In June 2016, Alan Maley published an article called ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?”, arguing that, with regard to second language teaching,
research and the practice of teaching are quite different forms of activity, with no necessary connection between them.
Having pointed out that research and teaching are different and that they have divergent priorities, that research findings are routinely ignored, and that few new ideas in TESOL have come from research, Maley concludes:
we recognise the value and legitimacy of research and theory-building within its own domain. But we should not expect it to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.
Maley uses Lightbown’s (2000) survey to summarise the contribution of SLA research to developments in TESOL over the past 50 years.
- “Adults and adolescents can ‘acquire a second language’
- The learner creates a systematic interlanguage….
- There are predictable sequences in L2 acquisition
- Practice does not make perfect
- Knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction
- Isolated error correction is usually ineffective in changing language behaviour
- For most adult Ls, acquisition stops before the L has attained native-like mastery of the target language
- . One cannot achieve native-like…command of a second language in one hour a day.
- The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex.
- . A learner’s ability to understand language in a meaningful context exceeds their ability to comprehend de-contextualised language and to produce language of comparable complexity and accuracy.”
While it is useful to have common-sense intuitions verified by research, the above list does not appear to make a radical contribution to our understanding of how we learn languages.
I hope you noticed points 2 to 6 on the list, because it seems that Maley missed them. They’re all to do with research findings about interlanguage development, and the question is: how could Maley have read these points and failed to appreciate that they make an extremely radical contribution to our understanding of how we learn languages? How can Maley so confidently assert that research is of no relevance to the practice of teaching, when he acknowledges the findings of interlanguage development research which clearly indicate that most ELT today is carried out in a way that contradicts them?
Points 2 to 6 indicate that SLA is a process whereby “the learner creates a systematic interlanguage”, which is made up of “predictable sequences in L2 acquisition”. One implication of the nature of this interlanguage development is that “knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction.” More generally, robust research findings have shown that teaching can affect the rate but not the route of interlanguage development, and that, therefore, the most widely-used method of teaching English in the world today, namely by presenting and practicing a pre-determined series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc., etc.) is bound to fail: learners will simply not learn what they’re taught. (See my post on the folly of coursebooks for a fuller discussion of the implications of interlanguage research findings on teaching practice.)
How can Maley so easily and breezily ignore such a huge “elephant in the room”? Not that he’s the only one who pretends the elephant isn’t there: none of the 15 who respond to Maley’s article draws attention to the implications of research into interlanguage development for teaching practice. Why is no attempt made by Maley or any of the 15 respondents to thoroughly examine SLA research findings and to then impartially evaluate their implications for teaching practice? Could it be that they’re just so stuck in their own grooves, so comfortably ensconced in the upper echelons of the ELT establishment that they’d rather not face research findings which so seriously challenge the principles on which current ELT practice rests? For all their nods in the direction of progress, Maley, Scrivener, Medgyes, Thornbury and the rest of them show an understandable reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them.
Just one example. Thornbury, the enfant terrible of the establishment, knows perfectly well that most current ELT practice flies in the face of robust SLA research findings. Thornbury propounds the Dogme approach, he speaks out against coursebooks, he gives courses in SLA to post graduate students in New York. And yet, in his response to Maley, he congratulates Maley, he agrees with him on so much, he burbles on about this and that, and only in the last paragraph does he say that we shouldn’t dismiss research completely because “without a knowledge base anything goes”. And that’s as far as Thornbury goes: he fails to flag up the elephant in the room, which is very disappointing.
Maley trots out the usual litany of complaints about the research community, many of them perfectly reasonable, justified, and in need of attention. He also makes some good points about what teachers can reasonably be expected to do in terms of on-going training and development. But none of this has the slightest relevance to the central erroneous argument that “we should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching”. A lot of research is now specifically targeted at understanding instructed SLA, and the findings of this research should surely be of interest to teachers. Few teachers will have the time or inclination to regularly read articles that appear in scholarly journals reporting on the latest studies, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in on-going research and its implications for teaching practice.
Krashen’s theory of SLA had a profound effect on ELT, and for all its failings as a theory, it remains the starting point for the most important question that affects ELT: to what extent is instructed SLA a matter of unconscious “acquisition”, and to what extent is it “conscious learning”? Associated with this question are questions about putative sensitive periods, syllabus design; focus on formS versus focus on form; noticing, priming, pronunciation teaching; vocabulary teaching, extensive reading, error correction and much more besides. All these questions have a direct effect on teaching practice. How are we to evaluate conflicting claims made about teaching practice by the advocates of the Lexical Approach, Dogme, CLT, and so on, if not by an appeal to the evidence about how people learn and about how they respond to various types of instruction? This evidence needs to be critically evaluated in order for us to propose tentative principles that guide our work. Until we articulate such principles, until we take a position on the fundamental issue of how implicit learning is best supplemented by explicit instruction, we remain in the world of the blind, at the mercy of one-eyed quacks who tell us to shun research findings and trust in their folksy wisdom which has nothing more to recommend it than the stamp of authority.
It would be too much to hope for Maley not to include some version of the hackneyed old saw that language teaching is not a science. He ends with a quote from Stevick that does the job nicely: “So we flee back to the temples of science, to its priesthood that can feed us on reliability and validity..”, etc., etc.. Scrivener sings from the same hymn sheet:
I remain convinced that teaching is more a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art than a measurable science. I cannot determine the quality of a Toulouse Lautrec picture by counting the number of colours he used, or measuring the length of his brush strokes, though both these things may give insights about his techniques and style. I can learn to appreciate his work by observing and thinking. I feel that much the same can be said of teaching.
This is, of course, a ridiculous straw man argument: nobody is suggesting that teaching is a science, or that it should be; and nobody is threatening the creative, human, craft of teaching when they suggest that teachers should be rational. If we want to understand how people learn languages, and if we want to find out the best ways to help them do so, then we need to go beyond anecdotes and feelings and folk lore, and to base ourselves on an appeal to a rational interrogation of the evidence, which is what good SLA research does.
How are we to make decisions about contradictory claims about the principles and practice of ELT? Do we go along with Scrivener’s view that
It all works. It all fails. I have listened to many ELT experts taking up similar or contrary positions on every topic. They are all right. They are all wrong.
or do we include a critical evaluation of what research has to say in our deliberations? Surely most teachers would agree that we should have a working knowledge of what those researching instructed SLA have to say, and surely teachers are nowhere near as anti-research as Maley and Scrivener suggest. I believe that teachers would welcome the chance to hear reports of the research done on instructed SLA and to discuss its implications.
Imagine that as part of their 2017 teacher development programme, teachers belonging to the SLB Teachers Cooperative in Barcelona are given the chance to attend these two workshops:
- A workshop run by any one of the 15 respondents to Maley’s article on “How to grade your Concept Questions when presenting grammar points.”
- A workshop run by Carmen Muñoz from Barcelona University on Godroid’s (2016) study of the effects of implicit instruction on implicit and explicit knowledge development.
As one of the SLB group, I personally would be interested in attending both, and I dare to say that all the other teachers would feel the same. To suggest that the second workshop (a) has “no close link with the activity of teaching”, and (b) that teachers aren’t interested in such matters, is (a) absurd, and (b) insulting.
Godroid, A. (2016). The effects of implicit instruction on implicit and explicit knowledge development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 38, 2, 177-215.
The journal “Humanising Language Teaching “ published Maley’s ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far? . Responses were written by Jim Scrivener, Willy Cardoso, Peter Medgyes, Mario Saraceni, Dat Bao, Tom Farrell, Tamas Kiss, Richard Watson-Todd, Scott Thornbury, David A. Hill, Brian Tomlinson, Rod Ellis, Rod Bolitho, Penny Ur and Adrian Underhill. You can download both articles free here: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/index.htm