The ugly truth about school-based Modern Language teaching

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(with Steve Smith)

I was recently criticised by some of Stephen Krashen’s fans for something that to me and many other teachers is a sad given : MFL teachers operating in secondary schools have simply no time to teach languages the way they should ideally be taught. Time and syllabus constraints force teachers to extremely tight schedules which do not allow for the extensive listening and reading practice that it is evident from much research that every language learner benefits from before engaging in real-life-like speaking.

If I had five hours contact time a week I would teach entirely differently from the way I teach now.  This would be my recipe: lots of daily receptive exposure to compelling aural and written input ; plenty of oral interaction through fun and challenging communicative activities (even more than the 30 minutes per lesson I do now);  engaging multimedia project-based learning ;  drama and art activities ; cultural awareness-raising through videos and realia ; exciting enquiry-based grammar learning.

The problem is, for teachers working in England to effectively prepare their students for GCSE and A-Level examinations, all of the very desirable above simply cannot be done as often as one would like. We all know that. Hence, effective teaching in our context is not merely about applying what we know best benefits language acquisition ; but it is first and foremost how to make the most of the time we have available to build our students’ linguistic competence, self-confidence and motivation adapting what we know about human language acquisition to the context we operate in.

The American army knew this all too well when they had to prepare their troops linguistically for the Normandy invasion in 1945. Surely they could not afford to put their soldiers through hours and hours of receptive learning through engaging stories in the belief that languages are best learnt subconsciously through exposure to comprehensible input (as many Americans in Dr Krashen’s camp – my critics – believe). Hence they devised an approach which was drill-based ; lots of repetition through controlled tasks aimed at practising phrase after phrase to death until they were so embedded in their soldiers’ memory that they became spontaneous. In this approach, grammar was taught through robotic repetition and manipulation of small parts of sentences, e.g. I play tennis, my mother plays tennis, my father doesn’t play tennis, we play tennis.

Although ideologically I do not agree with this method at all, and it is not the way I learnt the seven languages I am fluent in and the other seven I speak less well, I see the merit of aspects of this approach in the beginning phase of every learning, the parroting stage of classroom-based acquisition. Lots of drilling does help embed the core vocabulary and grammar structures, it is undeniable. And it can be made fun, too, with a bit of imagination – e.g. my receptive drills in the game room at http://www.language-gym.com/#/game-room  or my oral communicative drills. And if the phrases and words we embed in the drills consists of lexical items and sentences which can be very useful in the real world and are taught and practised within typical real-life communicative contexts, all the better still !

The truth is that every method language researchers and educationsts have come up with in the last fifty – sixty decades or so is effective in its own way, each of them addressing one different stage or facet of the complex process that language acquisition is. To say my method is better than yours is preposterous. Yet proponents of each method do, sometimes inspired by a genuine passion for and belief in the validity of their approach, more than often driven by a business or political agenda.

We, as school-based teachers, have been historically the victims of this state of affairs, decade after decade. Subjected to fads which were not a faithful reflection of each new method,but rather the botched-up adaptation of often-sound theories and methodologies by governments and their consultants, which reshaped them to fit the target cultural, political and socio-economic context, mindful less of our needs or our students’ than of their own agendas.

The result is a teaching profession whose pedagogic beliefs – whether we are aware of it or not- are often a hybrid of all the methodological approaches it has been exposed to in the last forty years or so  – whether through word of mouth, readings, CPD, government policies, etc. So many of us are advocates of the Communicative approach whilst teaching grammar like the Romans or the Greeks used to 2,000 years ago ; believe that reading extensively for pleasure will subconsciously result in learning whilst we train our students to teach towards reading comprehension tests that teach little ; advocate the importance of oral interaction and listening but most lessons are about reading and writing – or  embrace enquiry-based learning tasks where students barely ever speak; say one should tolerate error and that mistakes are ‘good’ (as CLT preaches) but then make a huge fuss about them by excessively focusing students on correction (through D.I.R.T., stamps and time-consuming dialogic practices).

Eclecticism or pedagogic hypocrisy ? Neither, in my opinion. The ugly truth is that a lot of us are confused and disoriented ; overloaded with government and school policy requirements which change way  too often and quickly ; overflooded with information coming from different camps ; misinformed by CPDs which squeeze years of researching and theorizing in one or two Powerpoint slides ; galvanized by keynote speakers who excite us with great ideas which are difficult to translate into our classroom practice.

Hence, as I always ‘preach’ in my posts, the need for (a) having a clear understanding of modern language pedagogy so as to be able to understand the state of the art of educational pedagogy beyond the different factions and fads’ political agendas ; (b) having a basic reference framework based on that understanding that will enable us to approach lesson and curriculum planning, assessment and feedback in a no-nonsense, practical and principled way.

Having such an understanding and such a framework  – which in my case is MARS + EAR ( see my blogposts on this) – has made my everyday lesson planning much easier and hassle-free and when questioned by my superiors it has allowed me to provide them with a clear rationale for my pedagogic strategies and choices rooted in Skill-Theory and neuroscience. Maybe not perfect, but working well for me. Incidentally, it was interesting to see how Rachel Hawkes and others – who had never publicly advocated Skill theory principles before – have recently published a paper which reflects all of the views I have expressed in my blog in the last year or so. It means that after all, some English MFL ‘influencers’ have finally decided to embrace neuroscience…

The path to becoming a better teacher does come through reflectivity, as most of todays’ CPD gurus preach. But understanding the basic neuroscience facts about language acquisition and developing your own framework fuels and structures that reflectivity and significantly reduces the occurrence of the cognitive block that many teachers who contact me through social media tell me they often experience when they plan lessons. It also reduces the likelihood that your planning is driven by the activities/resources you find rather than the much healthier opposite scenario, i.e.: you choosing the activities/resources to best serve your planning.

Steve Smith and I wrote our book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkitto provide our colleagues with such an understanding of Modern Language pedagogy  and with such a principled teaching framework. Interestingly, we came to it from totally different camps, Steve being a believer in the importance of comprehensible input, whilst I am a Skill-theory fan ; still we could come to an agreement of what constitutes a useful, pragmatic, ‘fadless’ and hassle-free approach to language teaching. Other bloggers, such as Sara Cottrel of www.musicuentos.com  and Justin Slocum Bailey of Indwelling languages have also been pursuing the same noble intent.

No, I am not merely trying to plug our book. My point is that once you have a clear understanding of the basic processes that regulate  human learning, are aware of the core research facts and regularly reflect on your classroom experience in the light of that understanding and that awareness, you will have a powerful pedagogic compass to orientate yourself through the jungle of bastardised pedagogic messages – like the ones I discussed in my previous post – which make our daily professional life so much more challenging and confusing.

In conclusion, the ugly truth that Modern Languages teachers have to contend to, day in day out is that time, logistics, syllabus constraints and government policies prevent them from teaching the way one ideally should. Educationists and researchers rarely recognize that, detached as they are from our world and more concerned with plugging their fads than with the often harsh reality of bog standard state schools. Curriculum designers, examination boards and textbook authors do attempt to incorporate the new methodologies and fads in their work but they often do so superficially at the detriment of sound pedagogy, giving rise to belief systems and practices which teachers often have to adhere to uncritically and which often clash with one another and with common sense. The result is the current state of affairs : an overloaded and overworked teaching profession that is often confused as to what constitutes best pedagogic practice disorientated as it is by mixed messages coming from multiple directions. This may affects teachers’ efficacy thereby eroding their self-confidence, motivation and, ultimately, their well-being.

The solution : getting a better understanding of pedagogy so that you can make an informed choice as to which method to apply where, when and with who ; so that you build instructional sequences based on a method rather than a hunch ; so that you do not let tasks and games you know or have found guide your teaching instead of your know-how; so that you can tell SLT why they got it all wrong.

The Language Teacher Toolkit is available here, on http://www.amazon.co.uk

Five mixed messages that have severely damaged modern language education

Introduction

Over the decades, since the 70’s pedagogic revolution which saw the total rejection of Grammar-Translation methodology and Audiolingualism, teachers have been the recipients of scores of mixed messages about how languages are acquired and should be taught which have greatly damaged the teaching profession and Modern Language provision at large.  I referred to them in the title as ‘mixed messages’ because they have often been the result of the overgeneralization , misinterpretation, vulgarization or distortion  of research findings, hypotheses or even theories of some validity, which have given rise to ‘myths’ about language teaching and learning that have been haunting the teaching profession for decades and still shape in many cases the way many of us teach.

1.Languages are acquired by children subconsciously, hence no need to teach them grammar – This belief is at the root of the ban on grammar teaching that affected MFL provision in England for decades. The main culprit was a man by the name of Stephen Krashen who maintained that languages are acquired through being passively exposed to masses of comprehensible input (i.e. input mostly consisting of known language), just like children do in their first language. Well, we now know that Krashen’s theory might apply to immersive environments in which one is bombarded by masses of L2 language input, but not to input-poor settings like a secondary school with one or two hours’ contact time a week. And in fact, many studies have shown that even in immersive environments this is not entirely true.

This ‘mixed message’ has damaged language learning in a number of ways. Firstly, by basically saying: no need to really teach grammar, as it simply doesn’t work. Secondly, by overemphasizing target language talk in the classroom, so that at one point it was anathema to use the first language even  to give basic instructions; all based on the preposterous belief that by talking in the target language lesson in lesson out the students would miraculously acquire the language. A likely scenario if one sees their students every day; an unlikely one if you only see them once or twice a week.

It is not simply enough to speak to students in the target language for them to assimilate the vocabulary, grammar structure and pronunciation they hear. For learners to acquire a given L2 item they must notice it, understand what it means in their own language, whether through body language, imagery or by using objects or the first language as references.

By the same token, it is not enough for students to read extensively in the target language to massively speed up acquisition, unless, that is, they are exceptionally proactive and inquisitive students who asks themselves lots of questions, who consistently try to answer those questions with dictionaries or by asking language experts; who effectively store and recycle the vocabulary they come across, etc. Reading independently helps, for sure, but at a lower level of proficiency especially, it is what one reads that is very important, how patterned, how repetitive, how novice-learner-friendly the input is.

2. Do not use the first language in the classroom – Another preposterous myth. Why not? When we know that every language learner uses their first language as a starting point for their inferences and hypotheses on how the target language works; when it is a fact that code-switching does not interfere at all with language activation in the brain and acquisition; when it is obvious that it is very common for learners to learn the target language grammar by comparing what they hear or read in that language with their first language version; when it is clear that the L1 translation scaffolds Target language learning. Why not?

Well, the first part of the answers was provided above: the idea that learners would acquire the second language by simply being exposed to comprehensible input. The second part of the answers is the ugly truth of business, of the multimillion business called TEFL , i.e. Teaching English as  Foreign Language. A business that thrives on three flawed principles: (1) you do not need to speak your students’ foreign language to teach effectively – which means that any reasonably educated English native speaker can teach it; (2) you do not need to teach grammar that well – which means you do not need to have a linguistics degree to teach English; (3) because language teaching works best when it is student-centred, the role of the teacher is less important – which means that less training is required.

These three ‘beautiful lies’ suited the EFL business in the 70’s and 80’s when it was booming and expanding overseas and the demand for cheap manpower (EFL teachers) exceeded the supply. Hence, the new methodology, CLT -in its extreme form – offered a convenient justification for allowing any Tom, Dick and Harry with native speaker competence to teach English in China, Korea or Japan after a six-week diploma. I often wondered, had they not invented the Communicative Approach would the EFL industry have boomed as it did; without the Target-Language-only dogma, would such industry even be able to exist?

3.It is not important for students to understand all they read or hear. It is understanding the main points that matters

This is another mixed message which has damaged much modern language education. Yes, it is the main message that counts if you are teaching L2-learners to cope; however, if you are using reading and listening to enhance their linguistic competence, it is not enough for them to simply understand the main points in an utterance or text they process. Research shows clearly that a learner needs to understand 90 to 95 % of what they process to be able to learn from it, e.g. to notice new language structures or vocabulary embedded in a text.

This mixed message has shaped the approach to reading and listening adopted by many a language teacher and has led to generations of disaffected language learners fed up with guessing their answers to True-or- False or ‘who-has-done-this-or-that questions.It is obvious that this approach will be acceptable when you are teaching survival language skills, but not if you are preparing L2-students for the kind of autonomous linguistic competence that the 21st century language learner will need for a business conference on Skype, a customer service phone-call, a professional e-mail, to study in a foreign university or to be an effective interpreter or translator.

4.Teachers must be tolerant of mistakes

This is one of the fundamental tenets of Communicative Language Teaching and came about as a reaction against Behaviourism which preached the total opposite. i.e. that errors had to  be avoided at all costs. The fact is that the truth is somewhere in the middle: errors should not be avoided or penalised; in fact they should be encouraged as they are the natural by-product of learning. Hence, teachers must be tolerant of errors as by being intolerant they would discourage their students from experimenting with the language.

The problem, however, is that in many quarters this has led to an overly tolerant acceptance of error and, more importantly, to overly encouraging fluency at the expense of accuracy. This has led to cohort after cohort of language learners who have fossilised (automatized) mistakes because they have often been encouraged to talk beyond their level of competence through unstructured tasks they were not ready for. I still see this happen in many TBL (task based learning) and PBL (project based learning) classes in which students are asked to tackle tasks way beyond their level of competence.

I see the effects of this attitude on many primary students who come to secondary with many fossilised mistakes (especially pronunciation errors) they have automatized because ‘it is okay to make mistakes’ at that age and correcting them or focusing them on accuracy would put them off languages. ‘Children learn subconscioulsy anyway…’

Truth is, if  a learner keeps making the same mistakes over and over again because they are made to talk or write beyond their level of competence and are not sufficiently focused on accuracy those mistakes will become engrained in their production system and, once fossilised, will never be amenable to correction or re-learning (Mukkatesh, 88; Ellis, 1994). Whilst teachers must be tolerant and encouraging of error to a certain degree, they must be able to stamp them out as early as possible, before they become fossilised – unless, once again, our aim is simply to forge language survival skills not highly competent speakers.

5.Pronunciation is not important – it is to be able to be understood by a sympathetic L2 native speaker that matters

Pronunciation has been another victim of Stephen Krashen’s methodology and of Communicative Language Teaching. Hence, it comes very low in teachers’ priority these days, despite the fact that vocabulary recall is activated by sound; that reading comprehension is impeded by poor decoding skills (the ability to effectively pronounce L2 letters/words into the target language). Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating here that every learner must become a near-native pronouncer; tons of research shows clearly, though, that an effective decoder of the target language is more likely to be successful at language learning than an ineffective one. Obvious corollary: L2 learners should be taught masses of pronunciation and decoding skills as early as possible, in primary, and pronunciation mistakes – based on what we said in the previous paragraph – should be stamped out as early as possible.

Conclusion

The five misconceptions discussed above are only a few of the myths about language teaching and learning that have crept into our profession’s core of shared beliefs and have in some cases assumed the status of dogma, to the point that if one does not conform to them is deemed as less competent or ‘rogue’. Two obvious instances of this are the over emphasis on the fact that the target language should be used most of the time by the teacher when interacting with the class and the semi-total ban on detailed grammar teaching in the classroom. As I often reiterate on this blog, teachers need to equip themselves with the know-how about language acquisition and pedagogy which will ultimately allow them to dispell such strait-jacketing dogmata and any other theory and methodology imposed on them by unscrupulous ‘fad’-mongers or self-proclaimed language-education gurus.

Professional development series (2) – How to make the most out of lesson observations

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

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1. Introduction – The why of lesson observations

Lesson observations serve a range of purposes. Whatever the intended outcome, in my experience, very few people truly look forward to them and even fewer find the process to significantly impact their teaching practice, not in the long-term anyway. The reasons? Firstly, the fact that more than often the people involved – both observers and observes – carry out lesson observations more because they have to than because they actually attach any significant learning value to them – “Time is tight and there are more important issues to attend to!”. Secondly, because of the way the process is structured. Thirdly, because of the frequently inadequate follow-up. Fourthly, the lack of training in coaching skills essential in some of the scenarios I will discuss below. Finally, other factors undermine the effectiveness of the process, ranging from the culture and micro-cultures of a specific school or Department to affective issues involving the relationships between the people involved.

From personal experience I do believe that lesson observations, especially peer-observations, can indeed enhance one’s teaching craft, provided that a number of important cognitive and affective variables are controlled for and that the protagonists of the process – observer(s) and observee –  engage in a long-term collaborative effort characterised by (1) mutual trust and respect, (2) intellectual honesty and (3) openness to change.

One major factor in the success of the process is its orientation, i.e. the final goal (Performance management? Learning from a colleague? Both?) as it will inevitably shape the whole process, from beginning to end. In this regard, let me note that by and large I am against using lesson observations to assign a score to teacher performance, not in the way it is commonly done in this day and age, anyways. Why? It is short-sighted; it is carried out using evaluative tools (the observation checklists) and procedures (e.g. there is usually one rater only) which lend themselves to strong subjective bias; their impact on teaching and learning does not justify the anxiety, stress and time investment they cause in many observees and often the observer-evaluator does not know enough about language acquisition to be able to pontificate on what constitutes effective language teaching and learning. Not to mention the fact that many teachers often put on a one-off show to impress the observers,  performing in the observed lesson way beyond the level of organization, creativity, commitment and zeal of a typical lesson of theirs. We all know that.

After all, if the culture of a department is one of transparency, openness, mutual trust and practice-sharing every Head should be aware of what their colleagues’ strengths, areas for improvements and teaching styles are, anyway. Hence, besides the fact that associating numbers to performances through measurement scales of ludicrous invalidity is futile, one should not need to have to sit through a lesson to know how ‘well’ their colleagues teach.

In conclusion, I believe lesson observations should be used solely to enhance teaching and learning. However, even if  they were indeed to be used to evaluate teaching, they should still have a positive wash-back effect on teaching and learning. Moreover, unless they are carried out as part of a principled, carefully-structured and positive process with plenty of support from the course administrators they are absolutely useless exercises which do little for teacher well-being, self-efficacy and professional development. An open-door policy as well as regular collaborative lesson-planning, team-teaching and  conversations with peers on teaching and learning are much more likely to impact professional development that a one-off observation per term followed by feedback.

2. The aim of the present post

In this post I make a few suggestions on how to enhance the positive impact of lesson observations, based on the teacher development literature I have reviewed, on my own experience of what has worked well for me and my colleagues in the past, on social cognitive theory principles and, last but not least, common sense. Below, I envisage the following three lesson-observation scenarios:

  1. The observer as a coach
  2. The observer as a learner
  3. The observer as an assessor

The suggestions below presume that the working  environment one is operating in is not a highly dysfunctional one but rather one with a reasonable degree of mutual trust and professional respect. Establishing trust, transparency, and a caring and non-judgmental atmosphere is pivotal. Moreover, it is presumed that the team share fairly homogenous views on language teaching methodology.

  1. General principles

3.1. Teachers should be provided with a reference framework which clearly details what constitutes effective Modern Language teaching and learning . As I often reiterate in my posts, a Department should agree on a common set of guiding pedagogic principles which would underpin its teaching and learning practices; ideally, they would also develop a common language to refer to those practices. This will warrant cohesion and coherence across the Department both in terms of teaching practices and of evaluation procedures.

3.2 The evaluation of a lesson cannot limit itself to the assessment of the producti.e. the lesson as it unfolds before our eyes.  The lesson one observes  is but the end-result of a process. Hence, effective coaching on and/or valid assessment of a lesson should start before the to-be-observed lesson actually occurs! This entails that the observer and the observee should actually meet to discuss the to-be-observed lesson at least  a day or two before it is actually implemented.

In an observer-as-an-evaluator scenario, the observer may want to limit  their  intervention to asking questions about the  observee’s lesson plan to elicit the why of his / her choices as they may want to stay as neutral and objective as possible.

In an observer-as-a-coach scenario the observee’s input may be more interventionist in nature and invite the observee to reconsider aspects of their lesson plan by asking more or less open questions; in this case, the observer will attempt to bring potential issues with the observee’s  lesson to their conscious awareness and collaboratively come to solutions. S/he may also want to restructure the observee’s cognition vis-a-vis teaching methodology issues which emerge from the discussion

In an observer-as-a learner scenario, the roles are reversed; the observee becomes the coach, but the questions will be more or less the same as the ones asked in the previous scenario. Ideally, the observee will plan the lesson in the form of a think-aloud protocol, verbalising his thoughts as the observer listens and occasionally interrupts to seek clarification or expansion.

Whatever the approach, it must be clear at every single moment of the interaction between observer and observee that the focus is as much on the process of teaching (the lesson planning) as it is on the product (the lesson teaching), as (1) many issues undermining the effectiveness of a lesson have to do more with the planning and sequencing of activities than with the classroom implementation and (2) because, over-emphasizing the product and suggesting a few things here and there that a teacher could have done differently in a specific lesson may give the observee the impression that merely ‘tinkering’ with their existing performance may be enough; whilst this may be sufficient in certain cases, in others the changes needed may entail deeper cognitive restructuring (e.g. addressing misconceptions about language acquisition; filling gaps in their competence;  reconsider the approach to short-term and/or medium-planning or to material design; etc.).

It is noteworthy that I have rarely come across in a post-observation discussion and/or evaluation document an item that focuses on this very important aspect of a lesson: the how and why of its conception. The focus is always solely on the product, thereby potentially failing to identify some of the root-causes of ineffective teaching and limiting itself to the observable.

3.3. Whatever the context, any observed lesson must be considered as part of a teaching and learning curricular sequence. One cannot consider a lesson in a vacuum, as disjointed from what happened before and after. Hence, in the pre-observation meeting, a substantial part of the discussion should centre on the curricular context both in terms of what came before and of the follow-up. An effective teacher is also an effective curriculum planner; I have come across  many teachers who had a greater impact on their students’ learning than others who were more effective than them in terms of classroom delivery, purely by virtue of their superior medium- and long-term planning.

Long-term planning requires greater attentional capacity and a more organic approach to teaching ; lesson observations that focus on the product and on the here-and-now always fail to spot this and a great teacher attribute goes often neglected in the lesson evaluation.

In this case, too, it is interesting to note that lesson-evaluation documents regularly fail to include this crucial aspect of lesson planning.  What they do always include, on the other hand, is the item: ‘Evidence of learning’, despite the fact that 40 % of whatever is taught in a given lesson will be forgotten one hour later and that 80 % is forgotten a week later without reinforcement of the distributed (rather than massed) kind. Whilst I do agree that by the end of the lesson there will be some tangible evidence of learning, lesson observers and course auditors should concern themselves much more on long-term retention than they do on the here-and-now (as argued here). In coaching/modelling scenarios, this important skill is often neglected, too.

3.4 The lesson observation must be part of a LONG-TERM process aiming at enhancing the professional developments of all parties involved.

Lesson observations are usually followed by a feedback session at end of which targets for improvement are set for the observee. These targets are at best revisited at the end of the academic year or performance-management cycle. However, several decades of research in teacher development have shown that this practice is highly ineffective as a way to enhance teacher competence.

As Cognitive psychology posits, skills are acquired through masses of practice, highly scaffolded at the beginning of the process and increasingly less structured until autonomy has been attained. Frequent formative feedback from an expert plays an important role, too. This implies that the observer or other expert associated with  the process must commit themselves to a long-term coaching of the observee for any area of development to be effectively addressed. This, in my experience, rarely happens, usually because course administrators do not provide busy classroom practitioners with the time and resources that such a process requires in order to bring about transformational change. Other reasons refer to the lack of training in effective coaching skills, lack of peer-support and self-complacency.

Any follow-up ought to focus only on one major area of development at time, in order to pre-empt divided attention.The follow-up process may include:

  • Teacher-led research on the to-be addressed issue(s)
  • Some sort of coursework which encapsulates the finding of such research and envisages/documents the application of those findings in the teacher’s classroom practice;
  • Collaborative planning and/or teaching with an expert;
  • Subsequent observations focused on the target area of competence;
  • Learning discussions with peers.

3.5 (In the lesson-evaluation scenario) Use subject-specific lesson-evaluation documents:  Many secondary  schools use the same lesson-discussion / evaluation documents across all subjects. This fails to consider the unique nature of language learning. Departments ought to come up with a documents which integrates the evaluation of generic skills with that of more subject-specific ones. This is one of the most common and most serious shortcomings of lesson evaluations in English secondary schools.

3.6. (In the lesson-evaluation scenario) Ensure that lesson observations are conducted by two subject-experts : Any evaluative process of a teacher’s performance, especially when it is related to their professional appraisal and/or a pay-rise, should control for subjective bias as much as possible. The reliability of the process can be  enhanced by having two experts ; from an affective point of view, it would be better if the observee could pick one of the observers.

Evidently, having two  observers poses a number of logistical challenges; in my view, however, this makes the process much more accountable and objective and, from a learning point of view, the observee will be more likely to learn more from two experts than from one.

Conclusion

Commonly, in many schools the run-up and follow-up to lesson observations are not carried out in a way which is conducive to significantly enhancing teacher professional development. One reason is the inadequate focus on the observee’s actual lesson-planning process and on the why of their instructional choices (e.g. sequencing of activities). Secondly, much of the lesson observation focus is on the here-and-now, which does not capture the long-term intentions, implications and effects of teacher performance on student learning. Thirdly, lesson observations are rarely  followed-up with a serious and systematic attempt to address the identified area(s) of development through a long-term plan, mainly for lack of support and effective coaching. Finally, lesson-evaluators often use inadequate assessment procedures  whose main shortcomings are the short-term focus, the use of whole-school  multi-traits scales and no inter-rater reliability procedures.

For more on my views on teacher development please read the following post: “Why teachers teach the way they do”.

Professional Development Series (1) -Three questions every  teacher wanting to improve their teaching practice should ask themselves

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1.Intro

One of the buzz-words in the Professional Development circles these days is ‘Reflective practice’. Teachers are told on a daily basis that being a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a must if they are to build on their craft and enhance the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to work in dyads and triads  to work collaboratively on lesson plans , to carry out peer-observations and read research together… Excellent stuff! I have done it myself during my school’s professional-development afternoons with my insightful and creative colleague Dylan Viñales and it has indeed benefitted my teaching whilst triggering ideas for the blogposts I publish on The Language Gym.

But I do have a teacher-training background and a PhD in Applied Linguistics  on top of 25 years language teaching experience. Would my learning discussions with Dylan be as fruitful were I simply to rely on the input on language teaching methodology I received during my PGCE in Hull 30 years ago?  What my PGCE tutors and my school-based mentors taught me about language teaching methodology was a random mix of tips borrowed from various – often contrasting – schools of thoughts, often discounted by current research findings and cognitive psychology acquisitions. So, for instance, I was taught to teach speaking pretty much in the audio-lingual way whilst being told that my teaching was meant to be absolutely CLT-based. I was told that not talking in the target language was anathema whilst research indicated clearly that code-switching does not do any harm to the students in terms of L2 acquisition. Tragically, many of such misconceptions still persist nowadays in the teaching profession.

So the question is: do most teachers possess sufficient know-how in terms of knowledge of theories and research in second language teaching and learning? The ugly truth, in my experience, is that most language teachers have not received adequate training in this area of their teaching competence and, sadly, many do not often have the time – busy as they are marking and planning lessons – to spend hours reading articles or blogs on L2 teaching methodology. Hence, professional development sessions which encourage practice-sharing and collaborative reflection can be beneficial but only to a certain extent; in order to improve one’s teaching it is imperative, in my view, to have an understanding of how the brain processes and acquires languages, of how language competence evolves and of what constitutes valid assessment, as such an understanding enables one to design the curriculum in a more principled and consistent fashion; to sequence learning activities more effectively and more adaptively; to create tests that are as objective and fair as possible and actually measure what they purport to measure.

So, why this post and its extremely pretentious title…? Because the three questions the title alludes to should be, in my view, the essential starting point of any reflective process on one’s own teaching practice. When I was asked the most important of those questions (“How are language learnt?”) by Professor Ron White – an Applied Linguistics legend – on my MA TEFL course 20 years ago I felt as disorientated as I did after my first parachute jump as a young recruit. I felt I should have known the answer, as I had been teaching for over five years prior to that course! Yet, I could not actually articulate it.  It was only after three months of Language-Learning-Principles lectures and much individual and collaborative reflection with fellow MA-TEFLers that I felt I was starting to nail it.

In my experience and in that of many of the readers that contact me in the social media, not many teachers find it easy to articulate their beliefs as to how languages are learnt; in fact, many of them do not really espouse a specific view of language acquisition or do not have a given principled pedagogic reference framework.

But “Do teachers actually need one?” – the best teacher and head of faculty I have ever worked with – Gillian Bruce – once asked me. “I know many teachers who do not have any knowledge of SLA theory and still get excellent results!”. My come-back to that was: “Would those teachers who get excellent results do even better if they knew more about Language Acquisition theory and research?” My hunch is that they would.

Here are the three questions I think every teacher who wants to improve their own practice should ask themselves  . These questions should be pondered over and answered way before Departments venture in the typical development-time discussions on what the elements of a great language lesson are; on what constitutes best classroom practice; on how to best provide corrective feedback (a highly controversial area of teaching which is massively affected by one’s espoused L2 acquisition theory);  on how to best integrate emerging technologies in the curriculum etc.. How can a language department even remotely hope to tackle the above issues effectively when they have not addressed the three questions below?

  1. The three questions

(1) How are foreign  languages learnt ?

In my opinion this is the most important question a teacher should ask themselves and I encourage every PGCE student /Probationary teacher to do so at the very beginning of their teaching practice. Trainee teachers should ask this question to their PGCE tutors and school-based mentors, too. This is paramount as any long-/medium- and short-term planning should be based on the answer.

In my case, finding the answer to that question and using it to frame my classroom approach was fundamental in enhancing my teaching- a true professional breakthrough for me. It meant sacrificing and adapting much of what I had been doing until then, but it paid enormous dividends. Cognitive models of language acquisition (especially Skill-based theories and Connectionism) provided the basis for my espoused theory of learning and shaped much of what you read in my blogs and of what I have been doing in the classroom for the last 20 years.

Can someone hope to answer that question without reading books or articles on second language acquisition? I believe so, if one has been teaching for a fairly long time, has been an assiduous reflective practitioner over the years and thinks long and hard about their own language learning experiences (what worked and what didn’t).

What matters is not to come up with a universal truth but with a set of guiding principles which are not written in stone – as future experiences or learning discussions with peers might end up restructuring them- but can provide a reference framework which will warrant consistency and cohesion to our approach. As professor Macaro, former Head of the Oxford University Education Department, wrote in his review of our book ‘The Language Toolkit’ :

it’s all very well saying there are no ‘methods’ for teaching a foreign language any more but it can’t then be a free-for-all with teachers doing exactly what they want to do. As much as I believe in teacher professional autonomy, language teaching is so complex that you have to have a series of guiding principles.

Ideally, as a Head of Department you will compare your reference framework/guiding principles with those of your staff and come to a sort of agreement – hopefully through democratic consensus-  as to what the espoused theory of the department is and on how it should shape teaching and learning. This will hopefully bring about consensus amongst the team as to what constitutes desirable and less desirable practice and possibly prevent controversy during post-lesson observation discussions and lead to fairer performance evaluations.

It is very important for the answer to this question to be as unambiguous as possible if you are working as a Department. For instance, in many Department handbooks I have come across lines to this effect: the Department endorses a Communicative Language teaching approach to MFL instruction. What does this entail in practical terms? A set of guiding principles , whilst not being overly prescriptive, should state roughly  how much TLU (target language use) is desirable; roundabout what ratio of receptive-skills-to-productive skills ; suggest possible approaches to listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar instruction; a framework for the implementation of PBL work; how it is believed that Information technology should be best used to enhance learning etc.

 

(2) What are the implications of the answer to question (1) for language teaching and learning ?

As hinted above, the answer(s) to the first question will inevitably shape teaching and learning in your classroom, from the emphasis you will give to comprehensible input to the prominence of speaking and auracy/oracy, from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, from all-out traditional feedback methodology to selective or no error correction, etc.

If you are doing this exercise as a whole Department, this process is bound to cause some controversy and has to be handled with much sensitivity and respect for other colleagues’ views. Having come up with a very clear set of guiding principles in answering question (1) above will definitely help.

My answers to this question are laid out in my blog posts  and I am glad that they are, as the process of writing about them has embedded them even deeper in my cognition . I do advice colleagues to answer this and the other questions in writing; it will impact your practice more.

 (3) Is the answer to (2) truly reflected in your own teaching practice? If not how can you make sure that it is in the light of the existing curriculum, resources and other logistic constraints (e.g. contact time)?

Chances are – as many research studies show – that your practice is not fully aligned with your beliefs. Partly because of your previously acquired metaphors of learning (which you formed throughout your own language learning experiences) which subconsciously shape the way you teach; partly because of the (often textbook-based) curriculum adopted by the school/institution you work at and the exam requirements; finally, the micro-cultures in your department will play an important role in the way you teach.

Will you’ have the guts’ to be true to yourself and find ways to teach the curriculum content in a way which reflects your beliefs? In my experience, teaching in a way which is consistent with one’s beliefs leads to greater satisfaction and self-fulfilment. Sadly, compromise will be necessary as your bosses’ pedagogic dogmata and the exam requirements will indeeed limit the scope of your freedom to a certain extent. In my case, for instance, I have had to adopt feedback-to-writing strategies that are not aligned with my espoused language learning theory and beliefs – despite having researched error correction in second language writing as part of my PhD study.

If you are doing this as a Department, this can be an exciting opportunity to rewrite the dull Schemes of Work that you have (not) been using so far in a way which is much more conducive to effective and productive curriculum design. You might finally come up with schemes of work that people will actually use, not frozen icons on your computer screen for OFSTED inspectors or your line managers to open as part of checklist-ticking exercises.  

Concluding remarks

Reflecting on one’s teaching practice does contribute to making us better teachers. Without a doubt. However, the self-reflection whether conducted alone or in dyads and triads needs to be framed adequately and needs some background knowledge – even fairly basic –  of teaching methodology and acquisition theory. There are many blogs that provide valuable pedagogic know-how, some of my favourites are listed in this post by Steve Smith.

In the absence of an espoused theory of language teaching and learning, I suggested classroom practitioners start the reflective process from the three framing questions discussed above, the most crucial one aiming at identifying the core sets of beliefs we hold about how languages are learnt. Once identified such beliefs one can then lay out the guiding principles which will warrant their classroom practice consistency and cohesion.

To find out more about my views on language teaching and learning do get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith: ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ 

The seed-planting technique: how it has enhanced my teaching and may enhance yours

planting-seeds jpg

1. Introduction – ‘Seed-planting’ or ‘Anaphoric recycling’: a differerent way of recycling

                          

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant”

                                                                                                                          (R.L.S Stevenson)

A few years back I came across the above line by Robert Louis Stevenson, so true of any teaching/learning experience, but especially relevant to second language acquisition. This is because many of the gains our students make day in, day out are invisible and even though they may not yield any tangible outcomes in the here and now they do often silently contribute to those sudden and ground-breaking ‘light-bulb moments’ they will suddenly experience a week, a month or even a year down the line, which often mark the beginning of acquisition.

Also, just like any other skills, language learning is not about recalling the ten target words, the grammar rule,or learning stategy the teacher taught by the end of a 50-60 minutes lesson ; it is about being able to understand/produce those words as close as possible to native-speaker accuracy and speed long after the end of that lesson. In other words, language instruction should concern itself with the long-term implications of what happens in each and every lesson we teach.

Yet, too much language teaching concerns itself with the short-term, the here-and-now. Consider lesson observations, for instance : how futile is the item ‘evidence of learning’ on the observer’s checklist. Evidence of learning at the end of a sixty-minutes lesson ? Really ? And what about the fact that humans forget more than 40% of what they ‘learn’ at a given time one hour later ? And does being able to recall a list of words at the end of a lesson constitute evidence of language acquisition ? That is the easy bit; one can say those words have been actually learnt only when the students will be able to recognize those words whilst listening to a near-native-speaker audio recording or be able to use them in production – which will probably take many more lessons down the line.

How many lessons on the Perfect Tense have been rated as outstanding by lesson observers – shown lots of evidence of learning, yet a few months later you will have heard the very teachers who taught those lessons complain that the students keep making the same annoying mistakes with the same tense in their speaking and writing? And the explanation : the students are being careless, lazy, dumb,…really ? How about the seeds sown during those fantastic lessons not being watered and looked after properly in the days, weeks and months after their occurrence ?

Any approach to evaluating language learning based solely or mostly on the tangible outcome one observes at the end of a lesson or short cycle of lessons is flawed because it fails to consider that L2 acquisition is less about learning the meaning of word X or the way grammar rule Y operates and more about how the brain speeds up the processing of that word and that grammar rule across a wide range of different linguistic, semantic and cultural contexts. [Please note, incidentally, totally out context, that I am against lesson evaluation of the sort that assigns scores to classroom performance as they are flawed in their purpose and because – based on my experience- way too many observers know too little about language acquisition to be able to pontificate as to what constitutes effective teaching and learning].

I remember, at the end of a lesson observation – in which I had been the observee – my observer telling me that she was concerned about two of my students who had struggled during a mini-board translation task as they were listening to my oral input (short sentences). Unlike the other students in the class, these two boys had not completed every single translation in the time I had allocated ; hence ‘you ought to differentiate better’ was the advice. Yet, two months down the line those boys caught up with the rest of the class at the same task. My observer had focused on the here-and-now, the immediate product of learning, not the process, failing to consider that the two students were refining the skill of processing my oral input and writing every single time they wrote on the miniboard, even if they had not completed the whole translation the first, second or third time around. They knew the meaning of the sentences I uttered ; they simply needed to speed up their ability to process those sentences ; subsequent practice of the same kind lesson in, lesson out allowed for that to happen. The most important thing was not the product, the words on the mini-board, but the process, training their ability to process my input faster. You only learn to hit the ball harder and faster by practising hitting the ball, regardless of the many failures.

In a nutshell, as I often reiterate in my posts, effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design – yes, the Department Schemes of Work that most language teachers don’t look at ! A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions (or R.O.C.=real operating conditions). The biggest challenge : time constraints – which brings me to ‘why’ I applied the Seed-planting technique in my teaching.

  1. Optimizing contact time through ‘seed-planting’

The greatest obstacle to effective L2 acquisition in most school  settings is definitely time constraints. Hence, teachers must find ways to maximize the use of the time available to them. One way to do this is obvious : if accurate fluency across the listening, reading, speaking and listening modalities is the main objective of instruction, the first and foremost imperative is not to waste too much time on activities which do not promote fluency (e.g. lengthy grammar explanations ; making posters or iMovies in lessons ; masses of Kahoot quizzes).

Another , less obvious approach – the Seed-planting technique or Anaphoric recycling – involves smart curriculum design, by planning in your schemes of work, as meticulousy as possible, the systematic recycling of vocabulary or grammar structures as peripheral-learning items throughout the run-up to the lesson/cycle of lessons in which they are to be taught as core items. Example : if I am planning a set of irregular perfect tense forms in term two, I may want to systematically ‘plant’ them as often as possible in any comprehensible input I will expose my students to throughout term one. I will use typographic devices (e.g. highlighting, underlining or writing in bold/italics) in order to help my students notice each occurrence of the target verb forms. I will also provide some support in the way of translation (e.g.in brackets ; a help vocabulary list).

By so doing, the students will have the opportunity to process any ‘planted’ lexical items or morphemes several times over before the lesson in which you will explicitly present them. This will give the students a significant advantage as they will have many previous instances of encountering those items (through aural and written exposure) to relate to ; lots of dots to connect. It will also allow you to use a more inductive approach to grammar instruction as the students will not get to the target structure as totally ‘clean slates’.

Evidently, for this technique to work at its best, the ‘seed-planting’ ought to occur in both aural and written input (i.e. listening and reading) in the context of texts which contain comprehensible input (i.e. input that the students do not need much guesswork or dictionary use to understand ).

Seed-planting can obviously occur through the speaking and writing media too, by providing the students with unanalysed chunks/set phrases / whole sentences to learn by rote which the teacher will ‘unpack when the students are developmentally ready to grasp their constituents.

Many teachers do indeed say they ‘seed-plant’; however the issue is how, how often, how systematically, how meticulously. How they promote the noticing of the target ‘seeds’. How they support the students as they process them. How explicitly and regularly seed-planting is embedded in the Schemes of Work.

A final point: effective anaphoric recycling (seed-planting) does not mean less emphasis on cataphoric recycling (i.e. recycling after explicit teaching).

  1. Benefits of Seed-planting

How this technique has benefitted my teaching practice:

3.1 Greater focus on my short- / medium- and long-term planning

When you have been teaching for as long as I have been you don’t look at the course’s Schemes of Work as much as you should – especially when the curriculum is based on the textbook with little or no alterations. ‘Seed-planting’ has had three positive outcomes in this respect: (1) it has made me reflect much more on both anaphoric and cataphoric recycling and how vocabulary and grammar structures were taught throughout the year. This has enhanced the quality of my recycling, thereby improving the Schemes of Work and my curriculum designing skills; (2) I have actually been using the Schemes of Work more because they finally have some use for me; (3) I have always been meticulous about the linguistic content of my lessons, but this process has made me focus on it in even greater detail.

3.2 More work on receptive skills and comprehensible input

One of the greatest influences on my teaching this year has definitely been Steve Smith’s advocacy of the importance of comprehensible input in L2 acquisition – a view that I was unconvinced before meeting him but that I now espouse. The seed-planting technique has forced me to do more receptive work, especially listening (I highlight the ‘planted’ items in the gapped or whole transcripts I give my students or in the body of the text if I we are doing a jigsaw listening task). The technique has crept into my classroom TLU (Target Language Use) too, making it become a vehicle for the deliberate and systematic seed-planting on a daily basis,

All of the above has greatly benefitted my students

3.3 Less time spent on explicit grammar teaching

Because of the frequent encounters the students have with the target structures prior to their explicit teaching, I have had to do less explicit teaching and/or the students seemed to pick them up more quickly. All in all, grammar teaching felt easier.

3.4 More opportunities for differentiation

Seed-planting has provided me with more opportunities for differentiation. How? Example: if a student completes a reading task earlier than the rest of the class, the ‘planted seed’ can constitute a springboard for a learner-led investigation on the web (possible in my case, because our students are equipped with iPads – 1:1). In fact, the gifted and talented in my lessons are one set of students who has benefitted greatly from this technique as it has propelled them ahead of the topics-in-hand sparking off more independent work on their part.

3.5 Enhanced acquisition(?)

In my perception, hardly a scientific truth, this technique has indeed facilitated the acquisition of the core vocabulary and of the grammar structures I ‘planted’, not simply as a direct result of the greater exposure to the target items, but also because of the benefits listed in the previous points

  1. Drawbacks

The main obstacle to the implementation of this technique is that it requires more work on the part of the curriculum designer(s). It is quite a painstaking process, as it does require fairly detailed planning. If you are a Head of Department you will hear comments like: “But we do it anyway”. Truth is that many teachers do it in some shape of form – but that the devil is in the detail and most importantly in how frequently and deeply the planted items are processed; and in what contexts.

4. Concluding remarks

The acquisition of a word or grammar structure is largely a function of how often the L2 learner processes it across a range of contexts. The more the encounters with a given L2 item and the wider the range of contexts in which those encounters occur, the more successful acquisition is likely to be. Obviously, as I have often reiterated in my blogs,  the ‘how’ of those encounters and what students do with it are very important factors too.

Seed-planting maximises the opportunities of recycling by exposing L2 learners to the set of words or grammar structures you are planning to teach on a given date over several weeks or even months prior to that date promoting through various means the noticing of those items.

Noticing is crucial to acquisition (Schmidt, 1990) and may prompt more inquisitive students to find out more about those items autonomously. Other, less keen and curious students, will benefit from processing those new items in familiar contexts placed in the comprehensible aural or written input they are exposed to, provided that the teacher offers some support (e.g. by glossary or translation in brackets) and guidance. In either case the process will give the learners a useful head-start, which, in my experience, often propels their acquisition of the ‘planted seeds’ further

Many teachers claim they practise seed planting. Truth is many do; however, let me reiterate this, the effectiveness of this technique lies in how systematically and meticulously it is applied in curriculum design.

To find out more about my ideas about language learning, get hold of the book I co-authored: “The Language Teacher Toolkit’

 

Listening instruction (PART 1) – How the brain processes aural input, instructional challenges and implications for the L2-classroom

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith (co-author with Gianfranco Conti of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ ) and Dylan Viñales (ML teacher at Garden International School)

fluent-english-speech

1. Introduction – The least practised, understood and researched language skill

Since posting my three articles on listening ( ‘Listening  – the often mis-taught skill’, ‘So…how do we teach listening?” and “Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”) I have been flooded with messages from Modern Language teachers worldwide, all asking me invariably the same question: “So, how do I improve my students’ listening skills ?”.

This has brought home to me the realization that many L2 teachers – and not simply those working within the English-and-Wales educational system –  are unsure and anxious about what constitutes effective listening instruction practice. This is not surprising; as Professor Weir and his co-workers (in Weir et al., 2013) point out, of the four language skills listening is by far the “least practised in the language classroom, the least researched and the least understood.” To-date, Listening is not fully integrated in L2 curricula (Macaro, 2003)

Yet, listening is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014) – ironic how the two top skills on this list are also the most neglected by British-trained teachers…

As a teacher trainee – both at Uni and during my teaching practice – and even on my MA TEFL (where Professor Weir was ironically one of my lecturers)  I was taught close to nothing on how to teach listening; for many years I simply taught listening as I had been taught it myself at school or as prescribed by the course-book in use. CPD on listening was pretty useless and centred on facilitating student guesswork, rather than providing teachers with guiding principles on how to enhance learner listening skills. This is, to my knowledge, what most teachers do and that is why Steve Smith and I devoted an entire chapter of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ to aural skills in an attempt to address some of the most important challenges posed by Listening instruction.

1.1 A ‘trilogy’ about Listening Instruction: goals and expected outcomes

This is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of posts written in collaboration with MFL guru Steve Smith and Garden International School colleague Dylan Viñales. The objectives of these posts are to (1) Discuss the mechanisms underlying the way humans process and interact cognitively and affectively with aural input and listening instruction (in PART 1); (2) identify the shortcomings of much current Listening instructions (PART 2 – to be published next week) and (3)Examine the implications for the classroom (more superficially in PART 1 and in much greater depth and detail in PART 3) and discuss the approach that I have undertaken (not always succesfully) in my own classroom practice in collaboration with some colleagues at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur).

PART 1 – Identifying the challenges listening-skill instruction poses to teachers and learners

In this post I will narrow down the focus and concentrate on novice-to-intermediate learners discussing how, based on Skill-acquisition models of language learning and my own classroom experience teachers may be able to enhance their students’ proficiency. I will start with a concise reminder of how L2 learners interact with L2 aural input both cognitively and affectively

2. Some important facts about how human interact with and process aural input

2.1 Top-down and Bottom-up processing

There is a general consensus amongst researchers that the human brain comprehends aural input by applying synergistically two types of processing: Top-down and Bottom-up. Top-down processing involves applying our knowledge of the world (schemata), all we know about a specific subject, topic, situation or group of people in the understanding of input which relates to that subject, topic, situation or group of people (Macaro, 2013). For instance, in listening to a love song in a foreign language we have a whole set of expectations about what it is going to be about and we can make educated guesses about what line is going to come next even if we do not understand each and every word – purely based on our previous experiences of listening to love songs.

Brown (2007) identifies the following Top-down skills which he labels Listening macro-skills (for conversational discourse):

  1. Recognize cohesive devices in spoken discourse.
  2. Recognize the communicative functions of utterances, according to situations, participants, goals.
  3. Infer situations, participants, goals using real-world knowledge. (pragmatic competence)
  4. From events, ideas, etc., described, predict outcomes, infer links and connections between events, deduce causes and effects, and detect such relations such as main idea, supporting idea, new information, given information, generalization, and exemplification.
  5. Distinguish between literal and implied meanings.
  6. Use facial, kinesic, body language, and other nonverbal cues to decipher meanings.
  7. Develop and use a battery of listening strategies, such as detecting key words, guessing the meaning of words from context, appealing for help, and signaling comprehension or lack thereof. (p.308)

Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, involves interpreting the aural input by analysing basic linguistic features such as recognizing word boundaries, stress and intonation, grammatical word-classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (tenses, agreement, pluralisation, etc.).Below is Brown’s (2007) list of listening comprehension micro-skills (for conversational discourse) (p. 308)

  1. Retain chunks of language of different lengths in short-term memory
  2. Discriminate among the distinctive sounds of [the target language]
  3. Recognize English stress patterns, words in stressed and unstressed positions, rhythmic structure, intonational contours, and their role in signaling information.
  4. Recognize reduced forms of words.
  5. Distinguish word boundaries, recognize a core of words, and interpret word order patterns and their significance.
  6. Process speech containing pauses, errors, corrections, and other performance variables.
  7. Process speech at different rates of delivery.
  8. Recognize grammatical word classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (e.g., tense, agreement, pluralization), patterns, rules, and elliptical forms.
  9. Detect sentence constituents and distinguish between major and minor constituents.
  10. Recognize that a particular meaning may be expressed in different grammatical forms. (308)

The two processing modes ‘work’ together, concurrently and synergistically to help making sense of what we hear.  Going back to the love song example, for instance, my previous experience of listening to love songs by singer ‘X’, will give rise, in listening to one of her songs, to a set of expectations about what the song is about (top-down processing). The song’s title and the video-clip that accompanies it will expand the set of predictions I am building. My predictions will be confirmed or discarded by the words I will be able to identify (bottom-up processing) whilst at the same time helping me make sense of the words I do not understand. It should be noted that, in my attempt to identify a challenging word I may use its sound (phonological level), its word-class (morphological level), its position in the sentence (syntactic level) – amongst other cues- in order to recognize or make sense of it.

Skills 1, 5 and 7 on the above micro-skills list (in bold) are particularly important as skill 1 speeds up processing, freeing up cognitive space for our brain (working memory) to focus on meaning and skill 5 helps us make sense of what we hear by segmenting the aural input. Without segmentation aural input is perceived by the students as an unintelligible fast-running flow. The inability to segment input, linked with poorly developed decoding skills, is the greatest obstacle to understanding for many novice-to-intermediate learners and the main reason of learner disaffection and low self-efficacy vis-à-vis listening. Hence the need that I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs for systematic and extensive decoding-skill instruction (i.e. the ability to transform graphemes into phonemes, letters into sounds) from the very early days of L2 instruction (read my post here:Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”).

As for skill 7, it is paramount for students to get used to different speeds of delivery in order to train their aural-input processing skills – reading the same text several times at different speeds, from slower to nearnative speed or viceversa pays dividends in this regard, in my experience.

As I will point out in PART 2, very few – if any at all – of the skills identified by Brown (2007) are explicitly and systematically addressed by curriculum designers and course-books in use in most UK educational settings. Yet, they provide teachers with a very useful blueprint for listening instruction by isolating the core macro- and micro-skills; a much needed framework, considering that much L2 listening instruction is currently designed and conducted in an unstructured and in same cases, haphazard fashion. I strongly believe that by integrating the core skills amongst those identified by Brown (2007) in our curriculum and explicitly teaching them to our students we can significantly enhance the impact of listening instruction.

2.2 Processing capacity

Working Memory (WM) Processing capacity is a very important determinant of how effectively and efficiently our students comprehend aural input. As Cornell professor Morten Christiansen and his Warwick Univeristy colleague Nick Chater put it   in a recent ground-breaking paper (Chistiansen and Chater, 2016):,“the ability to quickly process linguistic input […] is a strong predictor of language acquisition outcomes from infancy to midde childhood.”

This is because Working Memory having very limited cognitive space available for the processing of any incoming information, if it is performing too many tasks at the same time it will experience overload and that information will be lost due to divided attention. In order to create more cognitive space, the brain tends to automatize lower order skills (e.g. decoding skills; segmenting aural output; recognizing grammatical word class) so that it has more processing capacity to devote to higher order cognitive skills such as analyzing meaning, building inferences, etc. Hence, without enabling our students to automatise the micro-skills on Brown’s (2007) list, their brain will never manage to have sufficient cognitive space to process higher level listening tasks.

2.2.1 A few important facts about Working Memory 

As concisely laid out in my post on Working Memory (here), WM is a buffer between the world and Long-Term Memory; a ‘device’ in our brain which processes any incoming information and, should the rehearsal of such information be successful, commits it to Long-term Memory (where it will be stored for ever). As you read this post, your WM is processing my words interpreting them based on the existing information in your Long-Term Memory. WM activates information through chains of association triggered by the sound, meaning, grammar, etc. of whatever input it processes. So, for example, if I hear the word ‘dog’, everything to do with the notion of dog will receive electrical impulses along the brain neural network; the language items more strongly connected in our personal processing history will receive the greatest activation and will be easier to recall.

Models of Working Memory posit a system made up of two slave systems, the Visio-spatial Scratchpad which stores images (including language characters from ideographic languages, e.g. Chinese) and a Phonological loop which stores the sounds we hear and consists of two parts: the phonological store (inner ear) and the articulatory control process (inner speech). A third component, the Central Executive, is in charge of orchestrating the functioning of the two slave systems and of managing the flow of data to and from Long-Term Memory.

Much of our students’ success at comprehending L2 aural input will hinge on how efficiently and effectively Working Memory processes such input. This is because:

  1. Working memory storage is fragile – it takes a minimum distraction for the information being processed to be lost (forgetting from divided attention);
  2. Working memory storage capacity is very limited: 7+/- 2 digits only according to Miller (1965), less according to others (Christiansen and Chater, 2016). The Phonological Loop (more precisely: the phonological store or inner ear) can only store only about 1 to 2 seconds of speech at any one time (some say even much less – 100 milliseconds). This has three important implications: (a) that individuals genetically endowed with a larger working memory span will have an advantage; (b) that the ability to store language will be a function of how effectively the students can decode and pronounce the sounds they hear (since the faster they can reproduce the sounds the smaller the space in the phonological store they will occupy) – the argument for ultra-emphasizing decoding-skills instruction; (c) whatever information ‘X’ students hold in Working Memory as they process aural input will be lost when new incoming information ‘Y’ arrives, which means that students have an extremely short time frame to process what they hear before it is overwritten by new input. As Christiansen and Chater (2016) posit, the brain speeds up language processing by ‘chunking’ linguistic material into a hierarchy of increasingly abstract representational formats, from phonemes to syllables, to words, phrases, sentences, discourse. ‘Chunking’ prevents the information held in Working Memory from being erased for ever from our brain (to learn more about chunking read here
  3. The brain works like Google – A given language item’s processing history will determine (a) how easily it will be processed and comprehended and (b) the extent to which it will facilitate or slow down comprehension. Why? An analogy with Google search will help illustrate what I mean: this morning I as I was typing into the Google search box ‘we don’t’ a number of options appear in a hierarchical arrangement: ‘ we don’t talk any more’, ‘we don’t want another hero’, etc. In other words Google statistically predicted the sentence I was looking for based on Google users’ behaviours to-date or, when I searched through my own Google account, based on my own searching history to-date. The brain operates similarly, based on our individual processing history with specific language items; so, just like Google, on hearing the words ‘ we don’t’ our Working Memory will automatically activate any words , phrases, sentences containing those three words that we have heard more frequently; the ones heard most frequently will receive the strongest activation, the ones processed least frequently, the weakest. Other cues/constraints from the environment (e.g. the topic we are talking about, the facial expressions of our interlocutor, etc.) will affect the activation of those words/phrases/sentences too, to a certain extent. (Macaro, 2003).

The most important implications of the above are that:

(a) learners need to practise a lot more listening than they typically do at present, day in, day out. This is fundamental. Ideally, teachers would put a lot of effort in promoting independent listening outside lesson time for pleasure or at least through homework;

(b)  again: listening micro-skills, especially decoding skills, must be taught (I will deal with this point more extensive in my next post)

(c) the core language items must be recycled extensively through listening/speaking across as many contexts as possible -not simply reading and writing – for the reasons outlined in point 3 above (ease of retrieval depending on an individual’s processing history of each language item acquired).

2.3 Differences between audio-recording-based listening comprehension and real-life listening

In real-life conversation and whilst watching audio-visual material paralinguistic features such as visual expressions and other gestures render aural comprehension easier as compared to listening to a recorded text. Moreover, in conversational listening the listener benefits from  repetitions, redundancies, hesitation and pauses in the input which easify comprehension. The typical listening comprehensions we give our students do not offer these facilitative features in their input. This brings into questions the validity of audio-recording-based listening comprehensions (especially in high stake tests and national examinations) as they do not necessarily prepare students for real-life communication. These isssues bring us to the next point.

2.4 Listenership

Listenership refers in the literature to the ability to comprehend our interlocutor(s)’ input and respond to it in real time in the context of a conversational exchange. As it is obvious, it requires the acquisition of an altogether different set of skills to the ones we deploy in ‘passive listening’ activities such as the execution of a listening comprehension task). Listenership thus refers undoubtedly to the most important set of language skills an autonomous L2 speakers requires in the real world, whether as a tourist finding their way around Paris or as a businesswoman negotiating a deal in a video-conference. Listenership can only be acquired through masses of oral communicative practice

2.5 The Listening-as-modelling vs the Listening-to-test-comprehension approaches

In the early stages of L1 acquisition new language items are picked up through highly simplified aural input which is produced by parents/caregivers at a slower speech rate than in normal native-speaker-to-native-speaker communication; repetition and use of gestures to facilitate comprehension are frequent too. Caregiver speech rate increases significantly as the child’s processing ability increases.

The same often happens when,say, an English Native/Expert speaker interacts with a much less proficient L2 speaker. For instance, yesterday, as I was talking to an L2 Italian speaker I found myself talking to them pretty much in the same way as I used to talk to my daughter when she was two, repeating key words several times with greater emphasis, exaggerating facial expressions, pointing at objects around me and often producing ungrammatical utterances to facilitate understanding on their part (e.g. leaving the verb unconjugated and using discourse markers only to indicate the future).

A slower speech rate, lots of visual cues (whether through images and gestures), simplified (comprehensible) input, lots of repetition and translation (yes- translation!) facilitate the new-language modelling function that aural input performs in the early phases of language acquisition; it provides speakers with poor aural-input processing ability with more time and greater chances to notice new linguistic features as segmentation (identifying the boundaries of words) is easier to perform. This is important, as noticing a new phoneme, word or morpheme is thought to mark the beginning of its acquisition (Schmidt, 1990, 1993,1994,1995).

Smith and Conti (2016) drew a clear distinction between the Listening-as-modelling and the Listening-for-testing-comprehension or ‘Quiz approach’ to listening-skill instruction. The former concerns itself with ensuring that L2 students learn through every single aural activity staged; the latter, sadly the more common approach in the typical UK classroom, concerns itself with providing practice in picking out details in order to answer a few questions on a recorded text heard two or three times – hardly an effective way to model new language. As I will discuss in the sequel to this post, to be published next week, the predominance of the ‘quiz approach’ remains to-date the root cause of the inefficacy of much listening instruction; as I shall argue there, listening-comprehension tasks can indeed play an important role in listening-skills acquisition, but only provided that much listening-as-modelling as occurred before.

By listening-as-modelling I do not simply mean the very common practice of asking the students to repeat a word or short phrase a couple of times after the teacher utters them since, as mentioned above, speech stays in working memory for too short a time for that sort of repetition to lead to acquisition. Also such practice models short phrases, not sentence building or more extensive and complex discourse.

Reading aloud is one example of listening-as-modelling that is indeed practised in a number of UK learning settings. In our book (Smith and Conti,2016) Steve and I provide a strong rationale for using it and there is mounting evidence (e.g. Seo, 2014) that even a few minutes per lessons can significantly impact speaking proficiency and willingness to communicate.

And how about the teacher using the target language in most of the lessons? Not an uncommon occurrence in UK classrooms, after all…Well,  it may be argued that teacher fronted talk in the target language does constitute Listening-as-modelling when the target language is used to explicitly model and recycle new language and to deliberately promote noticing (as in the example Steve Smith provides in our books in the section on target language use). However, in 25 years of lesson observations in British schools, I have indeed seen target-language teacher talk being used effectively to facilitate comprehension, but not to explicitly model specific language items through systematically recycled ‘patterned’ input. The teacher’s aural input is usually spontaneous – not a bad thing; however, when teacher contact time is limited (one or two hours a week), this kind of aural input is unlikely to substantially enhance acquisition – at least in my experience. I do believe, however, that in immersive or other input-rich L2 environments such practice can indeed significantly impact learning.

As I reserve to discuss in greater depth in my next post, Listening-as-modelling includes instructional activities which focus the learners on pronunciation and decoding skills, in an effort to facilitate phonological processing and segmentation; on predictive strategies; on the identification of word-classes and systems; on the understanding of syntax and sentence building; on the development of aural-input processing; on building metacognition vis-à-vis the listening process. Listening comprehension is built in such activities but in a way that scaffolds the modelling.

2.6 The affective response

So far we have looked at the way learner cognition responds to aural input. How about the affective response? In my experience, the ‘quiz’ approach, especially in the absence of adequate training in inference strategies and differentiation (difficult when all students listen to the same track at the same pace from the same input source) has led to a generation of disaffected listeners. This is tragic considering the wealth of L2 audio-visual material available on the web. However, as long as listening instruction limits itself to quizzes it will elicit guesswork and guesswork will rarely build learner self-efficacy, a crucial precursor, as Smith and Conti (2016) argued, for the development of intrinsic motivation.

For self-efficacy vis-à-vis aural-input-processing to be fostered in the classroom, the learners must be adequately prepped for any listening task which may be perceived as a test (e.g. a listening comprehension) by a few listening-as-modelling activities which recycle very similar lexical material and phonetic, grammatical and syntactic patterns so as to scaffold success. In the sequel to this post (PART 2) I will explain how I attempt to do it.

3. Conclusions to Part 1: first set of implications for teaching and learning and issues to be tackled in Part 2

The above discussion has huge implications for listening-skills instruction. Please note that each of the point below will be treated more extensively and with several examples in my next post.

(1) students need tons of listening practice which aims at speeding up processing (i.e. automatising ‘chunking’) – I will discuss how in the sequel to this post. A culture of listening-for-learning as opposed to listening-for-testing must be established in the classroom since the very early days of instruction through a variety of activities which aim at modelling comprehensible input and elicit a positive affective response (e.g. jigsaw listenings using songs; sentence building mats,  watching short movies with subtitles; story-telling with visuals). Moreover, speed of delivery should be reduced and varied (in a formative way) and linguistic content should be simplified with repetitions added in if necessary to facilitate comprehension. Transcripts and translations (e.g. parallel texts) could be used to scaffold the modelling process (this, too, will be discussed in my next post).

(2) students need EXTENSIVE practice in pronunciation and decoding skills from the very beginning of their L2 learning experience (e.g. through listening-micro-skills enhancers , partial transcription tasks and even short dictations ). I use them a lot in my lessons and students find them useful and fun. The set of new phonemes and corresponding graphemes taught should not, in my experience, amount to more than three or four per lesson.

(3) listening practice must recycle the target lexical material as much as possible in order to facilitate ‘chunking’ and future ease of retrieval from Long Term Memory. This may call for strategies like narrow listening, i.e. the administration of a series of listening texts which are very similar in terms of lexical, grammatical and syntactic content, thereby requiring increasingly less inferences on the part of the student-listener. At this link you will find an example of L2-French Narrow Reading texts which can be used for Narrow Listening, too. Again, narrow listening is something I used a lot in my lessons, usually preceded by a  battery of narrow reading texts containing the same linguistic material

(4) the target words and set phrases (especially if they are part of an Examination Board core vocabulary) must be recycled through the aural medium in as many different semantic, grammatical and phonetic contexts as possible in order to create a processing history which will facilitate comprehension in the long run (see 2.2.1 above).

(5)  The development of listening-skills, especially those underlying the ability to listen and respond to aural input (listenership) goes hand-in-hand with the development of oral communication skills. Hence, oral communicative activities (e.g. student-to-student conversations) should feature as often as possible in lessons. In order to ensure the type of recycling envisaged in point 3 and 4 above, such oral activities should include a substantial amount of structured activities ‘forcing’ learners to produce the target material (e.g. oral translations; role plays with prompts; cued picture tasks).

(6) listening comprehension tasks should be used almost exclusively as ‘plenary’ activities or tests to be carried out after much modelling of the linguistic material they contain has occurred. This will be perceived by the learners as much fairer than being asked to perform guesswork on an aural text containing lots of unfamiliar language and will enhance their chances to experience success, which will feed into their self-efficacy as L2- listeners. Teachers with good pronunciation may want to read the transcripts themselves rather than play the recording with less adept student-listeners, to facilitate processing. Please note that the Listening-as-modelling I envisage does include a comprehension component.

(7), curriculum planners may want to explicitly and systematically address in their long-/medium- and short-term planning the existing listening macro-skills and micro-skills taxonomies (e.g. the one by Brown, 2007, above). This would provide the curriculum  (e.g. Schemes of Work) with a structure and a specific set of objectives to focus on – surely a massive improvement over the haphazard way in which listening instruction is currently carried out. I use pre-listening tasks mainly as a vehicle for the modelling of the inference/predictive strategies envisaged by Brown’s (2007) and decoding skills (e.g. by reinforcing challenging sounds contained in the target text which may impair comprehension). I tend to use tasks involving focus on micro-skills in the in-listening activities I stage (three or four per task), jigsaw listening, segmentation tasks (identifying word boundaries) and patterns/system identification tasks (identifying word classes, tenses etc.), being my favourites. I use post-listening tasks, instead, for metacognitive reflection or critical listening (see my next post).

(8) Finally, as part of the Listening-for-learning approach, teachers ought to exploit any given recording much more than it is currently done by course-books. Carrying out three or four different activities with the same texts plus a pre-listening and a post-listening one will enhance the chances that the target vocabulary and linguistic features in the listening piece will be retained.

In a nutshell, the current teaching of listening skills does, in my opinion, need a drastic shake-up. The most important change language educators ought to implement is one of mindset, from a culture of listening-for-testing to one of listening-as-learning. This entails more Listening-as-modelling practice as well as more focus on Listenership, which in turns implies more oral interaction in the classroom.This change in orientation – which does not rule out using listening comprehesion tasks, as I hope it is clear from the above discussion – is fundamental if we want to equip the 21st century L2 learners with the skill set required to become effective autonomous listeners.

3.1 What I will write about in PART 2

In my next post I reserve to  delve deeper into the above implications and to discuss the ‘how’ I implement them as part of my daily classroom practice. I shall also point out the most common shortcomings of typical listening-skills instruction in the UK as identified by Steve, Dylan and myself, discussing the way we have addressed them (not always successfully) throughout the last academic year in our classroom practice (at Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur).

Part 2 and 3, the next posts in the ‘trilogy’, will concern itself with the following shortcomings of listening instruction, delving in much greater depth into the day-to-day strategies I have implemented in my classroom practice to address them in collaboration with my colleague Dylan Vinales at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur):

  1. Insufficient aural/oral skills practice
  2. Poor curriculum design/lesson planning
  3. Ineffective sequencing and integration with other skills
  4. Insufficient ‘patterned’ recycling
  5. Inadequate exploitation of listening resources
  6. Lack of differentiation
  7. The ‘quiz approach’
  8. Insufficient use of listening-as-modelling
  9. No systematic and explicit focus on the development of aural-input processing ability
  10. Insufficient practice in listenership skills

 

Please note: To find out more about Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti’s ideas on the above, get hold of their book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’

 

References

Brown, D. H. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016). Creating language: Integrating evolution, acquisition, and processing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Macaro, E (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language A Guide to Recent Research and Its Applications. London:Continuum.

Richards, J. C. (1983). Listening comprehension: Approach, design, procedure. TESOL Quarterly, 17, 219-239.

Rukadevi, D. (2014). The Role of listening in language acquisition; the challenges and strategies in teaching listening. International Journal of Education and Information studies, 4, 59-63  http://www.ripublication.com/ijeisv1n1/ijeisv4n1_13.pdf

Seo (2014) Does reading aloud improve foreign language learners’ speaking ability. GSTF International Journal on Education (JEd) Vol.2 No.1, June 2014

Smith and Conti (2016). The Language Teacher Toolkit. Amazon.

Weir, C J, Vidakovic, I and Galaczi, E D (2013). Measured Constructs: A history of Cambridge English language examinations 1913-2012. Studies in Language Testing 37

Six things I tried out this year which truly enhanced my teaching

 

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Here are six things that I have tried out this year which significantly enhanced my teaching and two which, whilst being much less successful, provided me with valuable insight in my students’ cognition and affect.

1. Six things that worked

1.1Teaching more verbs

The textbooks and the wordlists that one finds in published instructional materials and on language learning websites traditionally tend to mainly focus on nouns, occasionally throwing the odd adjective here and there. Verbs are usually grossly underrepresented in the published vocab lists. However, when we talk about things and people in our daily lives we  do use a fair range of verbs.

Without verbs the communicative power that we provide our students with is seriously limited. It is all very well to teach students the English, French or Spanish words for dog, cat and other house pets; however, if we only teach them how to say ‘I have’ , ‘I like’ and ‘s/he is’ in the target language, we will equip them with very few contexts they can use those nouns with. How about: ‘I walk the dog’, ‘I play with my cat’, ‘I feed my hamster’, ‘I groom or ride my horse’, ‘I look after my guinea pig’, etc.

Moreover, by widening the range of verbs we also provide a larger number of cognitive ‘hooks’ for the target nouns, contextual cues that will facilitate future recall.

Another benefit of teaching more verbs is that the more our students use them the more they are likely to deploy adverbs – a highly under-taught word class.

Finally, the more our students are exposed to the inflected forms of verbs in the comprehensible input we provide them with, the more likely they will be to ‘pick up’ verb endings and conjugations. When one looks at the reading and listening texts found in UK published textbooks one cannot help notice how poor they are in terms of inflected verb forms. Could this be one of the reasons why English learners of modern languages notoriously lack mastery of verb conjugations?

1.2 Much more listening practice and more listening-for-modelling activities

Another substantial change to my classroom practice has involved the greater use of listening activities as a way to model new language to my students – not merely to test or enhance their comprehension skills. I have substantially increased the use of the following in my lessons:

(a) Speaking mats – I put writing mats or sentence builders up on the classroom screen and make up sentences which I utter aloud for students to write on mini-boards in English. I also use speaking mats with younger learner for micro-dictation (students writing sentences on MWBs in the target language)

(b) Working with gapped transcripts of audio-tracks, videos or songs;

(c) Micro-listening-skills enhancers (see my posts on these);

(d) Jigsaw listening activities;

(e) Story-telling to teach tenses and/or vocabulary (with or without images);

This has massively improved my students’ pronunciation and preparation for the communicative activities I usually stage after the listening-as-modelling activities. (see my blogs on listening for more).

1.3 More decoding-skills teaching and emphasis on pronunciation in general

Working on specific phonemes and combination of letters in a structured way in synergy with the activities listed in the previous paragraph has paid massive dividends, this year.

I have focused on one or two sounds per lesson recycling them over and over again for weeks. I have preferred to apply the principle of distributed over massed practice (i.e. a bit every day).

I have made a conscious effort to lay great emphasis on the importance of accuracy in pronunciation with all of my younger learners (year 5s and 7s) and we have a little pronunciation workshop lasting about ten minutes in every single lesson. We do a lot of work on micro-listening / decoding skills, minimal pairs, reflecting on how differently letters are sounded in the target language compared to their native(s) one(s), simple tongue twisters and paired critical listening. It really has paid off! (see my blog on decoding skills for more).

1.4 Vocabulary, Verbs and Speaking ‘flipping’

This year I tried to flip most of the following:

(a)Vocabulary drills – If I am planning to teach topic ‘X’ on Wednesday I flip the learning of the vocabulary related to that topic setting it as homework on Monday. I usually do this using www.language-gym.com. Students send me the screenshot of the page with the score they obtained;

(b) Verb drills – every week I get the students to practise verb conjugation at home using online verb trainers like the www.language-gym.com one

(c) (with my GCSE classes) Speaking practice – every week I ask them to record a dialog  with a partner on one of the GCSE topics using their iPads and forward it to me.

1.5 L.I.F.T

LIFT, or Learner Initiated Feedback Technique is something I have used for very many years. It consists of questions about linguistic items they are using in their written pieces that they annotate in the margin of the page they are writing on. For example, if they are not sure whether a clause requires  the subjunctive or  conditional mood, they will underline or circle the verb and write on margin: “Is this verb supposed to be in the subjunctive? Why/Why not?

This year, I have used it more consistently, extensively and, more importantly I have insisted on higher quality questions. It has made me enjoy giving feedback more and my students have reported benefitting from it. (See my blog on LIFT for more)

1.6 The personal learning afternoons

In my school (GISKL), on Fridays lessons finish one and a half hours earlier. The students leave the premises and teachers engage in a range of professional development activities organized by Jose Diez (Director of Professional Learning). Some write reflective journals; some read research and some, like me, reflect on their practice with other colleagues. This has been a God-sent for me as I conceive a lot of my blogs during these sessions, usually carried out with my very creative, talented and resourceful colleagues Dylan Vinales and Ronan Jezequel.

Brainstorming and bouncing off ideas with colleagues – often after reading a research paper – on a specific area of teaching and learning is a very useful experience. Writing about it a posteriori in a blog not only reinforces the outcome of the sessions, but often help me develop it a notch further.

These personal learning afternoons have deeply impacted my professional development, to a much greater extent than any other CPD I was involved in the past had ever done.

2.Things that worked less well

Two things I tried but did not work so well, were: (1) using retrospective verbal reports (RVRs) and (2) reflective journals (RJs). RVRs consist of short reflections on how a specific task went immediately after it has been performed. I did it a couple of times after essay writing or a speaking session and most of the students didn’t really seem to enjoy or learn from it. As for the RJs half of the students really enjoyed them, writing them every week and discussing at length their learning problems and successes and setting themselves targets; the other half either did not do them or, when they did, they did it very superficially and unenthusiastically.

Overall, less successful than expected.

3.Tips

If you want to have a go at trying any of the approaches described above do not implement them with every single class of yours. I chose to try each of the above only with one group at a time the first time around starting from the group that would pose fewer challenges and would benefit the most from it.

For more on the above strategies and approaches,read the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, co-authored with Steve Smith and available on http://www.amazon.co.uk.

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The Language Teacher Toolkit – Why we wrote it and how it may enhance your practice

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Both as a teacher trainee twenty years ago and as a teacher trainer later on in my career I always lamented the absence of a book or set of resources for language instructors that would bridge the gap between research and classroom practice. That would not be written in the complex jargon of university professors and yet would provide the novice or inquisitive teacher with a framework or guiding principles informed by the latest language learning research acquisitions whilst being grounded in the invaluable pragmatism and wisdom of veteran teachers ‘who have been there and done that’.

A book that would not be biased towards one methodology or another, prescribing dogmatic solutions. Rather, a book that would provide teachers with a wide range of strategies, rooted in neuroscience and common sense applicable to a broad spectrum of classroom scenarios and learning settings from the Americas to the Far east. In other words, a universal language teacher tool-kit through and through that any classroom practitioner (novice or experienced) could draw on to better comprehend the ‘why’ of language teaching and learning and the ‘how’ of its day-by-day implementation. Accessible whilst credible.

After searching for that book in vain, for two decades, on ‘meeting’ Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net  a man whose French teaching resources – like thousands of other teachers around the world – I had been using for years, it suddenly dawned on me that his background and experience perfectly complemented mine and would have created the perfect synergy required to produce such a book.

Besides being a first class practitioner with a highly inquisitive and reflective mind and 35 years of teaching experience, Steve is also a very clear, concise and no-nonsense writer. With a Master’s degree in Language Education, a wealth of reading in Applied Linguistics and a 360-degree awareness of teachers’ every day challenges and needs, Steve was the perfect partner in crime for this ambitious enterprise.

‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, finally completed a couple of weeks ago and available on http://www.amazon.com in a few days, is the result of months and months of blending together two approaches to language instruction – Steve’s and mine –  which do not necessarily always converge but feed on each other thereby producing a very comprehensive and eclectic pedagogic framework and repertoire of teaching strategies.

In our work we have endeavored to cover every single area of competence that an effective language teacher ought to master, providing a balanced mix of theory and practice and ensuring that research findings were always discussed in clear and simple language and systematically related to the nitty gritty of every-day teaching and learning. To make sure that we catered for the needs of language teachers worldwide we have gathered data through social media, specialized forums and research studies into teacher cognition thereby identifying the areas that most teachers are concerned about or interested in.

The content includes: methods, target language teaching, developing spontaneous talk, classroom oral techniques, teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading and writing. We also have chapters on motivation, behaviour management, technology, advanced level teaching, assessment, and differentiated teaching.

With more than 50 years of teaching experience as classroom practitioners and over a century as polyglot language learners between the two of us we have written this book with the following framing questions in mind:

  • What does a language teacher need to know?
  • What is the most concise and user-friendly way of putting this across?
  • How does this translate into concrete lesson planning and classroom implementation?
  • What are the obstacles in the way of putting this into practice with various types of learners in a range of learning contexts?
  • What are the possible solutions to such obstacles?

As far as I am aware this 22-chapter book is one of a kind not merely because of its unique combination of the latest research in language pedagogy with no-nonsense effective classroom strategies, but also, and more importantly, because it is not written by educational consultants or university professors, but by teachers for teachers. Designed with the average teacher’s every-day needs, challenges and concerns in mind. This is why we have provided lots of practical tips as well as a vast array of minimal-preparation high-impact activities (in every chapter) and lesson-plans (at the end of the book) which will hopefully make teachers’ life easier whilst not compromising the quality of their instructional input.

Steve and I are very grateful to Elspeth Jones (Steve’s spouse) for editing and formatting the book and to Steve Glover (renowned resource writer and passionate linguist) for reviewing it and providing us with invaluable recommendations. We would also like to thank the distinguished language educators from various corners of the world who gave us lots of encouragement and insightful feedback throughout the process, e.g. Sara Cottrell of http://www.musicuentos.com.

The book can be found at:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Language-Teacher-Toolkit-Steven-Smith/dp/1523214821/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1455183687&sr=8-3&keywords=the+language+teacher+toolkit

Lessons in demotivation – forty years of uninspiring modern foreign languages curriculum design

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Please note: This post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden Internationa School

Last week I had one of those weird out-of-the-body experiences whereby you watch and listen to yourself teach. To my dismay, during my quiz-starter I was uttering to my very keen year 7 French students – armed with MWBs- the sentence: “j’aime les lapins car ils sont mignons, poilus et joueurs” (= I like rabbits because they are cute, furry and playful”). My heart sank. Mon Dieu ! What was I teaching them?

Truth is, I was following the Expo-One- based schemes of work – Unit 3 animals, etc. And, fortunately, our students are intrinsically motivated third-culture kids who love learning languages! Still, why would 21st century teen-agers want to spend six weeks of their French learning talking about pets? How relevant is that to their daily life, personal interests, academic goals? Do not get me wrong, I am an animal lover and I do believe that the topic lends itself to the teaching of some useful linguistic content; however, emotional response to and relevance of the to-be-learnt information to one’s personal interests and goals being important components of motivation in any learning, I wondered: what’s in it for them? Why should they be interested in this?

The same applies to many other topics included in current MFL course-books based on the England and Wales curriculum. Take for example the topic ‘house-chores’ notoriously one of the things teenagers hate the most about their daily life – how inspiring is such a topic going to be for year 8 students of French, Spanish or German? Even the topic ‘Jobs and future career’. Yes, I see the value of reflecting on their future life in year 9 as this is the time in which they usually choose their GCSE options and a lot of career orientation goes on. But really? Does anyone in their right mind think that teen-agers would enjoy talking about future careers – in French! – at the age of 13?

The list of uninspiring topics and sub-topics that books and teachers teach in foreign language lessons is endless and is partly influenced by the GCSE examinations topics. However, in my opinions, the main culprits are textbook writers and, to a less degree, teachers who are often not in touch with teen-agers’ lifestyle, interests and aspirations. Yet teachers often complain about students not being engaged and motivated. Would you be, if you were in their shoes? Having to talk in your early teens about pets, house-chores, pencil case objects, part-time jobs or future careers, a fictitious boy or girl’s trip to Normandy (to see the Bayeux tapestry of all things!) and other topics which are kind of useful but do receive, in my view, too much emphasis when one considers the relevance and the surrender value that they hold for pubescent language learners.

Teachers and curriculum designer, especially when they are not blessed with intrinsically motivated children, should ask themselves the following questions, when creating schemes of work: what topics and/or sub-topics are my students REALLY interested in? What words do they really need to learn and which ones would they enjoy learning? How may meeting their needs and preferences impact their preparation for GCSE or whatever examinations they will sit later on?

Of course, no curriculum should be entirely based on students’ preferences; adults do have the ethical responsibility to ensure that the teaching imparts knowledge, values and skills that student may not necessarily see as relevant or interesting. However, I wonder to what extent, as adults, curriculum designers and teachers are truly aware of what their teen-age students actually do outside school, what they watch on television or on Youtube; what books they read; what music they listen to; what they share on their favourite social media; what their main concerns and anxieties are; what they truly enjoy about life. And if they are mindful of this in their short-, medium- and long-term planning.

After all, although the new 21st centuries technologies and societal changes have exacerbated the already big generational gap that has always existed between parents and their children, the textbooks topics and vocabulary content has not massively changed. Take the Tricolore series – apart from some cosmetic changes, it is basically the same book I used to teach from 25 years ago…

For some teachers the answer would be to adopt a PBL approach. I do not agree, however, as I have strong reservations about it that I have already expressed in previous posts. The main ones: (1) students do not get enough aural and oral practice; (2) they spend too much time producing artefacts; (3) the focus is often on developing the final product rather than on language skills.

As far as I am concerned, in an ideal world the solution would be for curriculum designers, textbook creators and teachers to find out what students are really interested in; what they see as relevant to their personal needs, goals and aspirations; what they enjoy talking about; and use this information to create more motivating and inspiring linguistic content and learning activities.

Grammar translation and Communicative Language Teaching Compared

Please note: this paper has been written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net and my G.I.S.K.L. colleague Dylan Vinales.

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In this paper I shall compare two different language teaching methodologies, the Grammar-Translation methodology, still used in quite a lot of institutions worldwide ( e.g. some UK and Malaysian universities) and the Communicative Language Teaching approach, possibly today’s most popular instructional method worldwide . It should be pointed out that the labels ‘Grammar Translation’ (GT) and ‘Communicative Language Teaching’ (CLT) do not refer to two fixed sets of instructional frameworks whose principles have been formally and permanently codified by their founders or proponents. On the contrary, GT is a term used by specialized authors in their reviews of the history of Applied Linguistics (e.g Brown, 1994) to describe the oldest documented form of L2 teaching in man’s history.

The label CLT, on the other hand, does indeed designate meaning-based methodologies described in great detail by its many proponents and supporters in numerous manuals, papers and conferences. However, it has been applied very flexibly over the last 30 years or so to losely describe teaching methods that share a common core of pedagogic principles but can in fact differ greatly from one other in a number of ways. Some approaches, for instance, ban grammar teaching and correction altogether and employ communicative tasks with little or no structure which aim at fostering spontaneous interaction (Littlewood’s, 1984, ‘strong’ CLT approaches); others are less radical and do include some grammar teaching and correction and employ more structured activities in order to exercise some control over learner output (Littlewood’s, 1984, ‘weak’ CLT appraoches).

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all the many shapes and forms that GT and CLT over the decades. Thus, in discussing both approaches I shall limit my focus to the main pedagogic principles both methodologies rest upon and the basic teaching activities they employ, evaluating their merits in the light of current theories of L2 –acquisition and cognitive psychology. After discussing each methodology I shall proceed to compare them drawing my conclusions as to which one of them I consider as the more conducive to effective language learning providing the rationale for my choice. In my conclusions I shall also discuss my views on how elements of each methods could be combined in order to produce an integrated teaching methodology which, I believe, has greater potential for learning than either one of the two approaches.

Grammar Translation (GT)

This approach is based on the Classical Humanistic educational philosophy which views teaching as the passing-on of a body of knowledge from one generation to the next; not as the passing of skills necessary to function effectively and independently in the real world in a way which is beneficial for society. In this educational paradigm, language is therefore taught as something to know, as a set of rules and words to memorize rather than an instrument to use in a real-life communicative context.

As the name suggests, this instructional methodology focuses mainly on the explicit teaching of grammar in the belief that the mastery of the morphology, syntax and the other mechanics of the target language (TL) is the key to effective L2-acquisition. In its purest form this methodology will follow a Structural Syllabus (White, 1998) that is a syllabus in which each unit of work centres around a core grammatical structure. The teaching of lexis usually co-occurs, but holds a peripheral role and receive less emphasis and recycling within a typical lesson.

Although instruction rarely concerns itself explicitly with the teaching of translation skills and dictionary use, the learners are often engaged in translation activities from the L1 to the L2 and vice versa, aimed at reinforcing the target grammatical structures. Such activities typically follow the explanation of a morpheme / grammar rule which is usually taught deductively rather than inductively. Other activities of election are grammar exercises which train the learners in the manipulation of the morphology of the various parts of speech with model phrases which are usually learnt out of context. Such model phrases are usually void of communicative value and rather than being selected for their surrender value usually serve a purely demonstrative purpose. Aural/ oral skills are rarely if ever practised. The only oral work the students are likely to engage in is usually when the teacher addresses one of the students to ask them to demonstrate their grasp of a grammar structure through a translation task.

The elective form of correction is explicit error correction, possibly supplemented with rule explanation; in other words, the/a correct TL alternative is provided. The teacher usually practises all-out correction and would prioritize accuracy over fluency, form over communication, product over process. Hence, in the assessment of learner output the teacher would particularly penalize grammar mistakes.

The typical GT classroom sees the teacher as the ‘dictator’ of learning and the students as the passive recipients of his/her input. The learners usually commit lexical items to memory by rehearsing wordlists and are tested on their ability to recall them totally out of contexts. Pronunciation is taught through parroting and the learners usually are taught phonetics and practice reading the phonetic transcriptions of words found in the dictionaries and textbooks. L2-Writing tasks consist of: (a) translating words with the dctionary or (b) writing model sentences over and over again manipulating their morphology or syntax to obtain formally corrected (but not necessarily meaningful) output.

It should also be pointed out that in this instructional methodology the L2 taught is normally the standard variety in its purest and prescriptive form and in its highest register. Thus, the syntax the students will learn is more than often the language of literature or academia. Occasionally, both the lexis and the syntax taught is anachronistic and may occasionally sound flawed to a non-scholarly native ‘ear’.

In evaluating the merits of this methodology one needs to consider that the epistemological foundations of Grammar Translation approaches are not rooted in any systematic theory or model of L2-acquisition. Rather, they are based on the pre-cognitivist overly simplistic assumption that a grammatical rule can be acquired by simple explanation and rote learning. The main shortcomings of this approach stem from these epistemological premise: that by understanding and/or memorizing a grammar rule students ‘acquire’ it.

Today, cognitive research in the way humans acquire and process languages rules out that L2-grammar can be acquired by simply accruing (declarative) knowledge about it. Although cognitive theory does allow for declarative knowledge (conscious knowledge about the L2 grammar) to become proceduralised (i.e. automatic), the proceduralization process is very long and requires extensive practice (Anderson, 2000). Also, Cognitivist theory postulates that unless a learner is developmentally ready to acquire a given structure, teaching it to him/her is likely to be a sheer waste of time (just as you would not ask a beginner driver to drive a Ferrari on a busy highway). GT is not usually mindful of this.

Moreover, current psycholinguistic research has clearly demonstrated that language is a complex cognitive skill involving a series of psycho-motor sub-skills (de Bot, 1992) and that performing these sub-skills effectively is a function of the power law of practice (Anderson, 2000). Since a language is processed through four different modalities (speaking, hearing, reading and writing) each of them governed by different processes, it is flawed to presume that what is learnt by writing or reading can be effectively used by the other two modalities. Information processing theory clearly indicates that processing language effectively in each of the above modalities requires more than knowing words by heart. The brain’s working memory’s ability to process language in each modality requires a lot of modality-specific practice (Anderson, 2000).

It should also be pointed out that apart from very few studies (e.g. Lighbown and Spada, 1992), most experimental research in the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching has yielded little evidence that it actually works (Brown, 1994; Ellis, 1994, Macaro, 2003). The same applies to error correction research (Truscott, 1994).

Finally, in GT students are usually assessed based on the number of errors in their output. The teacher/assessor has a pre-conceived target language model and the learners’ translation, utterance or composition are evaluated on the basis of how deviant they are from that model. This encourages the learners to prioritize the development of accuracy over fluency and may inhibit risk-taking (a valuable learning strategy – Brown, 1994). Moreover, teacher feedback which is product\-based does not help the students improve the skills (i.e. the process) involved in the execution of the target task. Teacher feedback, to be helpful, needs to identify the issues relative to the various processes involved in task performance, identify the flaws and advice the learners on how to address those issues.

In conclusion the main features of GT are:

1. It is teacher centred and does not aim to cater for every learner’s individual needs

2. The emphasis is on grammar learning through verb drills, the translation of written texts and the memorization of wordlists

3. The focus is on the product rather than the process of learning

4. Language is viewed as a body of knowledge rather than an instrument for communicating and functioning effectively in the real world

5. Linguistic practice is confined to the memorization of words and rules

6. Instruction aims at the mastery of the written medium rather than oral communication

7. Accuracy rules over fluency

8. Correction is all-out and punitive

9. The L2-model adopted is elitist and so is the educational philosophy

10. Feedback on learner performance is not likely to be helpful as it is solely accuracy-based

Its main shortcomings are that (1) it does not train learners in using the language to communicate; (2) it does not provide enough practice in oral and aural skills; (3) the emphasis on grammar may alienate students who are not analytical learners; (4) the emphasis on accuracy and correction may demotivate less able learners more prone to inaccuracies ; (5) it does not develop independent learners. Its main strength is that it develops grammar and lexical accuracy. However, by not promoting oral/aural skills, the students’ are likely to be very slow at producing spoken output and seriously impaired when confronted with the task of understanding L2-native speakers .

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

CLT has altogether different objectives to GT as it rests on diametrically opposite educational philosophy and epistemological assumptions. In fact, unlike GT, it prioritizes teaching skills rather than knowledge (Littlewood, 1994). Moreover, this approach is based on Social Constructivism, a pedagogical philosophy which aims at empowering the learners with the tools which allow one to function effectively in society (White, 1998). Consequently, in CLT L2- grammar knowledge becomes a secondary concern; language use across the four core skills of Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing takes priority because conveying and understanding messages is what makes one get by in the real world. Thus, the teaching of Functions (e.g. expressing an opinion, apologizing, giving directions, ordering), Notions (e.g. Time, Size, Space) and of the vocabulary (words and lexical phrases) needed to express those functions and notions is the primary instructional focus. Also, since the learners will one day have to cope with the challenges that the real world will pose to them, the target functions, notions and language items are usually contextualized in situations and tasks which replicate real-life.

CLT’s epistemological premises rest on the Skill-theory postulate that language is a complex goal-orientated cognitive skill, made up of sub-skills which are acquired after extended practice (Anderson, 2000). CLT translates this postulate into its instructional practice as follows: (a) since ‘goal-orientated’ implies that language has to be used for a purpose, learning activities must have a clear and tangible communicative goal; (b) since each skill involved in language reception and production has to be automatized in order to be acquired, the CLT teacher must give learners plenty of opportunities for practicing all four skills.

CLT is also based on cognitive models of L2 acquisition which posit that declarative knowledge about the L2 and procedural knowledge (the ability to use it) are two different abilities. Thus, acquiring declarative knowledge does not automatically lead to being able to use the L2.

The emphasis on empowering the individual with skills that will render him self-reliant and the skill-theory assumption that skills must be practised frequently and meaningfully in order to be acquired are at the root of CLT’s pupil-centred orientation. Unlike GT, in fact, CLT aims at obtaining productive learning outcomes from all the students in the classroom (Littlewood, 1994). They all have to take part in the tasks-in-hand. This entails that the teacher, in order to practise speaking, must set group-work tasks which involve interpersonal negotiation of meaning; thus, the students talk to each other rather than to the teacher (as happens in the traditional L2 classroom).

Consequently, unlike the GT teacher, the CLT teacher does not spend most of the lesson at the front of the classroom. S/he sets the students communicative tasks designed to practise the target lexis, morpheme, function, phoneme, etc. and then goes around the classroom HELPING the students, FACILITATING their learning. In fact, the proponents of the CLT approach (e.g Littlewoods, 1984) reiterate – often ad nauseam –  the concept that the CLT teacher is a facilitator not a dictator of learning. In this capacity, s/he abdicates part of the responsibility for the learning to the students as they have to manage the group-work activities set.

This ‘facilitator’ role also entails a different approach to error correction. The proponents of the CLT approach criticized the GT and Audio-lingual approaches for being too intolerant of error (Edge, 1992). ‘Facilitating’ the development of oral and written fluency calls for a different attitude to error, one which recognizes that correcting every single error a student makes can be harmful to their self-esteem and to the development of fluency (especially if the teacher’s correction interrupts their speaking). Thus, the CLT teacher corrects the learners selectively, prioritizing certain errors over others. Since CLT concerns itself with functioning effectively in real life, it gives priority to errors which impede meaning (Walz, 1982). Frequency and Irritability of errors, (respectively how often and how irritating they can be to the interlocutor/reader) are the next most important criteria adopted in selecting which errors to correct (Brown, 1984). Moreover, the correction must not disrupt the flow of conversation. Thus, the CLT teacher tends to delay the correction, making notes as s/he goes around the classroom from group to group ‘coaching’, advising, listening in. S/he will only interrupt the conversation when there are serious breakdowns in communication (Edge, 1992).

The ‘facilitator’ role has also implications for the CLT teacher’s general attitude towards the students. The CLT class being about collaboration and helping the learner to grow, the relationship between the teacher and the learners is different; the teacher is ‘closer’ to the students, sits with them, helps them by giving feedback on the process of their learning rather than simply on the product (Littlewood, 1984). S/he is less judgmental on the quality of their output because the CLT approach acknowledges an important principle of language acquisition: as they acquire the L2 learners build a system, called Interlanguage (Selinker, 2000) which is bound to contain mistakes as it is based on hypotheses and guesses based on their L1 and of their approximate knowledge of the L2 (Brown, 1984). Thus, CLT recognizes that learners need a nurturing, motivational, tolerant environment rather than the academic environment of the humanistic GT classroom. In such an environment, the learners will not feel intimidated by bad marks and lots of red ink and will take risks as they speak or write. Krashen (1981) expressed in his affective-filter theory his belief that such an environment is a categorical imperative for L2-learning to happen. An overly intolerant, critical environment would, on the contrary, ‘raise’ the learner’s ‘affective filter’ serious hindering learning.

Krashen (1981) and other educators have stressed the importance of avoiding correcting learners‘ output altogether in the belief that in order to motivate learners one has to let them talk and write at length and without any interruption. This stance is accepted by strong CLT approaches (Prabhu, 1987). Most CLT instruction still supports the use of correction but emphasizes giving the learners fluency-orientated instruction where the learner’s recourse to survival communication strategies such as Coinage (coining new words), Approximation (using words close in meaning to the target word), Paraphrase, Foreignization (adapting an L1 word to make it sound L2-like) is not only tolerated but even encouraged as they often allow an individual to put the intended message across effectively (Macaro, 2003).

The oral/written activities adopted by CLT usually include all of the following features:

1. They involve an information gap that the learners have to fill through interaction in the L2. For example, two learners need each other’s information to complete a table. Their task is to elicit the needed information by means of asking each other questions in the L2;

2. They have a communicative purpose . Language is an instrument to complete them not the main outcome ( as in a grammar exercise or translation task)

3. They are inspired by real-life tasks (e.g. asking for directions., describing a criminal to a policeman, ordering food, etc.)

The aural/reading comprehension tasks often involve authentic or pseudo-authentic materials in order to better prepare the learners to cope with the challenges posed by the target language environment.

The CLT assessment of learner performance is usually criterion based. The learners are usually graded based on multi score proficiency scales (e.g. Polio, 1997) which identify the skills/proficiency areas (e.g. grammatical accuracy, range of vocabulary, fluency, style) involved in the performance. The learners are awarded marks on each trait which are finally added up. Each mark refers to a level which is described in detail to make the grading process more accountable to the learner. For example, a top mark on the accuracy scale could be described as follows: accurate use of complex structures; very few mistakes, mostly involving mistakes not impeding intelligibility. An average of the scores is calculated. The learners are usually given both the total and the trait-specific scores thereby obtaining an insight in the area of their performance they should pay more attention to in the future. This type of evaluation has a greater potential learning outcome for the students than GT’s.

In conclusion, the main pedagogical principles advocated by CLT are:

1. It is pupil-centred rather than teacher-centred

2 The emphasis is on communication and effective interactional skills

3. The focus is on the process rather than the product of learning;

4. Language is viewed as a skill to learn rather than a body of language

to pass on to the pupil

5. Linguistic practice occurs through communicative activities

6. Instruction aims at the mastery of all of the four core language skills

7. Fluency rules over accuracy

8. Correction is selective and non-judgmental

9. The L2-model adopted is flexible and can deviate from the L2-standard

Form

Its main weakness relates to the fact that by prioritizing communication and fluency development it does not emphasize grammar sufficiently. Thus, learners often develop a pidgin ridden with grammatical flaws at morphological and at grammatical level. Because the teacher corrective intervention is selective and focuses mainly on errors that impede understanding, learner’s mistakes often become automatized and consequently difficult to eradicate. Also, the scarce focus on grammatical knowledge does not help the learners develop the metalinguistic and analytical skills necessary for L2-students to learn grammar independently and to produce and comprehend texts that contain sophisticated syntax. In other words, whereas it may train students to successfully cope at survival and basic conversational level, it may fail to prepare the learners for communication in professional or academic contexts where accuracy and sophisticated language and register are required.

Conclusions and Implications for L2-pedagogy

In conclusion, the two methodologies are very different in their philosophy, goals, and in the way they conceptualize language acquisition. CLT appears, at least in theory, as a more effective approach because it aims at preparing the learners for effective interaction in the real world. Moreover, being based on current models of language acquisition it advocates methods and procedures that are more likely to lead to successful acquisition because they are consistent with the way humans learn and process information and language. However, in my opinion it does not focus learners on accuracy as much as it should. This is particularly counterproductive in acquisition-poor learning environments, that is environments where the learners’ exposure to the target language is minimal (e.g. the two hours a week of a typical secondary school course).

Unlike students learning the L2 in an L2-speaking country, learners receiving instruction in acquisition-poor environments (i.e. with little contact with the L2) do not have many opportunities to internalize grammar subconsciously through frequent exposure; for the latter type of learners error correction and focus on L2 morphemes are crucial in order to learn accurate syntax.

Moreover, current theories of second language acquisition posit that Noticing is often crucial to L2 learning (Schmidt, 1990). Noticing refers to the process whereby the learners realize that a structure works differently in the L2 system compared to its L1 equivalent. This realization, which often marks the beginning of L2 acquisition, is not fostered by strong meaning-based methods like CLT. Explicit grammar instruction on the other hands promotes Noticing, especially when it presents students with bilingual input illustrating the usage of the target L2 structures.

Thus, I believe that CLT and GT should be integrated within an eclectic syllabus with a variable focus  where functions and notions are still prioritised over form. In a seminal article that every language teacher should read, Lighbown and Spada (2008) provide very interesting suggestions as to how this can be done through both inductive and deductive approaches (http://www.ub.edu/GRAL/Naves/Courses/ELTM/Miscelaneous/Spada-Lightbown2008Form-Focused-Instruction.pdf). One approach involves addressing grammar instruction as of when it arises from the context the class is operating in; so, for example, the teacher would not teach a given grammar structure because the books or the schemes of work say so, but simply because the specific topic or text one is dealing with require the students to understand and/or being able to use it. This approach is referred to as ‘Focus on form’ as opposed to ‘Focus on forms’ (the more traditional grammar teaching approach).

The bias should still be on communication, though, and teachers should find creative ways to teach grammar through communicative activities. There should be, however, space for drills and other behaviouristic (habit-forming) activities which serve the purpose of paving the way for less structured information-gap based activities involving negotiation of meaning in the  context of learner-to-learner oral or written activities. Translations also should be used, if sparingly, in order to focus learners on grammatical, lexical and stylistic accuracy. Also, as Conti (2001,2004) maintains, instruction should include an emphasis on modelling self-monitoring skills to ensure that learners become more effective editors and auditors of their output.

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Macaro, E. (2003) Teaching and Learning a Second Language: a guide to current research and its applications. London: Continuum

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