Alan Maley’s argument for distancing the activity of doing SLA research from the activity of English Language Teaching (ELT) is based on the very reasonable premise that while the former attempts to adopt a scientific method, the latter adopts a more imaginative, humanistic, creative, “arts” approach, as articulated by the likes of Earl Stevick, Mario Rinvolucri, John Faneslow, Adrian Underhill, Jim Scrivener, and indeed, Alan Maley himself. The suggestion is that teaching English as an L2, even more than teaching geography or history, for example, is a creative, imaginative endeavour, where a teacher’s ability to bring language to life; to contextualise it; to create situations where students engage with it; to get students to learn some key parts of it by rote or at least through frequent re-cycling; to create group dynamics and nurture group cohesion; to empathise with the doubts and fears of students, to manage conflicting needs, and also to design, organise and carry out a coherent plan of learning, are all as important (more so, indeed) than a critical appreciation of theories of SLA and the research they’re based on.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend workshops run by all the educators listed above except Scrivener, who I’m sure does a great job of helping teachers to hone their skills. I found all of these workshops useful, enjoyable and motivating, and I learned a great deal. The several courses I did with John Faneslow were the most memorable; John has a special ability to help teachers to see what they’re doing more clearly, and to reflect on their practice more openly. He’s primarily concerned with the effect of teaching on the learner, and with helping teachers meet learners needs. His other great concern is encouraging teachers to deliberately break the rules. Stevick’s courses are legendary, and rightly so because he was hugely inspirational and influential, like Faneslow, in encouraging a more learner-centred approach to ELT, but Underhill’s courses, especially perhaps those that help teachers with the tricky questions involved in teaching pronunciation, are just as inspiring and valuable. No doubt others have their own favourite teacher trainers, those who influenced them most, those who brought their teaching to life and pushed them to expect more of themselves and their students. Such training has little to do with SLA research, but it’s unquestionably at the heart of ELT practice.
I did these training courses when I started teaching, which was before the coursebook took hold. At the school where I taught, ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona, there were 35 to 40 teachers, using an extraordinarily diverse range of methods, including grammar translation, audio-visual, direct method, community language learning (nothing like CLT, by the way, but very interesting), Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Natural Approach, Total Physical Response, and many others. A few teachers were fairly strict adherers to one method, but most of us dabbled in all of them, although there was quite an obvious division between those who emphasised grammar and those who didn’t. We did 100 hour courses at 7 different levels. There was a syllabus for each course with lists of grammar points for low levels and rather vague descriptions of levels of proficiency for higher levels. Providing that both the teachers and their students thought that good progress was being made, teachers could do what they liked. There were proficiency tests at the end of each course, but nobody took that much notice of them.
And that’s how things were in those days. In such an environment I would have gone along with just about everything Scrivener said in his response to Maley’s recent article, which I discussed in my last post. Scrivener argues that teaching is about “tuning in to people and attempting, moment by moment, to help create a space where learning can happen”; and it’s “more a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art than a measurable science”. Surely that’s as true now as it was in 1990; the trouble is that the rest of what he said is not. Things have changed: the practice of ELT has got worse and our understanding of SLA has got better. I might have agreed with Scrivener in 1990 that teachers use every kind of methodology and that “It all works. It all fails”, and I might have agreed with him that when ELT experts took contradictory positions on every topic “They are all right. They are all wrong”. I know just what he means, it made sense to me back then, but I don’t think it’s a good way of viewing ELT practice today, when the coursebook exerts such a dominating (and I’d say suffocating) hold on ELT, and when we know that the syllabus which coursebooks exemplify does more to constrain and hinder learning than to encourage and facilitate it.
By 1995, the spark, the energy, the creativity, the enthusiasm, that had characterised ESADE Idiomas had largely disappeared, and every teacher in ESADE Idiomas was using a coursebook. Correlation is not causation, of course; the coursebook was simply the outward manifestation of an underlying transformation of the institution from a school dedicated to teaching, to a business dedicated to profit. In the new environment, with its new vocabulary of placement incentives, follow-on schemes, drop-out avoidance measures, time management, customer satisfaction feedback loops, on-going teacher evaluation, can-do short-term objectives, etc., etc., there was no place for the unruly, anarchistic, hit and miss, give it a go approach to teaching which had flourished in the 1980s. The commercialisation of ELT required discipline and order; but most of all, it required the manufacture, packaging and marketing of easily recognised products. And what better way to package ELT than by offering a series of language courses where coursebooks provided both the form and content!
Despite the fundamental design faults of coursebooks, teacher training courses were increasingly adapted to incorporate their use, and by the end of the 20th century, coursebooks dominated every aspect of the rapidly expanding ELT business, now worth $2,000 billion a year. At the same time, research findings in SLA were uncovering more and more about the development of interlanguages which can be said to characterise the process of SLA. These findings revealed that teaching does not affect the route of interlanguage development, and from this it followed that most coursebooks were asking teachers to do the impossible. Coursebooks were based on false assumptions about L2 learning; so when teachers led their students through a coursebook like Headway Intermediate, or English File Elementary, most of their students didn’t learn what they were taught most of the time. And when they finished a course, most students hadn’t made as much progress as they’d been promised when they signed up for it. But very few teachers were aware of the weaknesses of a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus; very few of those running the ELT industry were interested in SLA research, especially if it posed a challenge to the neat and tidy way they had teaching organised; very few academics made the effort to tell ELT practitioners about their work, so the march of the coursebook continued.
I’ve stated my views on coursebook-based ELT quite enough already, and I’ve explained how research findings from SLA research have influenced those views. The aim of this post is to recognise, and agree with, many of the points made by Maley and the fifteen respondents to his article, but to plead with them not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Teaching is, as Scrivener says, “a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art”; and the academic community has as Thornbury says “disenfranchises teachers by (a) adopting an impenetrable and exclusionary discourse style; (b) equivocating on the relevance or practical application of their findings; and (c) rarely…” (not never, Scott) “engaging with the issues that most concern practising teachers in their classrooms”. But, as a result of increasing commercial pressure in a neoliberal global economy, ELT practice today is too constrained, too regimented, too defined by coursebooks, and it would, in my opinion, be better if Maley and the others who run the ELT business recognised how far the commercialisation of ELT has gone, and accept that not all SLA research is tarred by the same brush. We need to change, and a good way to start is to give more serious consideration to the research* which suggests that using coursebooks based on a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus constrains and hinders L2 learning more than it encourages and facilitates it.
*A good summary of this research can be found in Long, M. H. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley Blackwell. See Chapters 2 and 10, particularly. Below are a few of the works frequently referred to:
Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I. Language Teaching, 20, pp 81-92.
Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part II. Language Teaching, 20, 20, Issue 03.
Ellis, R. (1989) Are classroom and naturalistic acquisition the same? Studies in SLA, 11,3, 303-328.
Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.
Long, M.H. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M. Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.
Long, M.H. (2015) SLA and Task Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley Blackwell.
Meisel, J.M., Clahsen, H., and Pienemann, M. (1981) On determining developmental stages in natural second language acquisition. Studies in SLA, 3,1, 109-135.
Myles, F. (2013): Theoretical approaches to second language acquisition research. In Herschensohn, J. & Young-Scholten, M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. CUP
Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.
Pica, T. (1983) Adult acquisition of English as a second language under different conditions of exposure. Language Learning, 33,4,465-497.
Pienemann, M. (1984) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. In C. Pfaff (Ed.) First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 143-168.
Pienemann, M. (1989) Is language teachable? Applied Linguistics, 10,1,52-79.
Pienemann, M. (2011) Developmental Schedules, and Explaining Developmental Schedules, in Pienemann and Kessler, J. (Eds.) (2011) Studying Processability theory: An introductory textbook. Amsterdam, Benjamins.
Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.