Here I give a summary of Long, (in Doughty, C. J., & Long, M. H. (eds.). (2003) Handbook of second language acquisition. New York: Basil Blackwell., and Long, M. H. (2007) Problems in SLA. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) where he argues that SlA findings dispel any notions that learners learn what teachers teach when they teach it, and that synthetic syllabuses should be thrown in the dustbin. He then suggests 10 “Methodological Principles” for Task-based learning and 4 criteria by which they can be judged.
From here on, just about everything is verbatim Long.
Despite the fact that learners do not learn what teachers teach when they teach it, it is still the implicit assumption underlying synthetic approaches to ELT that learners do just that. The results of SLA research are simply incompatible with the use of a synthetic syllabus, where syllabus content consists of a pre-set list of linguistic (phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical or collocational) forms and functions. As distinct from one-off uses in demonstration lessons or controlled experiments with simple structures carefully selected for specific groups of learners, a synthetic syllabus will almost always have been written without reference to students’ present or future communicative needs, as identified via a thorough needs analysis, and so is inefficient. It risks teaching more skills, vocabulary, genres, etc., than students can use, but also less, through not teaching language abilities they do or will need. It will also almost always have been prepared in ignorance of any particular group of students’ current developmental stages, especially if enshrined in commercially published textbook materials. Moreover, as any experienced teacher knows, and as shown, e.g., by the Pienemann (1984) study, learners within a group will often be at different developmental stages, even when labelled as having attained X or Y level of proficiency or having scored within a specified range on a placement test.
The research clearly shows that attempting to impose a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) is largely futile and counter-productive. It is largely futile because it only works if a form coincidentally happens to be learnable (by some students in a class), and so teachable, at the time it is presented. It is counter-productive for two reasons. First, attempts to teach forms that are unlearnable when introduced lead to frustration and failure on the part of teachers and students, alike. Second, the inappropriate focus, typically instantiated through presentation of isolated model sentences intended to provide minimal contexts for the target forms, results in impoverished input and output opportunities and means that richer input that would have been appropriate is not provided. So-called spiral, or cyclical, grammatical syllabi, which systematically revisit previously presented forms increase the chances of ‘hits,’ but are still inefficient because they attempt to work independently of the internal learner syllabus. By focusing on full native forms, typically with early forced production, followed by “correction” of the inevitable errors, as in ALM and the Silent Way, for example, synthetic approaches also implicitly assume that learners can move from no knowledge of a form to native-like mastery in one step, which the research shows almost never happens. They also assume that discrete forms and structures can be learned in isolation from one another, whereas the reality is far more complex. Native-like (stage 4) command of English negation, for example, requires control of verbal auxiliaries, tense, person, number, and word order.
It is worth noting that not just traditional linguistically based syllabi, but also most thematic, topic-based, and content-based approaches sit uneasily with the same research findings. With a few notable exceptions, e.g., work in the Vancouver School Board project (Early, 1991; Early, Mohan, & Hooper, 1989), most content-based teaching, for example, is largely synthetic. Instead of starting with the structure of the day, learners are typically presented with texts – static models of L2 use, but above the sentence level, where genuine texts are modified by removal of complex syntax, or texts written for non-native speakers with the same linguistic constraints in mind are offered.
As demonstrated by the results of evaluations of French immersion programs in Canada (see, e.g., Lapkin, Swain, & Hart, 1991; Lightbown, Spada, & White, 1993; Swain, 1991) high level communicative abilities are achievable through systematic experience of communicative target language use over extended periods of time. Except in the cases of the most talented learners, however, such accomplishments take an inordinate amount of time and generally fall far short of native-like proficiency.
To avoid a return to lessons full of grammar rules, overt error “correction” and pattern drills, with all their nasty side-effects, as many of the problem areas as possible should be handled within otherwise communicative lessons by briefly drawing learners’ attention to some items as and when problems arise, i.e., by focus on form. In this reactive mode (part of the definition, not an optional feature, of focus on form), the learner’s underlying psychological state is more likely to be optimal, and so the treatment, whatever PPs are employed, more effective. For example, while comparing car production in Japan and the USA as part of a pedagogic task designed to help students develop the ability to prepare and deliver a sales report, the target task, a learner might say something like “Production of SUV in the US fell by 30% from 2000 to 2004.” If the very next utterance from a the teacher or another student is partial recast in the form of a confirmation check, e.g., “Production of SUVs fell by 30%?,” as proposed in Long (1996b), the likelihood of the learner noticing the plural -s is increased by the fact that he or she is vested in the exchange, so is motivated to learn what is needed and attending to the response, already knows the meaning he or she was trying to express, so has freed up attentional resources to devote to the form of the response, and hears the correct form in close juxtaposition to his or her own, facilitating cognitive comparison. These are all reasons why implicit corrective recasts are believed to work as well as they do, without disturbing the fundamental communicative focus of a lesson, and why negative feedback is believed to work better than provision of the same numbers of models of a target form and/or tokens in ambient input (positive evidence). In contrast, with focus on forms, the teacher or the textbook, not the student, has selected a form for treatment. The learner is less likely to feel a need to acquire the new item, so will likely be less motivated, and less attentive. If the form is new, moreover, so, typically, will be its meaning and use, requiring the learner to process all three simultaneously.