In a post that I missed a couple of months ago, Andrew Walkley replied to criticisms of coursebooks.
Before we look at his comments, let’s briefly recall what we know about SLA, drawing in part on the first issue of the Instructed Second Language Acquisition Journal , which has articles by Bill VanPatten and by Mike Long.
One of the most robust constructs in SLA research is “Interlanguage Development”. As Doughty and Long (2003) say
There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development, such as the well known four-stage sequence for ESL negation (Pica, 1983; Schumann, 1979), the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (Doughty, 1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1982), and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (Johnston, 1985, 1997). The sequences are impervious to instruction, in the sense that it is impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages altogether (e.g., R. Ellis, 1989; Lightbown, 1983). Acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability (Pienemann, 1984).
See my post on Interlanguage for more on this.
If SLA involves ordered development and this ordered development is impervious to instruction, what’s going on in learners’ minds? VanPatten (2017) reviews some of the explanations on offer. Chomsky (1957) suggests that language is special and involves a language-specific module for learning. Krashen (1981) closely follows with his “Natural order” hypothesis and the distinction between acquisition and learning. Other approaches look to the processing aspects of language, including Processability Theory (e.g. Pienemann, 1998); processing constraints more generally (e.g. O’Grady, 2015); and general learning mechanisms that are not related to language. These types of approaches include emergentism and usage-based approaches (e.g. N. Ellis and Wulff, 2015) as well as dynamic systems (e.g. Larsen-Freeman, 2015). (See VanPatten, 2017 for all these references.)
Probably the most important issue in the various accounts of language learning concerns the roles of implicit and explicit learning. With regard to this fundamental question, despite important disagreements among those adopting generativists, processing or usage-based approaches to L2 learning, and despite the related differences in interface (strong/weak/no) positions on explcit and implicit knowledge, there is widespread agreement that, as Long (2017) puts it “the relevant goal for instruction is implicit learning, resulting in implicit L2 knowledge”. Long continues:
In an article on classroom research, Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) noted that while generativists and general cognitivists disagree over the viability of inductive learning as a substitute for innate linguistic knowledge, both camps consider implicit learning more basic and more important than explicit learning, and superior. This is because access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content. ….Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) conclude:
“In sum, we argue that the distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge needs to be more robustly recognized in research design, and suggest that implicit knowledge should be the target of research, regardless of theoretical premise” (2014:557).
Long agrees, as do Nick Ellis (2005), Robinson (1996), Williams (2005), Rebuschat (2008), Rastelli (2014), and most of those cited above. All the research indicates that learning an L2 is not best facilitated by presenting and practicing bits and pieces of language according to criteria such as “difficulty” or “frequency of occurrence”, but rather by developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback. At the same time, we should note that the evidence clearly indicates a role for explicit instruction, even if it’s a much smaller role than implicit instruction. To cite Long (2017) again, he points to the case of Julie (Ioup et al. 1994) whose achievement of near-native L2 through long-term residence without the aid of any instruction at all suggests to him that most of an L2 can be acquired implicitly given sufficient time and high enough aptitude for implicit language learning. But, as he concludes “the problem for instructed Instructed Second Language Acquisition is that vanishingly few L2 learners have both”. Neither expicit nor implicit learning alone can get those who sign up for any kind of L2 learning course to their goals, but if the goal is a functional command of the L2, then implicit learning should be the default and should take up most of the time.
What, then, of Walkley’s reply to my claim that most coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus based on 3 false assumptions about SLA? With regard to Assunption 1 (declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through a process of presentation and practice) he responds by saying that “passing on knowledge is a starting point, not a final destination”. He says:
There is no doubt that knowing that the past tense of “has” is “had” doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use “had” fluently and correctly in real-time communication. Of course the job is not finished when irregular past tenses are presented and practised in class. But that’s true of all types of classroom teaching. Would the job be finished if the past tense of “had” was required during a task and ‘emerged’ or was ‘noticed’ or ‘recast’ or whatever? Of course not! Students will continue to make mistakes because whether this information is passed on to students through a task or a ‘bit of classroom practice’, the information still remains essentially declarative at that point.”
What we know about instructed SLA (ISLA) indicates that most of the knowledge “passed on” by explicit language instruction doesn’t become inplicit knowledge and is of little use in achieving a functional use of the L2. If a synthetic syllabus devotes most of the time focusing on the L2 as object, the learners will get too little opportunity to gain implicit knowledge and to drive forward interlanguage development. Walkley assumes that all types of classroom teaching involve passing on explicit knowledge about language as a necessary “first step”, and that spending a lot of time passing on explicit knowledge about language is common to all teaching approaches. He’s wrong on both counts.
Next, Walkley takes my remark that SLA is more like learning to swim than learning geography, and says:
Jordan’s analogy with swimming is surprisingly helpful here, though perhaps not for reasons he realises. During most swimming lessons above absolute beginner levels, nearly all instructors work outside the water! They are telling students what to do (declarative knowledge) and getting students to proceduralise this – often through rather synthetic (and to my mind rather monotonous) tasks such as ‘practise breathing out underwater’ or ‘swim with your legs only’. ….
The lesson for teachers and learners is that you have to make use of the language you have ‘learned’ – and do so repeatedly over time. Certainly, a coursebook should give opportunities to make use of language and should ensure proper recycling over time, but it may not. A task-based syllabus should certainly provide opportunities to make use of language, but it may not be the same language over time. Although, of course, it might be! It all depends.
Again, Walkley assumes that all ISLA, no matter whether a synthetic or analytic sylabus is being implemented, and no matter what pedagogical principles inform the teacher, consists of teachers explicitly teaching students about the L2 (passing on knowledge) and then helping them practice it. Again, he’s wrong. One thing is using a coursebook to implement a synthetic syllabus. This imples concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study. Another, different, and I suggest better thing, is using a needs analysis and a means analysis to identify target tasks from which pedagogical tasks are designed, and then making the pedagogical tasks the basis for an analytical syllabus where the time is spent developing the ability to function successfully in the L2 in well-defined areas. This implies concentrating on implicit knowledge, coupled with some explicit feedback. I should add that the Dogme approach also rejects coursebooks, rejects synthetic syllabuses, and concentrates on developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through a predominantly implicit learning process.
In a section titled “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?”, Walkley addresses the second false assumption made by coursebook writers, namely that SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. (The assumption is false because all the items are inextricably inter-related.) He writes:
…while I basically agree that SLA is not a process of mastering, one by one, accumulated structural items as in some kind of building block process, you could argue that the next point that ‘Teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA’ is slightly contradictory. It seems clear that language learners move from more or less ungrammaticalised words to grammaring the words they know in progressively more complex ways: this is the route. So in the case of questions, students at the lowest levels will generally start by just using a word, maybe with intonation or gesture – coffee?; then move to a string of words – you want coffee?; to grammaticalised strings – Do you want a coffee?; to more complex sentences – Are you sure you want a coffee? If you were a mad person and did these as consecutive lessons, your students would not be producing all these different question types.
The route he describes is not the route described by those who have studied the development of interlanguages (see Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) for sequence of interrogative forms), but even if it were, how would this challenge the claim that teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA? Walkley is yet again assuming that ISLA is characterised by teachers passing on explicit knowledge and then practicing it. From this “idée fixe”, he argues that it would be mad to “do” the different stages he describes of question formation in consecutive lessons. He’s right, of course, but nobody in the literature suggested such a thing in the first place; that is, nobody suggested speeding up the rate of interlanguage development by “doing” (i.e. explicitly teaching) bits of the L2 “in the right order”. Note the question at the start: “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?” It is, surely, the wrong question, and one that explains Walkley’s misunderstanding about the conclusions drawn from interlanguage research. Pace Walkley, ISLA is not best seen as addressing the question of when to “pass on” which new bit of knowledge.
Nevertheless, that’s the way Walkley sees it, and if we share his (in my opinion, blinkered) view then there really isn’t much difference between using a coursebook and using a TBLT or Dogme approach, because they all involve the same basic thing: the teacher presents and practises bits of the target language. This approach to ELT is perfectly evident in Dellar and Wlakley’s book Teaching Lexically (see here for a full review).
Teaching Lexically is very teacher-centred. There’s no suggestion anywhere of including students in decisions affecting what and how things are to be learned: teachers make all the decisions. The teacher decides the mainly lexical “items” to be taught, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, plus how they are to be recycled and revised.
There’s an almost obsessive concentration on teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The need to teach as much vocabulary as possible pervades the book. The chapters in Part B on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.
The book promotes the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, it runs counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as John Dewey, Sebastian Faure, Paul Friere, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman, and supported in the ELT field by educators such as Chris Candlin, Catherine Doughty, Caorl Chapelle, Grahame Crookes, Rebecca Brent, Earl Stevick, John Faneslow, Vivian Cook, Sue Sheerin, Alan Maley and Mike Long. All these educators reject the view of education as the transmission of information, and, instead, see the student as a learner whose needs and opinions have to be continuously taken into account. For just one opinion, see Weimer (2002) who argues for the need to bring about changes in the balance of power; changes in the function of course content; changes in the role of the teacher: changes in who is responsible for learning; and changes in the purpose and process of evaluation.
Teaching Lexically involves dividing the language into items, presenting them to learners via various types of carefully-selected texts, and practising them intensively, using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items. As such, it mostly replicates the grammar-based PPP method it so stridently criticises. Furthermore, it sees translation into the L1 as the best way of dealing with meaning, because it wants to get quickly on to the most important part of the process , namely memorising bits of lexis with their collocates and even co-text. Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching, where the lesson is conducted almost entirely in English and the L1 is used sparingly, where students have chosen for themselves some of the topics that they deal with, where they contribute some of their own texts, and where most of classroom time is given over to activities where the language is used communicatively and spontaneously, and where the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.
Teaching Lexically sees explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and it assumes that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions, like the assumptions that students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it, clash with SLA research findings. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.
As Long (2017) argues
“the direct effects of instruction are limited to manipulations of the linguistic environment, with only indirect effects on learning processes. The learner’s use of this or that cognitive process can be intended by the instructional designer, but cannot be stipulated or guaranteed. For example, explicit instruction is designed to invoke intentional learning – a conscious operation in which the learner attends to aspects of a stimulus array in the search for underlying patterns or structure. Intentional learning usually results in explicit knowledge: people know something, and know they know. But students may learn some things incidentally and implicitly from the input used to deliver the explicit instruction”.
On the other hand,
“instruction can be designed to create optimal conditions for incidental learning, but that does not guarantee that incidental learning will transpire, or that if it does, the result will be implicit learning, or if it is, that implicit knowledge will be the end-product, or if it is, that it will remain implicit only”.
Long concludes that if we take the view that most students want teachers to help them to be able to use the L2 for communication, then the primary goal of teaching must be to develop implicit knowledge. Research findings on interlanguage development undermine the credibility and viability of explicit language teaching, synthetic approaches, and PPP.
Since purely incidental learning is impractical, due to the amount of input required and the length of time needed to deliver it, in the interest of identifying the least interventionist, but still effective, forms of instruction, it follows that a major focus of ISLA research (not the only focus, but a major one) should now be on even less intrusive enhancements of incidental learning rather than focus on form.
Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Oxford, Wiley.
Long, M. (2017) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.
VanPatten, W. (2017) Situating instructed language acquisition: facts about second language acquisition. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.