Challenging the Coursebook 3

Understanding interlanguage development helps in evaluating different approaches to ELT.  I’ve already touched on this issue in a post on TBLT,  and in Challenging Coursebooks 2, and here’s a bit more, intended as further support for my criticisms of coursebooks, and as preparation for a syllabus proposal. This is mostly a cut-and-paste paraphrasing of Long, 2011.

We must start by recognizing that learners, not teachers, have most control over their language development.  As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

A major source of evidence for the strength of the learner’s role in SLA, and simultaneously, about the limits of instruction, is the work that’s been done on processes in interlanguage development. Interlanguages (the construct was introduced by Selinker in 1972) are individual learners’ transitional versions of the L2, and studies show that they exhibit common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Independent of those and other factors, learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to mastery of target-language structures, or, as is often the case, to an end-state short of mastery. Examples of such sequences are found in the well known morpheme studies; the four-stage sequence for ESL negation; the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses; and the sequence of question formation in German (see Long, 2015 for a full discussion).

Long (2011) insists that SLA is not a process of forming new habits to override the effects of L1 transfer. Even when presented with, and drilled in, target-language forms and structures, and even when errors are routinely corrected, learners’ acquisition of newly-presented forms and structures is very rarely either categorical or complete, as is assumed by most coursebooks. On the contrary, acquisition of grammatical structures and sub-systems like negation or relative clause formation is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and  U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the learners’ L1 might be, and no matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers or by coursebook  writers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989). The effectiveness of negative feedback on error has been shown to be constrained in the same way (see, e.g., Mackey, 1999).

The 5 most studied processes of interlanguage development are

  • simplification (using “la” for “the”, and “un” for “a” in Spanish, regardless of gender, etc.,);
  • overgeneralization (using “ed” for irregular verbs);
  • restructuring (often involving back-sliding: going from “went” to “goed”, but often making adjustments which “improve” the IL);
  • U-shaped behaviour (went –> goed –> went);
  • and fossilization (“premature cessation of development in defiance of optimal learning conditions” Selinker, 1972).

While knowledge about the sequences and processes of interlanguage development should act mostly to warn us against any simple view of teaching and learning an L2, it can, Long says, inform good teaching by helping teachers (and their students) cultivate a different attitude towards errors, and more enlightened expectations for progress. “It can help them recognize that many so-called errors are a healthy sign of learning, that timing is hugely important in language teaching, and that not all that can be logically taught can be learned if learners are not developmentally ready. Knowledge about sequences and processes can also help counter the deficit view that interlanguages are defective surrogates of the target language by making it clear that interlanguages are shaped by the same systematicity and variability that shape all other forms of human language” (Long, 2011). It should also be remembered that if teachers respect the constraints of their learners’ trajectories, and especially if they teach according to the principles referred to below, they can have a dramatic positive effect on their learners’ rate of learning.

The question remains: Why don’t language teachers teach to the sequences and processes which have been identified in interlanguage studies?  First, because we don’t know how different sequences relate to each other in the grammar of individual learners, so we don’t know how to sequence grammatical targets according to developmental learner readiness principles. More importantly, language learning isn’t just learning  grammar: vocabulary, pragmatics, phonology, and so on are also involved. But the most fundamental objection is that learning an L2 isn’t about focusing on bits and pieces of language.  Rather than trying to organize instruction around grammar (or lexical chunks, for that matter) in a product syllabus, implemented by using a General English coursebook, we have a wide range of options which are more attuned to what we know about psycholinguistic, cognitive, and socioeducational principles for good language teaching.  These include Dogme, Task-Based-Language-Teaching, various forms of ESP, and various process syllabuses. All of them share the principles that I’ve outlined in previous posts on TBLT and Principles and Practice and I’ll propose one such syllabus shortly.

Long, M. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M.  Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. N.Y., Routledge.

All other references can be found at the end of Long’s 2011 Chapter.


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