WHY I AM STILL DISAPPOINTED WITH THE NCELP RESOURCES BUT WHY IT IS STILL A LAUDABLE INITIATIVE

So I browsed the NCELP websites and whilst there are many good things a language teacher can get out it – and for free ! – especially the research, the visuals and some nice vocabulary-building ideas, I was very disappointed with the schemes of work they published. This is a link to one of them, which is emblematic of my concerns.

So whilst I do believe NCELP to be a very laudable initiative, one that every language teacher should be aware and take advantage of, I think it has serious shortcomings which refer to their claims, principles, resources and the transformative power of the whole initiative. These are the major issues I see with the Schemes of Work and resources found on the website:

  • The pace of the SOW is too fast, especially in view of the ineffective and insufficient recycling, for acquisition and fluency to happen;
  • The sequencing of the content and activities doesn’t often make sense from a language acquisition point of view. The claim is that the NCELP material is evidence-based. However, there is little research evidence guiding the selection and sequencing of the linguistic content; no reference whatsoever to research into natural order of acquisition of French, German or Spanish morphemes. No apparent consideration of learnability issues in the acquisition of L2 morphemes, e.g. as per processability theory or the very useful heuristic found in Nation and Newton (2013), for example;
  • The recycling is limited and it is largely recycling of single words, not lexical or syntactic patterns;
  • The sequences found in the Power points (old school PPP) that are supposed to supplement the SOWs are light on the receptive skills, especially listening as modelling. It is not clear where the students get the aural modelling they need for speaking. The modelling  phase is short and not very substantive. It reminds me of the pre-NCELP classic Rachel-Hawkes-style PPTs from TES – so where’s the innovation?
  • The variety of resources is limited, and the activities on the slides are frankly a bit dull;
  • Quite a few of the oral activities,  e.g. ‘Yes or No’ pair-work tasks  (1) do not allow for effective retrieval practice because the students can basically answer ‘yes I can’ or ‘no I can’t’ without evidencing they understand what the other person is saying; (2) do not elicit forced output, so the students can basically choose to say what they like and avoid more challenging items. This reduces the chances of recycling the target items effectively in the productive tasks.
  • Both encoding and retrieval practice are insufficient. Quite superficial work which often barely scratches the surface. Lots of supplementation is required of teachers;
  • There is no deliberate planned effort to achieve spontaneity; no time is built in the units of work for that. In fact , you hardly find any rich communicative tasks, not even at more advanced proficiency levels;
  • Not obvious at all how they do actually apply the skill-theory framework that appears to underpin their pedagogical approach. There is no attempt at automatization. Not even a sense that they try to build up to it;
  • The frequency word lists are not very useful because knowing how frequently a word is used without knowing what it is most frequently used with presupposes that words are used in isolation. One wonders how useful it is for a teacher to know that a word is number 106 in terms of frequency of use without listing alongside what phrases / patterns they usually occur most frequently in. Also, examination boards not being aligned with such lists, they are not going to be useful for examination purposes either;
  • No work on collocations or colligations – this focus on single words to me is rooted in the dark ages of language pedagogy ignoring all the great research done by Michael Lewis and other great minds in SLA research. I have made my argument against single-word teaching many times over on this blog. e.g. here;
  • No mention of a Comprehensible Input threshold. In fact, they recommend the use of authentic texts, which we know for a fact are not conducive to learning if they contain less  95 % comprehensible input. Nor do they suggest a substantive pre-reading / -listening sequence (e.g. the ones Steve and I lay out in “Breaking the Sound barrier”). The belief that training students in reading and listening strategies with native or native-like texts can effectively enhance receptive skills and learning is based on findings from research studies where the so-called “Hawthorne effect” (the fact that trainer and subject know they are part of a research project), with substantive injection of external support and resources  and with hand-picked groups of students all end up skewing the outcomes in favour of the intervening variable (the training); but to reproduce the same type of training with every single class of yours on a full timetable with the limited time and resources available to the average teacher and without specialised training is much harder – especially with more challenging classes (I talk from experience!). One major piece of advice I would like to give anyone wanting to use the NCELP reading and listening comprehension tasks: try to supplement the listening activities with some of my L.A.M. (listening as modelling tasks) which focus students on the levels of processing that most NCELP activities neglect or superficially touch upon (i.e. syllable, lexical retrieval,  morphological / syntactic parsing and discourse levels).
  • Vocabulary is not modelled sufficiently through the aural medium. This is bizarre considering the emphasis laid by NCELP on phonics and decoding skills; surely the students’ decoding skills would benefit from getting lots of aural input, no?
  • They mention the importance of recycling vocabulary across a wide number of contexts (based, I presume, on the Transfer Appropriate Processing principle) – something I have been advocating for in every single post of mine. Yet this is not applied at all in the schemes of work or Power Points;
  • Although NCELP claims that the end of a typical instructional sequence should integrate all four skills, that is hardly ever the case. The best they can do is Dictogloss, which does not really integrate all four skills, unless the whole activity is carried out in the target language – what are the chances of that happening in the average classroom?
  • No serious work on oral fluency anywhere, as already mentioned. It seems like spontaneity will magically happen. Task-based learning is the dominant fad in SLA research at the moment. NCELP ignores it altogether, whilst Australia and New Zealand are making it a mandatory and crucial aspect of their National Curricula. I deliver workshops and keynotes in Australia on a regular basis and I am always impressed with their attempt to integrate rich communicative tasks in their lesson sequences;
  •  There is a massive emphasis on phonics but little on phonotactics and on reading aloud; they could do with integrating some of these interactive read-aloud tasks a la Conti in their instructional sequences. No point in mastering phonics without extensive oral practice in the phonotactics of the language. Moreover, phonics can be boring unless you make them more playful and interactive;
  • The resources appear rushed, as if the need for populating the website is driving the production of PPTs ( An example of a PPT here) and worksheets, rather than the attainment of a quality product;
  • One of the principles they claim underpin their pedagogic practice echoes the point I have been making for ever on this blog and in my latest book with Steve Smith, which they state as follows: Establish grammatical knowledge in reading and listening before expecting learners to produce the grammar in writing and speaking. Yet, this is not done in any PPT of theirs – not a single one not a single one of the fifty I reviewed ! This is one of the most important problems in the lesson sequences they propose; finally,
  • I have had several complaints from the NCELP portal users about the user-friendliness of the website.

There are other issues with (1) the assessments which are not often reflective of valid testing practice, (2) the pedagogic principles that NCELP claims are based on research but are actually based on hand-picked research (Emergentism, Comprehensible Input, Task-based learning, Lexical priming, Statistical learning, Implicit instruction effectiveness, Natural order of acquisition and other research are completely ignored); (3) there is a gap – quite big at times – between what is preached in the principles and the actual implementation in the resources; (4) the CPD Power Points need spicing up and more practical examples ought to be provided in order to be more impactful. The list could go on.

In conclusion, I do honestly think that NCELP is a great initiative and there are lots of freebies that can benefit teachers, especially those on a low budget. However, the resources are often botched up, fairly repetitive and not very inspiring. The most disappointing thing for me are the schemes of work, especially the pace, the poor recycling and a disregard for some key research and language acquisition theory. I don’t see anything massively innovative about the resources; but this wouldn’t be a problem if they looked like they could be effective in modelling, consolidating, recycling and retrieving the instructional input. The truth is: they don’t.

I don’t believe the stuff I see on the NCELP website at the moment has transformative potential. Nor that it has the power to inspire and enthuse teachers and pupils in a big way, which is really the objective a transformative initiative such as this one should prioritize. However, it is still early days and the website has a plethora of resources which teachers can tweak and adapt to their contexts. Of course, each PPT will require a lot of supplementation, adaptation and spicing up, especially when it comes to reading and listening.

 

PLEASE NOTE: you can find out more about my approach to modern language instruction, especially in the areas of Listening and Speaking, in the book I co-authored with the legendary Steve Smith. Here’s a link to a very comprehensive review of the book, authored by Rebeca Arndt of UCF (Florida) , recently published in the prestigious journal Applied Linguistics.