The Language Gym

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Gianfranco Conti’s The Language Gym is a blog, but really it’s a sales pitch for his book The Language Teacher Toolkit. Actually he’s the co-author but it’s hard to find the other bloke’s name.

There’s another web site too, with a front page that reminds me of Orwell’s 1984. Try it. I think it’s horrific, like you’re trapped, like you can’t get out, like you have to do the work out, like come on, sign up, follow.

The book claims that the tools it describes can successfully help teachers to get learners to transfer knowledge held in some version of working memory to some version of long term memory, and then ensure some version of communicative competence. Conti and his co-author use the distinction between working memory and long term memory as if they knew how the two constructs worked in SLA; as if, that is, they were working with some theory of SLA that had some definitive explanation of the putative transition. None exists. What do Conti and his co-author think happens to input?  What do they think the difference between input and intake is? What do they think “noticing” does? Come to that, what do they think “noticing” is?  What theory is it that they think explains how knowledge supposedly held in working memory goes into long term memory? What happens then? The book is stuffed with baloney, but I’ll deal with the book more fully on another day.

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Six Useless Things Foreign Teachers Do

It’s the blog that I want to criticise here. Recently, I noticed to my surprise that people whose opinions I respect “liked” the posts on Conti’s blog, and, in particular, they “liked”  the latest post Six Useless Things Foreign Teachers Do. Well I don’t like it. I object to it because

  1. There’s a strident sales pitch.
  2. There’s scant respect for research.

The Sales Pitch

The sales pitch is evident throughout this blog. Each and every post ends with a “Buy This Book” call. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a special page devoted to promoting the book where  “Oxford University ‘legend’, Professor Macaro, reviews The Language Teacher Toolkit”. Macaro is an Oxford University Legend?  Really?

The Respect for Research

As for the scant respect for research, there are claims in Conti’s post which rely on cherry picking academic work and which make little attempt to present the real complexities of the matters discussed. Here are 2 examples

1. As several studies have clearly shown, recasts do not really ‘work’.

This is false. See Long (2007) Problems of SLA, Chapter 4, “Recasts in SLA, the Story so Far”.  The case for recasts should be properly considered, not argued with disregard for a proper weighing of the evidence.

2.  Direct correction, whereby the teacher corrects an erroneous grammatical form and provides the correct version of that structure with an explanation on margin is pretty much a waste of valuable teacher time.

This is also false. See Bitchener and Ferris (2011) Written Corrective Feedback in Second Language Acquisition and Writing for why it’s false.

When he’s not misrepresenting research findings, Conti is just blowing off. For example, he says

Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know (e.g. I cannot self-correct an omission of the subjunctive if I have not learnt it) and if s/he is indeed able to correct, s/he will not really learn much from it.

Note that this blather is followed by this:

To learn more about my views on this issue read my blog “Why asking students to self-correct their errors is a waste of time”.

Go on, have a look, go and see what he says about why asking students to self-correct their errors is a waste of time, and I hope you’ll note that he’s once again over-stepping the mark.

 

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31 thoughts on “The Language Gym

  1. I completely agree. The recasts point in itself is ludicrous. That a simple search on recasts takes you beyond Lyster and Ranta, and therefore beyond CLIL/immersion settings, suggests this blog (and therefore the book, seeing as the blog is a vehicle for it) wasn’t researched thoroughly enough.

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  2. You are entitled to your opinions, Geoff, which I don’t even bother objecting to as the tone you used in your post is disrespectful and unworthy of an academic. Professor Macaro was Head of the Oxford Department of Education for several years and is currently Professor of Applied Linguistics there, surely a man of much higher academic reputation than yours. If he thinks my book is worth reading I am happy. I tend to focus on the positive of people and things. So should you. You sound like a very angry man. Wishing you all the best in your blogging career. Gianfranco Conti

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    • I hope readers will appreciate how empty this reply is.

      Prof. Marcos’ reputation is inflated by you to promote your book.

      I’m not angry.

      Answer the criticisms.

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      • And anyway, what’s all this “Gianfranco Conti, Phd (Applied Linguistics / Cognitive Psychology), MA (TEFL)” handle about?

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      • Dear Geoff, I am currently writing another book (a further chance for you to criticize me! Rejoice!); two articles for the Times Ed and working on the re-design and imminent re-launch of the Orwellian-like website that you seem to love so much. Add to this the fact that my 3-year-old daughter has been unlawfully abducted to Iran by my ex-wife and I am involved in a fierce legal battle over this… really, my friend, you will agree this does not come up as a top priority of mine at the moment. Apologies if that article had so many shares and views on socal media, so does Kim Kardashian and she does say and write more preposterous things than Steve and I publish. Why not writing another one of your fabulous posts about her? You would do the world a favour. Who cares about Gianfranco Conti and his blog, really? I am very sad to have made another human being so angry and outraged over a blog. Thinking of giving up my blogging career over this! Wishing you all the best. Gianfranco 😦

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      • Dear Gianfranco,

        I’m very sorry to hear about your personal problems and I regret causing you any distress. I’m not angry or outraged; just critical.

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    • Gianfranco,
      You’re not the first, nor will you be the last to comment on Geoff’s inimicable prose. That said I wonder why go to the trouble of replying if you are not planning to tackle the points? You list your qualifications, criticise tone, make appeals to authority, move to ad hom and then later post personal details for reasons I am still trying to work out.

      This reply is in no way a defence of Geoff or his modus operandi, but more a request for better scholarship in the field in general. I for one would personally be interested in hearing if and how you think GJ has got it wrong here. Your replies don’t help me in that regard.

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      • Another pot has a go at the same kettle!

        First poor old Conti gets criticised for his tone by me, which is enough to make Scott laugh out loud, and now he gets criticised for poor scholarship by Russ Mayne, which is enough to make me laugh out loud.

        All we need now is for Harmer to write in criticising Conti for his poor prose style and for being too sentimental.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Russ. The reason why I mentioned my personal reasons is because I wanted to Ensure he understood that I did not have the mental space and serenity to embark on one of those online brawls he enjoys to firestart.it Is not for intellectual cowardice or laziness. I haven’t blogged for a while due to those reasons . When my issues are solved I will definitely do. Also, what put me off replying is the very unfair accusation that I use my blog to sell my book. My blog started in May 2015 the book was published Teo months ago. Add to this the tone and the language used and the way he derided professor Macaro. I am not interested in winning arguments. I write to disseminate ideas I believe in and people are free to dissent. My qualifications are there because I earned them not to show off or as crutches for my credibility . If you are interested in my take on those ideas read my blogs it is all in there – not in that post which was only meant to stir s reaction and be thought provoking. i mentioned personal circumstances because the tone felt personal not academic. Gianfranco

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      • Just one thing. I didn’t deride Prof. Macaro, I questioned your claim that Prof. Macaro is “an Oxford University legend.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Prof. Macaro himself balked at such a description.

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  3. Hi, Geoff. I’m the “other bloke”, Steve Smith. You slam our book without having read it, which is a pity. Our handbook is mainly a practical guide for modern language teachers, although EL teachers may find it interesting. We do not follow a particular theory of SLA, but do refer to skill theory and comprehensible input from time to time. We are at pains to stress that there is no best method. Gianfranco’s blog was in existence for some time before the book was written. We are both ML teachers with long experience; I retired in 2012. If you were to read our book I’m sure you would find aspecrs to enjoy as well as criticise.

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  4. Pingback: Error Treatment: Not Straightforward Shock! | Freelance Teacher Self Development

  5. “I noticed to my surprise that people whose opinions I respect “liked” the posts on Conti’s blog, and, in particular, they “liked” the latest post Six Useless Things Foreign Teachers Do. Well I don’t like it.” I “liked” that post, but like others who’ve commented here and on twitter I found several aspects disagreeable. So why did I click the “like” button? It says “Like” on it, but I use it to a) simply acknowledge my readership for the author b) helpfully ‘log’ it for myself within the wordpress system c) sometimes, simply ‘like’ that something made me think, even if I disagree. To be sure, not much further down that low grade, low bar slope lies a far too tame wishy-washiness that I’m profoundly glad you and others don’t abide for yourself. I absolutely agree that the tone is too strident and too sure while consistently burying any references to research. I *want* to trust scholars to pivot towards the populace and interpret into plain prose the dense poesy of research. But while reading a post on that blog I sometimes feel the need to physically duck down, so much is being hurled out at top velocity. Somehow I manage to click the ‘like’ button from just under my desk.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I confess that I was taken aback by some of the things Conti said; it was a very thought-provoking post, indeed. However, the way I see it at least, whichever way you choose to correct your learners’ mistakes, you should bear in mind that language recycling plays a much more important role in language acquisition/maintenance than anything else. Simply drawing the students’ attention to a specific language mistake won’t suffice; they must be reminded of it – and have practice of it – over and over and over again… So, whether you choose to highlight the mistakes made by students in their writing pieces for them to correct these mistakes later, or give them the correct form straight away, make sure that your learners will have the chance to study these language items later.

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    • Hi Leticia,

      The main objection I have to Conti’s stuff is its tone: he issues a series of pronouncements as if he knew how we learn an L2 and the best way to teach it. It’s preposterous!

      I agree with you that recycling is important, but I think claiming that “language recycling plays a much more important role in language acquisition/maintenance than anything else” might be over-stepping it a bit.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments.

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  7. Pingback: Mike Long on Recasts | CriticElt

  8. Geoff, you quote Conti as follows: Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know (e.g. I cannot self-correct an omission of the subjunctive if I have not learnt it) and if s/he is indeed able to correct, s/he will not really learn much from it.
    And you characterize the quote as ‘blather’. I’m not sure I see in what the blather consists.

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    • Hi Kevin,

      Why do I say that Conti’s claim is blather, you mean?

      In what follows I’ll refer to the learner as “he”.

      It’s not NECESSARILY the case that if the learner doesn’t know the form, then he won’t be able to correct what he doesn’t know. Indirect correction of a form that the learner doesn’t know indicates to the learner that there’s a problem. There are lots of ways of following up on written homework for which the teacher has given indirect correction; by the learner himself and by the teacher. The learner can follow up the indication of an error for himself, by asking the teacher or another knower, or the teacher can organise follow-up work in class. Whether or not learners go on to find out what the problem is that the indirect correction indicates and then learn from it is a question best settled by empirical studies, not by arguing that the learner can’t learn “because” he won’t be able to correct what he doesn’t know. That’s blather.

      Similarly, it isn’t necessarily the case that if the learner is able to correct the error, s/he won’t learn much from the correction. Again it’s a question of empirical study.

      Conti doesn’t give a fair review of the literature, some of which supports the case for giving indirect written feedback . As I said in the post, Bitchener and Ferris (2011) “Written Corrective Feedback in Second Language Acquisition and Writing” indicates that there’s a lot of evidence that indirect feedback can be effective.

      I came across this article “The Effects of Teacher-Written Direct vs. Indirect Feedback on Students’ Writing” http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042814025579
      The abstract says:

      “This study attempted to examine the effect of two different types of feedback on the writing performance of students regarding eight grammatical errors. Students who received indirect corrective feedback performed better than those who received direct feedback. Data evaluations indicate that students improved their linguistic accuracy on new writing tasks better when indirect feedback strategy was applied rather than direct feedback.”

      I haven’t given the article a thorough reading, but it’s surely better to argue the case by looking at what students do with indirect feedback, than by relying on the “logic” that you can’t learn from an indirect correction of something you don’t know.

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