Six ‘useless’ things foreign language teachers do

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  1. Recasts

Recasts are the most frequent form of feedback that teachers give students in the course of oral interactions. They consists of utterances by the teacher that repeat the student’s erroneous utterance but ‘fix’ the mistake(s) without changing the meaning in any way. Example:

Student: hier j’ai allé au cinéma

Teacher: je suis allé au cinéma

Recasts, according to research (e.g. Doughty, 1994) are extensively used in the classroom representing up to 60 or even 70 % of all teacher feedback on oral performance. An interesting finding by Doughty is that recasts tend to concern themselves with minor errors rather than big problems.

As several studies have clearly shown, recasts do not really ‘work’ as they are not noticed most of the time. Havranek (1999) investigated to what extent learners recall corrective feedback from the teacher or their own or their peers’ mistakes. She found that less than one third of the learners who were corrected remembered having been corrected; peers did not pay attention to the correction of others and, most importantly, whether the corrections were recalled or not made little difference to whether the errors were or were not committed later.

The main reason why recasts do not work is that when the learners’ Working Memory is interrupted in the middle of speech production by the correction, it will not rehearse that correction for the time necessary to commit it to long-term memory -because it will be concentrating on resuming the interrupted conversation flow. Hence, the content of the correction will often be lost – which explains why Havranek’ subjects did not recall more than two thirds of the correction.

In view of the little surrender value of recasts in terms of acquisition, interrupting the students to correct them whilst they are talking may do more harm than good. Not only it may have a negative cognitive impact by disrupting their prospective memory; but it may also affect their self-esteem, especially if the correction relates to minor errors – as Doughty’s study found.

The above are valid reasons not to engage in recasts. It may be more productive and less threatening for the learners if teachers made a mental note of the mistakes noticed and treat them later on in contexts in which the learner’s attentional resources can be more productively channelled.

  1. Direct and Indirect error correction of written errors

Direct correction, whereby the teacher corrects an erroneous grammatical form and provides the correct version of that structure with an explanation on margin is pretty much a waste of valuable teacher time. Why? Tons of research (e.g. Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990; Truscott,1996; Conti, 2001 and 2004) have demonstrated that most students do not process the correction in a way that is conducive to learning; most of them simply look at the mark, quickly read the comment and put the essay away, never to look at it again. Unless, as I argued in my post “Why teacher should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing”, teachers engage students in more productive ways of processing teacher feedback, Direct correction is not going to enhance L2 acquisition. Error correction can be valuable when it places the errors into the students’ focal awareness, engages them in deep processing of teacher corrections, generates their intentionality to eradicate error and keeps it up for a sufficiently long period of time for any remedial learning to occur.

Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know (e.g. I cannot self-correct an omission of the subjunctive if I have not learnt it) and if s/he is indeed able to correct, s/he will not really learn much from it. To learn more about my views on this issue read my blog “Why asking students to self-correct their errors is a waste of time”.

  1. One-off learning-to-learn sessions

Not long ago I came across a beautiful Power Point on a teaching-resources website which purported to train students in effective approaches to the memorisation of vocabulary. It contained numerous slides packed with interesting suggestions on how to best commit vocabulary to memory and lasted long enough to cover a whole lesson. In the past, I myself produced similar Power Points and delivered one-off sessions on learning strategies which the students usually found quite interesting and engaging. But did they actually learn from them?

The problem is that, unless there are several follow-up sessions and some form of scaffolding reminding the students to use the strategies that the Power Point presented, thirty years of research (see Macaro, 2007) clearly show that this approach does little more than raising learner awareness of the existence of these strategies, but will not result in learner uptake, i.e. very few if any learner will incorporate these strategies in their active repertoire of learning strategies.

For any learner training to be successful it must involve learners in extensive practice of the target strategies.

  1. Identifying students’ learning styles and planning lessons accordingly

Research has clearly shown that learning styles and multiple intelligences are invalid constructs totally unsupported by theory and research. Moreover, there is not a single shred of evidence to show that teaching students based on their alleged learning style actually enhances their learning. Teachers should not waste valuable teaching time administering questionnaires or other ‘tests’ in an attempt to identify students’ learning style or ‘dominant intelligence(s)’. Most importantly, they should not bother planning lessons or remedial learning programs based on the findings obtained.

In view of the invalidity of these constructs, labelling students as visual, kinesthetic or other may lead them, especially the younger ones, to form a self-fulfilling prophecy that may ultimately be detrimental to their learning.

  1. Asking pre-intermediate/lower intermediate learners to peer assess oral performance

Although it has some (modest) surrender value in terms of metacognitive enhancement, the practice of involving fairly inexperienced learners in peer assessment is not justified by the learning gains it produces, especially in terms of language acquisition. Firstly, as these learners do not usually possess enough declarative knowledge of the language to be able to assess and feedback on language use in a way that can significantly benefit the recipient of the feedback; secondly, and more importantly, they do not possess sufficient levels of procedural knowledge to be able to apply any declarative knowledge they have whilst processing what they hear their classmates say – which means they cannot effectively evaluate their oral output.

In fact, even with more proficient learners peer assessment practice may not always be beneficial. In a little experiment I made last year, I got 16 students that I had practised peer assessment with almost on a daily basis to assess their classmates after a typical IGCSE conversation, using the CIE evaluation rubrics. When I compared their assessment scores to mine the discrepancies were huge, most of them having been on average 25 % more generous than me in allocating marks.

  1. Asking students to create digital artefacts in class

As I wrote in my blogs ‘Five central psychological challenges of foreign language learning’ and ‘Of SAMR and Samritans”, creating a digital artefact in class is not likely to be conducive to language acquisition enhancement at pre-intermediate to intermediate levels of L2 proficiency. The main reason is that human cognitive resources being finite, the working memory of an intermediate/lower intermediate MFL learner will not usually be able to process language effectively and efficiently whilst concurrently focusing on the operations he/she will be performing, e.g. cutting, pasting, ‘googling’ pictures, videoing, recording, ‘smashing’ Apps, etc.

Hence, forgetting by divided attention often occurs with not much learning at all taking place. I will never forget a group of Year 6 students telling me, after being involved for 5 weeks in making an iMovie about the topic ‘Ma maison’ in class, that all they remembered was the French for the rooms in the house.

Students, when involved in such activities should not do any ‘digital manipulation’ in lessons, unless we believe that this is very likely to enhance their target language proficiency. Classroom time should be devoted to learning the target language.

You can find out more about my approach to language teaching and learning in the book I co-authored with Steve Smith: “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” available for purchase here