research: Construction, Administration, and Processing . This has everything you need andf more to design, write, administer and analyse a Likert scal questionnaire, or, indeed any questionnaire. Dornyei’s personal website http://www.zoltandornyei.co.uk/ is a great source for help on questionnaires.

Interviews

This is the second most popular tool used by MA students in their studies. They’re often used to back up questionnaire data, but they can be the main tool used. Interviews are commonly divided into three types

  1. Structured Interviews consist of a set of carefully-formulated of fixed questions which are both systematic and sequenced.
  2. Semi-structured interviews are much more open. Tthe inteviewer has some questions prepared on key issues, but feels free to follow other leads and to let the interviewee digress.
  3. Unstructured interviews, as the name suggests, are more like a conversation, where the interviewer goes with the flow. It’s quite likely that you will interview people you know, and if you do, you have to be careful to that this doesn’t affect or compromise your ability to remain impartial.

When conducting interviews, make sure your questions are clear and non-threatening ; don’t ask leading questions (ones that lead interviewees to respond in a particular way); show interest; and don’t speak too much – your job is to listen and probe.

Observation

In this MA, some students choose to do classroom observations, with the goal of recording the behaviour of the teacher, or of the learners, or of the interactions among them. The observations are done by the researcher, and a video recorder is often used. In order to count as a good research tool, the observation must be recorded systematically, related to well-articulated research questions, and subjected to checks and controls on validity and reliability; so this is really quite a demanding research tool. Observations can be structured or unstructured, both having their own advantages and disadvantages.

In unstructured observation, the researcher can be a non-participant observer, sitting at the back of a classroom taking notes, or a participant. Unstructured observation has the advantage of not imposing concepts or frames of reference, so that the researcher is free to record behaviour as it occurs, making special notes of ‘critical incidents. On the other hand, as with unstructured interviews, it is much more difficult to make organise and analyse the data collected, and it requires a great deal of the observer (validity vs. reliability issues).

In structured observations, the researcher must carefully define what behaviour is to be observed; for example, the number of times a teacher gives negative feedback, or the proportion of classroom time dedicated to explicit grammar instruction, or the turn-taking language used by students when engaged in group tasks. This implies that the researcher has a good understanding of of the phenomenon under study, so as to be able to determine, in advance of the observation sessions, what kinds of behaviour should be monitored to get the relavant data. Furthermore, a research tool must be individually devised for recording the observations – some sort of template or score sheet – and, if there is more than one observer, this must be used by all the observers, following the same criteria. So the tool needs to specify whose behaviour is to be observed and the categories of behaviour to be noted, and might also have to specify affective elements (attitudes), cognitive elements (intellectual components, learning strategies) and psychomotor elements (posture, gesture, movement); activity (repetition, etc.).

The problems of structured observation include inadequate definitions of what kinds of behaviour correspond to a given concept; lack of confidence of observers in their own judgement; and the possibility of observer effect i.e. the presence of the observer changing the environment.

Case Studies

A case study is not a method or even a type of research – it’s defined quite simply by its interest in individual cases. Whether there is only one case, or there are multiple cases, the crucial feature of a case study is the individuality of the case: it is not a sample and the numbers of cases which fall into any category is not important. The cases in question may be individual people, small groups, organisations, communities, classroom groups or events. An individual case study might look at a senior executive’s experience of classroom English in a Barcelona private language school; and an organisational case study might examine how the English department of a university in Boston tried to improve English language support over a four year period.

Case studies make no attempt to generalise; no hypothesis, or theory, or general explanation of a phenomenon is made (although they can be useful in the early stages of research on a subject, in suggesting hypotheses, and in providing a trial run for research methods). So why use them? First, intrinsic case studies are used when one is interested in a case not because we want to generalise from it, but because it’s interesting in its own right. The purpose of the study is is not theory building, but rather intrinsic interest in a particular case. Second, instrumental case studies are undertaken to provide insight into an issue, or to refine a theory. The case itself is of secondary interest. While It is still looked at in depth, the case is studied to help us pursue an external interest. In the context of an MA dissertation, the instrumental case study is thus not appropriate. So if you want to do a case study, you have to explain to your tutor what the intrinsic interest of the case is for you, and you then have to persuade him or her that it’s interesting enough to warrant the effort. Case studies use qualitative methods more often than not, unstructured interviews, observations, field notes, diaries, that sort of thing, They can be very interesting, but they’re actually very difficult to do well. It’s certainly not a soft option – only consider it if you’re really fired up about a case, and if you have a tutor who can guide you carefully through it.

Getting The Study Underway 

Let’s go through the process of starting a small study for your MA dissertation.

1) Decide on an area you want to study. Play to your strengths: choose an area you already know about, and maybe that you’ve already done well on in an earlier part of the MA. Recall that earlier in this chapter, I invented the example of an MA student like you who is an English language teacher working with young learners in Spain. You want to look at classroom methodology , an area you are particularly interested in.

2) Define the problem. Articulate a Thesis Question which focuses on a particular problem. As we saw earlier in the example, in your school, you’re aware that results are poor, and you have the impression from anecdotal evidence and things you’ve read that most Spanish children finish primary school with little ability to communicate in English, as measured by results in the Cambridge CET exam, for example. You think that teachers’ widespread use of the “PPP” approach to teach a grammar-based syllabus is a significant factor, and you formulate the question “Why are the teachers not embracing a more up-to-date, “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT) approach?

3) Consider Your Resources

  • Can you participate actively (as a teacher trainer or trainee) in the study? If you do, does this mean your study will be broadly speaking qualitative?
  • How many teacher trainers, teacher trainees, and practicing teachers can you count on to participate in a questionnaire? Remember that you can use online questionnaires, so how many particiapnts can you get from your internet, social media, connections?
  • Who can you interview?
  • Can you observe teacher training sessions? Can you record them?
  • Can you get access to teacher trainer notes /teacher journals / learner diaries etc.?
  • What IT equipment can you get access to?
  • What software (e.g., SPSS) can you get access to?
  • Can you travel?
  • What’s the time frame?

4) Articulate Research Questions. Note first that you have to be clear about what you mean by “a CLT approach”. This will be an important part of the literature review, but you need to begin with a definition that you think you can work with, or define the term yourself. Next, you have to decide if you’re going to take a case study approach, or widen it a bit so that the study has some generalisability. Let’s say you decide that this is going to be a small study not a case study. OK, now you can write the research questions. Suppose you come up with these:

RQ 1: What are the perceptions of English teachers working in primary education in Spain of the CLT approach?

RQ 2: What do these primary school teachers think are the obstacles which stand in the way of the implementation of the CLT approach ?

You might also want to use one or two hypotheses to help the study stay focused. For example:

H 1: The teachers in the study claim to be favourably disposed towards the CLT approach, but feel insecure about implementing it.

H 2: The teachers think that resistance from superiors and parents is the main obstacle to implementing a CLT approach.

Obviously, there will a lot of other factors to consider, but these 2 predictions ,whether they turn out to be supported or not by the data, indicate the main thrust of your argument and help to position you.

5) Decide on the research tools. The most usual, and in my opinion, the best, tools to use for such a study are a Likert scale questionnaire and follow-up interviews.

6) Find examples of the chosen research tools that have been used in previous studies. Whatever your topic, it’s important that there is already a body of literature to consult. This literature will include studies, and it’s quite likely that one or more of the studies will have used a Likert scale questionnaire. If you can use a Likert scale questionnaire that has been used in a previously published study, this is a tremendous boost to your own study and will save you a great deal of work. It’s difficult to exagerrate the value of doing a replication study, but a full, faithful replication study is usually beyond the resources of MA students. Never mind – you can still use a published questionnaire, or an adapted version of it, and I strongly advise you to do so.

7) Design the questionnaire and the interview form.

8) Find particiapnts for the questionnaire and the interviews. Generally speaking, 50 respondents to a questionnaire and 6 interviews is fine.

9) Get the ethics permissions sorted out. You can’t ask people to fill in questionnaires or take part in interviews for a study without getting their permission and addressing ethical questions like privacy. Each university handles these matters in its own way, so make sure you comply with your uni’s requirements before doing any field work.

10) Show your tutor what you’ve done so far, get feedback and revise as necessary. You should be in regular contact with your tutor when doing the dissertation, and it’s really important not to take any major decision without consulting him or her. After some less formal consultations, you should finally write a dissertation proposal, which will be submitted to your tutor. The proposal will be 2 or 3 pages long and will include:

11) Write the Proposal

  1. Decide on a provisional title. Don’t spend much time on this; here the title is just to give a “ball park” indication of the diss.
  2. The background. A brief explanation of why you find this area interesting, and what particular aspect of this area you will focus on. This is NOT a literature review! You might mention a few sources, but the idea here is to tell your tutor what the area is, why you’re interested, and why it’s interesting.
  3. The Thesis Question which will inform your research. I think it is much better to articulate a question, rather than an “overall aim”, for example, because this is the
  4. Two or three Research Questions and hypotheses if you choose.
  5. Your research methods and participants.
  6. The value of your intended research. What do you think the results of your study will contribute to the problem that you’ve tackled?
  7. Ethical issues which arise from the proposal. If you intend to ask students or teachers or administrators for their opinions on colleagues, for example.
  8. References. Give your tutor an indication of the literature you will include.

Once you’ve got your tutor’s feedback and final approval, and once you’ve got the ethics issues sorted, you’re ready to start the field work, which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Post Mortem IATEFL 2017 Conference

What happened, Jane?

You had to be there!

Jane Jones, let’s call her that, was paid by her school to go to Glasgow. She stayed in a nice hotel, she went to lots of sessions, she sat in the huge auditorium and watched the stars do their stuff, she went to a couple of parties, and she went home feeling that it had been really rewarding. Her enjoyment of the conference depended little on the plenaries;  it was more that she felt privileged to be there; that she was excited to be away from the work place and away from home; that she felt the buzz of the conference; that two or three of the sessions she went to hit a cord; that she dined out; and, more than anything, that she met new people, shot the breeze with them, and felt that they (not the plenary speakers) had made her think about her job.

What did the organisers do? They laid on baloney with shovels, they played to the sponsors, and, inevitably, they emphasised the gap between “them and us”. Invitation Only events proliferated, including a cocktail party on the top floor of a 5 star hotel where the lucky few who’d won raffles at publishers’ stands could rub shoulders with the ELT stars.

At this year’s IATEFL conference, judging from the British Council’s coverage of it that I watched, nothing much happened.

  • The commercialisation and commodification of ELT was celebrated.
  • The IATEFL organisation did nothing much to address the ever-worsening condtions of most of its membership.
  • No real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT was presented.
  • The publishers were more shameless than ever in their sponsorship of presentations.
  • The plenaries were all duds, with the possible exception of the last one by Tomlinson.
  • The stars trotted out their usual baggage on stage.
  • Boring interviews took place between the stars and the British Council’s uncritical interviewers. (But Horray for the guest interviewer Scott Thornbury, who did a splendid interview with Angelos Bollas!)
  • Nicola Prentis’ criticisms of gender inequality went unanswered.

Of course, there were a few gems.  There was an extraordinary, dead pan defence of absurd teaching practice in China by Wan Jung who replied to well-rehearsed questions by Jim Scrivener without even a hint of irony. It was weirdly fascinating, a great double act, and by far the most interesting thing I saw. But with the exception of this and no doubt one or two other talks, the real value of the conference, as always, was what didn’t get reported: it’s what happened to Jane that made it all worthwhile.

Which raises some obvious questions:

Q1: Why not do without the stars and the all the rest of the showbiz nonsense?

Q2: Why not give the membership of IATEFL a bigger say in the agenda of the conference?

Q3: Why not address the issues raised by the banned TaW SIG group?

Q4: Why not talk more openly about the false assumptions underpinning coursebook-driven ELT?

Q5: Why not challenge the CEFR?

Q6: Why not talk more critically about teacher training certificates?

The obvious answer to Q1 is that the stars and all the rest of the showbiz nonsense is the outward, necessary flaunting of the power of the ELT business today. We can’t do without it: it is, as we say in Spain, “lo que hay” – it’s the way things are. Being part of an industry with an $18 billion annual turnover (Pearson’s estimate), means that this kind of circus is expected: it’s the tried and trusted  way of celebrating might. The bigger the plenary stage, the more reinforced the stature of those who strut it.

And the answers to the other questions are that the IATEFL organisation is not democratic, not concerned with workers’ rights, and not willing to challenge its sponsors.

What’s the alternative? Is it an ashen-faced, sandal wearing, humourless group of ELT Vegans meeting in a candle-lit cave near Stonehenge to talk about Zen-driven ELT? Well, I don’t think so. The alternative is locally organised groups of teachers who link together in a federation which has a big annual conference where all the issues that IATEFL fails to confront are discussed and fun is had by one and all.

IATEFL 2017 Part 3: The Limits of Reform: Tomlinson’s Plenary

Brian Tomlinson’s talk Let’s listen to the learners highlighted the fact that learners are not consulted about the content of the courses that they pay for.

To quote from Adi Rajan’s summary , Tomlison says

We don’t listen enough to what:

  • they have to say about life
  • they have to say about learning a language
  • they need
  • they want

And yet:

Learners only learn:

  • what they want and need to learn;
  • when they want and need to learn it

Tomlinson then suggested lots of practical ways of involving learners more, which are well summarised by Adi.

Discussion

The problem is, yet again, the elephant in the room! Tomlinson didn’t challenge the coursebook itself. He didn’t, that is, recognise that ANY coursebook which is used to implement a product / synthetic syllabus is fatally flawed. And thus, I have to diasagree with Adi, who opines that it was

a brilliant talk! Filled with insights from research, experiences from the classroom, practical strategies and the unsaid implication of the extent to which teachers like you and me are inadvertently letting the status-quo go unchallenged.

Yes, right, but unless we get to the root of the problem, which is coursebook-driven ELT, we’ll never get what close to what Tomlinson wants ELT to be. To be clear:

There’s little point in getting learner input into a coursebook if the coursebook still does the same thing, i.e., guide a grammar-based, PPP syllabus.

It’s interesting to note that Tomlinson’s talk, despite all its criticisms of coursebooks, prompted many to see it as an endorsement of coursebook driven ELT. In a long exchange on Twitter, Marek Kiczkowiak suggested that Tomlinson’s talk supported the use of coursebooks, and replied to questions by saying that Tomlinson had given good references to support this claim. I doubt that Kiczkowiak had read the references, and anyway, his attempt to defend coursebooks finally fell back on the tired and irrelevant defence that teachers don’t have time to do any more than use coursebooks.

Let me deal here with the oft-repeated refrain “Coursebooks are not the cause, but merely the symptom of the problem.”

It’s true, of course, that coursebooks are the symptom, but they’re the essential symptom of the commodification of ELT. The cause is not, as Robert  suggests, bad training, but the political organisation of the whole damn planet. It isn’t training, Robert, it really is not. You’ve got it wrong, because you lack a political framework and a historical perspective. Long before you started teaching, in the 1970s and 80s, ELT went through a glorious phase in the West of mad experimentation, where teachers tried every which way to help their students learn. No CELTA course demanded that trainees show their prowess in using a cousebook because coursebooks hardly existed. Coursebooks flourished in the 1990s as the ELT industry boomed: they were what the market needed. It’s as simple and horrible as that.  So coursebooks, I suggest, will do very well as a focus for criticism of current ELT practice.

Coursebook driven ELT is a reflection of global capitalism. The capitalists, including the biggest capitalists of them all these days, the State, want things to be run for profit. And that means that the multi billion dollar ELT industry just loves coursebooks, because they package a product into, here we go again, McNuggets. As the daft remarks of Kiczkowiak give sad evidence of, people get misled into thinking that it’s all to do with convenience. Educational values get chucked out of the window and we all get further away from our real goals.

In order to get back to, and on with, good teaching, we need to get rid of coursebooks.

Tomlinson had a lot of good things to say. What his plenary lacked was a critical evaluation of the data he collected and an appreciation of the need to go beyond tinkering. Coursebooks don’t need to be tinkered with, they need to be abolished.

IATEFL 2017 Part 2: Thornbury The Apologist

One of the worst presentations I saw in the BC’s coverage of the IATEFL conference was Scott Thornbury’s Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap.

First, it was a sales pitch.

Thornbury starts off by praising his publishers for the frantic efforts they made to get his books ready to be sold at the conference. This is just one example of the commercialisation of the conference that Steve Brown discusses.

Second, it was devoid of critical acumen.

Thornbury has a good idea: ask a few writers of “How to Teach English” books a number of questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

He gives samples of their responses such as

PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.

JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti- research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.

JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.

Then he summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

He concludes that their responses are a good guide to how teacher professional development should be carried out.

No critical assessment, not one word of criticism. Everything’s fine.

Look at Conclusion 2:

Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.

In other words, methodology writers cherry pick, looking for stuff that supports their own biases. They ignore the minimal criterion for a critical appraisal of evidence, a criterion which they hypocritically impose on those doing the teacher training course they all run.

Thornbury’s data show that those who write methodology books pay scant regard to research into how people learn languages. They “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’y got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions”, i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies.

Thornbury’s data is disquieting, to say the least. It turns out that the books which are recommended reading for the hundreds of thousands of people studying to get a qualification in ELT are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically assess what research findings tell us about how people learn languages.

And this, says Thornbury, is a good model for professional development in ELT.