Open letter to Anthony Teacher on slaying PPP

Dear Anthony,

First, let me say how much I like your blog and all the work you do on Research Bites

I write in reply to your post Is it time to SLAy PPP? which argues that my criticisms of the PPP approach to ELT methodology can be extended to any kind of explicit instruction. I’d like to argue that you fail to identify the root of the problem, viz.: the synthetic syllabus.

Here’s a brief summary of your argument, which I hope you think is fair:

  1. Learners are constrained in what they learn by the route of interlanguage development.
  2. Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.
  3. If instruction has no role in language learning, then what’s the point of teaching? Instructed SLA seems like an oxymoron and discussions of both PPP and TBLT (Jordan’s preferred methodology) are rendered moot.
  4. Needs analysis can’t take account of learners’ developmentally readiness. Our knowledge about which aspects of language develop in a fixed order and why they do so is still too limited to make reliable pedagogical decisions.
  5. Therefore, the instructed SLA approach seems defeatist.
  6. But the effectiveness of instruction need not be as limited as the claims above suggest. While SLA research shows a firm order of development, we have learned that instruction can certainly impact it. Through understanding students wants and task needs, offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, working with cognitive load in mind, providing opportunities for recycling (all evidence-based principles), we can affect the route, speed, and level of language learning. With these principles in mind, both TBLT and PPP have their place.

Points 1 and 2 are fine, but let me include here Mura’s comment to your post. He gives a summary quoting VanPatten from his radio show:

Instruction makes a difference in the short-term (a week, 2 weeks, at most a month) but:

  • tests tend to measure explicit knowledge
  • long term (8-9 months, 1 year) gains disappear
  • sometimes instruction impedes acquisition, slows it down (3 studies only though)

Moving to the rest of the argument, I think it wrongly assumes that “providing the right instruction” depends on “pinpointing learners’ developmental readiness” for it. Interlanguage development moves through various stages, but it isn’t a linear process, and therefore it isn’t best helped by presenting and practicing bits of language IN ANY ORDER. You’re right to say that needs analysis of the usual type (What is the learner’s present level of proficiency as measured by grammar and vocabulary tests, competence in the 4 skills,  “can do” statements, and so on; Where does he/she wants to end up?) can’t pinpoint learners’ developmental readiness for this or that type of instruction, but you’re wrong to suppose that this is the only kind of needs analysis available (tasks as the unit of analysis is the alternative I’ll discuss later), and equally wrong to suppose that we have to identify the point where learners find themselves in their interlanguage development in order to provide efficient teaching.

The faulty argument stems, I suggest, from regarding English as an object of study, and supposing that the only practical way English as an L2 can be taught is by using some kind of synthetic syllabus, where the English language is divided up into hundreds of artificially separated pieces, and then taught through a process of presenting and practising the pieces in a pre-determined order. When their learning is framed by a synthetic syllabus, students are faced with the impossible job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, without even the benefit of having seen him before he got smashed to bits. The whole project is doomed to failure: regardless of how the language is cut up into bits, how those bits are categorised, organised and sequenced, and how they are presented and practiced, it won’t work, because students will only learn what they’re ready for. And trying to make sense of it by pinpointing each learner’s developmental readiness is a fool’s errand because there is no such point. The view of language learning which underpins any synthetic syllabus is the same as the view adopted by the CEFR and the Pearson’s Global Scale of English: it’s a linear, incremental, bit-by-bit “climbing the ladder” process involving the proceduralisation of declarative knowledge. SLA research tells us that language learning is nothing like this representation of it.

I find Point 6, which attempts to rescue your argument from its depressing conclusion in Point 5, too optimisitc, I’m afraid!  First, we can’t affect the route of language learning, and second, all the other good things you suggest – offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, opportunities for recycling, etc., – need a coherent framework which doesn’t clash with research findings. If they happen within the framework of a synthetic syllabus, provided by a General English coursebook for example, then they won’t work. As long as language teachers try to teach students the pre-prepared, pre-packaged stuff they or their bosses think makes up an attractive “course of English”, they’ll be forced to deal, one way or another, with their students’ inability to learn it, and they’ll never teach as well as they could if they took a different approach.  My (unoriginal) argument is that all ELT based on implementing a synthetic syllabus is fundamentally flawed and hugely inefficient.

An alternative to the kind of needs analysis you refer to is the kind Long (2015) refers to, where real-world tasks are used as the unit for needs analysis. The question informing the needs analysis is: What tasks do the students need to perform in the target language?  The tasks need to be clearly described, using either the ready-made job descriptions that exist in many sectors (including education, business, the professions, public administration, the military) or descriptions from what Long calls “linguistically naïve but work experienced informants”. From a task analysis, an analytical syllabus is designed, where target tasks are the source of pedagogic tasks, which themselves are defined as simpler versions of target tasks, not in language learning terms. This allows students’ real world needs, rather than teachers’ or coursebook writers’ ideas about English as an object of study, to guide the course, and it allows teachers to work with students in a way that respects the learners’ interlanguage development, while at the same time offering explicit instruction to help students with formal aspects of the language, vocabulary learning and so on. Note that TBLT as outlined here has nothing in common with the use of tasks in grammatical or functional or lexical syllabuses.

As you probably know, I’ve explained my objections to coursebook-driven ELT elsewhere,  and I’ve tried to answer those who defend it. If we accept SLA research findings, then we should reject the use of synthetic syllabuses as a way of organising ELT and explore alternatives, such as the TBLT outlined here, Dogme, content-based language teaching, and immersion courses, for example.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts; thanks for raising these important issues, Anthony, and keep up the good work.

Best,

Geoff

Appendices

Appendix 1: Steps in Long’s TBLT Syllabus Design. (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 224)

Appendix 2: Characteristics of tasks (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 233)

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5 thoughts on “Open letter to Anthony Teacher on slaying PPP

  1. Hi Geoff,

    Thank you for reading my post and I am honored to have a whole post dedicated to me!

    First, I hope you realize that we agree on many areas here, especially on coursebooks, though I also have rejections based on my own research in terms of their authenticity rather than how they are misaligned with SLA research.

    Now, on to the arguments:

    “Moving to the rest of the argument, I think it wrongly assumes that “providing the right instruction” depends on “pinpointing learners’ developmental readiness” for it. Interlanguage development moves through various stages, but it isn’t a linear process, and therefore it isn’t best helped by presenting and practicing bits of language IN ANY ORDER.”

    I’d like to first say that I do not think providing the right instruction requires precise timing. Rather, I’m saying that this is what instructed SLA as discussed in the VanPatten article is suggesting. That unless we can teach what students are developmentally ready for (e.g. at the right time), instruction can have no effect. As I quoted from de Graff and Housen, following such a notion would be pedagogically insane. I also agree that language need not be taught in a specific order, but how does this mesh with the idea that second languages develop in a fixed order? So order does or doesn’t matter? Which is it?

    To me, it doesn’t. Instruction can affect what students learn through increased saliency (as indicated in the de Graff and Housen article).

    For the next argument:
    “The faulty argument stems, I suggest, from regarding English as an object of study, and supposing that the only practical way English as an L2 can be taught is by using some kind of synthetic syllabus, where the English language is divided up into hundreds of artificially separated pieces, and then taught through a process of presenting and practising the pieces in a pre-determined order. ”

    I was not suggest that a) language is an object rather than a means nor b) we should teach coursebook style PPP. I was suggesting that PPP could be used in any manner, and if it is consistent with SLA and other principles can be effective. Take, for example a TBLT lesson in which students are learning to negotiate ordering a pizza. Some grammar point arises in this lesson which needs some revision/correction. Here, I can see a perfectly sound use of PPP. Present the error and the rules/means by which to fix it. Practice it in context and in several other contexts so that there are a variety of contexts and it is practiced in a variety of ways to ensure thorough practice (and perhaps some Hebbian dual coding), and then produce it either in the task or in a sub task. To me, this makes perfect sense.

    Finally, maybe you can help me clear up a misconception. Your last point is about a good needs analysis. “This allows students’ real world needs, rather than teachers’ or coursebook writers’ ideas about English as an object of study, to guide the course, and it allows teachers to work with students in a way that respects the learners’ interlanguage development, while at the same time offering explicit instruction to help students with formal aspects of the language, vocabulary learning and so on.” I totally agree here that what should be taught are the real-world needs of the learners via tasks. However, I don’t see how this is in line with the main argument (as you and VanPatten have suggested) of SLA – that instruction doesn’t help and you cannot affect the route of learning. What happens when their needs fall outside their range of developmental readiness? By “respect their interlanguage development” do you mean only to work with emerging language (a sign of what they are ready for?) and not push them to learn other things that will surely help them be more proficient in their tasks? I think this is where I am most confused by instructed SLA arguments. And, I am not sure I am making my confusion very clear. Perhaps I need a clearer definition of “developmental readiness”.

    To me, it seems that instructed SLA is arguing that students can only learn what they are ready for, and since what they are ready for cannot really be known (or well considered in a classroom), PPP, TBLT, CLT, etc. are just taking shots in the dark. Of course, I don’t believe this; I am only interpreting this through instructed SLA. I am of the idea (based on incomplete, ongoing research [that is contrary to what Mura presented]) that instruction can alter the route and speed of language learning, and it can be more effective if you follow the evidence based principles I mentioned: “understanding students wants and task needs, offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, working with cognitive load in mind, providing opportunities for recycling”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for this reply.

      Yes, I certainly realize that we agree on many areas here, and indeed in general, since we’re both guided by a critical rationalist point of view. On coursebooks, I share your criticisms of their lack of authenticity, but I choose to focus on how they are misaligned with SLA research because the authenticity issue can be fixed to no avail.

      In answer to the points you raise, we begin by recognising that a central problem facing current ELT practice is its insistence on trying to teach students a “body of knowledge” to do with the English language. The mistake is to see English as an object of study that can be divided into dozens of major grammar points (the most popular approach, and the one taken by International House and Headway, among others) or hundreds of functions , or thousands of lexical chunks (the approach favoured by Walkley and Dellar, who can’t even explain what criteria motivate their choice of which ones to try to teach). As Widdowson said in his recent BAAL plenary, https://baal.org.uk/annual-conference/video-from-50th-anniversary-baal-annual-meeting-university-of-leeds/ teachers have a hard time trying to impose their views on learners, and learners stubbornly refuse to learn what they’re taught, because teachers approach students with their version of English, their menu of “What is to be learned” already packaged up and ready to go. Language just isn’t like that, and real, particular, flesh and blood learners in their real, particular local contexts are never likely to respond well to such teaching, however much slick packaging and the cultural and ideolgical hegemony that the ELT idustry bosses count on might disguse this unpalatable fact.

      Those who study instructed SLA don’t, we agree, say that unless we can teach what students are developmentally ready for (e.g. at the right time), instruction can have no effect, because, as you say, “following such a notion would be pedagogically insane”. So the stages of acquisition order are only important in so far as they lead to Pienemann’s learnability and teachability hypotheses: they set limits on instruction, they only suggest what NOT to do.

      I completely accept your second point about using PPP as you suggest. This comes down to a decision only teachers can make in their local context.

      Needs analysis identifies target tasks, not linguistic “needs”. The target tasks are then bundled into target task types and pedagogic tasks are derived from these. (I’ve added Figure 1 to the bottom of the post. )

      When the pedagogic tasks are designed, various factors need to be considered to decide on their features. (See Fig. 2, added to the bottom of the post. )

      “Instructed SLA” refers to everything involved in the teaching process, including syllabus design and assessment. In the case of Long’s TBLT, the teacher’s role is guided by the methodological principles described in Chapter 10 of his 2015 book. These include MP3. Elaborate Input; MP4. Provide rich input; MP5. Encourage inductive “chunk” learning; MP6. Focus on Form; MP7.Provide negative feedback. Now, as I understand it, you think that, particularly in the case of MP6, perhaps, teachers can’t know that the way they bring attention to particular formal aspects of the language doesn’t “fall outside their range of developmental readiness”. Well, I agree: they can’t, but I don’t think that warrants the conclusion that they’re “just taking shots in the dark”. The vast majority of the work done by a teacher in the kind of TBLT that Long advocates involves talking in the target language not about it. It involves learners doing things in the L2 that they have told the instructors they need to do, not learners being told things about the language that the teachers or coursebook writers have decided they need to know.

      I don’t agree with your opinion that instruction can alter the route of language learning, because the evidence suggests that it can’t, and I think that unless ELT abandons all versions of synthetic syllabuses, no real progress will be made. But I reckon that if you follow a synthetic syllabus, especially if it’s implemented through a coursebook like Headway or Outlooks, it’s just about impossible to follow the principles you advocate, and so I think we agree on all the most important points.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Or is the answer to that simply Long 2015? What I’m hoping for is a detailed description of particular, situated practices of a teacher being guided by that understanding of TBLT. Tell me it exists. (Please?)…

      Like

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