The Language Gym follows the classic self-help format: I’ll tell you the answers to all your worries and fears (about language teaching) but you need to park your critical faculties at the front door. The posts are stridently prescriptive, shamelessly self-promotional, and dumbly dogmatic, with titles like these:
- 10 commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction
- Eight motivational theories and their implications for the classroom
- 10 commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction
- Six ‘useless’ things foreign language teachers do
The author of this blog is Gianfranco Conti, who never tires of selling himself and his terrible book. A few examples from recent posts:
- But I do have a teacher-training background, a PhD in Applied Linguistics and an MA in TEFL on top of 25 years language teaching experience.
- As professor Macaro, former Head of the Oxford University Education Department, wrote in his excellent review of our book ‘The Language Toolkit’ (click here) …
- I have had to adopt feedback-to-writing strategies that are not aligned with my espoused theory of L2 learning and current research wisdom – despite having a PhD in error correction in second language writing.
- Since posting my three articles on listening … I have been flooded with e-mail, Twitter and Facebook messages from teachers worldwide
- My students conjugate verbs every day on the http://www.language-gym conjugator… often scoring 90 -100%
Every post has references to his book, and ends with a plug for it.
Well, “no harm done” you might reasonably say, and maybe none is. Still, in his two most recent posts, Dr. Conti says a few things that I think need commenting on.
1. Principled Teaching
In his latest post Conti argues that ELT must be grounded in a deep understanding (like his) of SLA. He says that teachers need to ask themselves these 3 questions:
- How are foreign languages learnt ?
- What are the implications of the answer to question (1) for language teaching and learning ?
- Is the answer to (2) truly reflected in your own teaching practice?
We’ll skip all the preamble, where Conti explains how his abundant qualifications and experience make him more ready than most teachers to be a “reflective practitioner” and look at his answer to Question 1. He says this:
Cognitive models of language acquisition (especially Skill-based theories and Connectionism) provided the basis for my espoused theory of learning and shaped much of what you read in my blogs and of what I have been doing in the classroom for the last 20 years.
I couldn’t find anything about Connectionism in the gym, but there are certainly quite a few posts where we’re told how learners’ brains work, and how getting things from their working memory into their long term memory is the secret of all teaching and learning. So let’s have a look at the theory which provides the basis for Conti’s principled teaching.
Skill Acquisition Theory
As a general learning theory, skill acquisition theory argues that when you start learning something, you do so through largely explicit processes; then, through subsequent practice and exposure, you move into implicit processes. So you go from declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge and the automatisation this brings. Declarative knowledge involves explicit learning or processes; learners obtain rules explicitly and have some type of conscious awareness of those rules. The automatization of procedural knowledge entails implicit learning or processes; learners proceduralise their explicit knowledge, and through suitable practice and use, the behaviour becomes automatic.
Quite a few objections have been raised to to this theory. First, the lack of an operational definition undermines the various versions of skill acquisition theory that Conti has referred to: there is no agreed operational definition for the constructs “skill”, “practice”, or “automatization”. Partly as a result, but also because of methodological issues (see, for example, Dekeyser, 2007), the theory is under-researched; there is almost no empirical support for it.
Second, skill acquisition theory is in the “strong-interface” camp with regard to the vexed issue of the roles of explicit and implicit learning in SLA. It holds that explicit knowledge is transformed into implicit knowledge through the process of automatization as a result of practice. Many, including perhaps most famously Krashen, dispute this claim, and many more point to the fact that the theory does not take into account the role played by affective factors in the process of learning. Practice, after all, does not always make perfect.
Third, the practice emphasized in this theory is effective only for learning similar tasks: it doesn’t transfer to dissimilar tasks. Therefore, many claim that the theory disregards the role that creative thinking and behaviour plays in SLA.
Fourth, to suggest that the acquisition of all L2 features starts with declarative knowledge is to ignore the fact that a great deal of vocabulary and grammar acquisition in an L2 involves incidental learning where no declarative stage is involved.
In my opinion, the most important weakness of skill acquisition theory is that it fails to deal with the sequences of acquisition which have been the subject of hundreds of studies in the last 50 years, all of them supporting the construct of interlanguages.
We may conclude that while there are some interesting aspects of skill acquisition theory, it is both poorly constructed and incomplete. Given the current state of SLA theory, and given the essentially unscientific nature of the craft of language teaching, the strident claims made by Conti are unwarranted. In as far as he gives the impression that he knows how people learn a foreign language, and that he knows how to use this knowledge to build the best methodology for ELT, Conti is as deluded as those who use their web sites to peddle homeopathic pills.
The limitations of Conti’s understanding of SLA are evident in his previous post “The seed-planting technique …..”, where he says:
effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design…… A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions.
This amounts to what Breen (1987) calls a “Product” syllabus, what White calls a “Type A” syllabus and what Long (2011 and 2015) calls a “Synthetic” syllabus. The key characteristic of Conti’s “effective curriculum” is that it concentrates on WHAT is to be learned. The designer decides on the content, which is divided up into bits of lexis and grammar that are presented and practiced in a pre-determined order (planting “seeds” which precede the scheduled main presentation and subsequent recycling). The syllabus is external to the learner, determined by authority. The teacher is the decision maker, and assessment of success and failure is done in terms of achievement or mastery.
The problem with Conti’s curriculum is that he relies on skill acquisition theory, which makes two false assumptions. First, it assumes that declarative knowledge is a necessary precursor to procedural knowledge, and second, it assumes that learners learn what teachers teach them, an assumption undermined by all the evidence from interlanguage studies. We know 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.
Even when presented with, and drilled in, target-language forms and structures, even when errors are routinely corrected, and even when the bits and pieces are “seeded” and recycled in various ways, learners’ acquisition of newly-presented forms and structures is rarely either categorical or complete, and it is thus futile to plan the curriculum of an academic year on the assumption that the course’s “core language items” will be “comprehended/produced effectively” by the end of the year. 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 order or manner in which target-language structures and vocabulary are presented to them by teachers, 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).
Once again, the hyped-up sales pitch turns out to be unwarranted. The carefully-planned, “principled” curriculum Conti showcases is nothing more than an old-fashioned product syllabus, with a few bells and whistles, or rather dumbbells and seeds, thrown in.
Breen, M. (1987) Learner contributions to task design. In C. Candlin and D. Murphy (eds.), Language Learning Tasks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 23-46.
Dekeyser, R. (2007) Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 97-113). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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.
White, R.V. (1988) The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.