evidence based resources

So you want to be evidence based but don’t know where to start! Here are a list of sites and resources which promote evidence in education for free! 

Summaries of research

Research bites is an excellent site which offers summaries of ELT and SLA research. THe site offers summaries of single papers in clear and accessible terms. There are a range of author and I believe the summary writers write to the article authors to check that they are happy with the summary. Anthony Schmidt runs the site and his own blog is worth a look too. 


The OASIS summaries page offers something very similar to research bites but is run by academics rather than teachers. They also offer advice about how to cite the summaries in your research. The summaries are in pdf form and can be download. The IRIS database also includes summaries of research and in addition to that offers research tools . The NCELP is another site which offers resources but for modern language teachers. 

Free access journals 

Should you want to read academic articles directly there are a few things you can do. There is increasingly a move towards open access in all kinds of publications and ELT is no different. This article on open access in ELT, is open access. It’s written by Emma Marsden who is a big advocate for transparency in research. 

ELTjam featured a really nice article showing you which journals have free access and limited free access and these days most journals have something you can view for free. The article has a lot of great tips on getting hold of articles (legally) for free. Another thing you can try is writing to the author. With academics I’ve had a pretty good success rate when just emailing them and asking for a copy of papers. I think most of them are just overjoyed that someone wants to read their stuff. Disclaimer: I wouldn’t try this with someone who makes their living selling reference books and the like. I very much doubt Scott Thornbury will email you a copy of ‘the A-Z of ELT’. 

The British council and Cambridge (CUP) both offer some of their own research for free. You can get hold of quite a lo of good quality stuff just by browsing their sites. It should be noted that nothing in this post represents an endorsement of any of the research you find on these sites. For instance, the British Council site has a section on the dubious ‘21st century skills‘ 


Websites 

The education endowment Foundation also offers some summaries of research (though it is general education not ELT). The site also has reports on various areas of teaching. The site is very accessible and lays out information in a very accessible way

A couple more useful sites are 3 star learning and the learning scientist (the latter of which has an accompanying podcast). They both offer interesting articles on research in Education however the former seems to have no way of navigating the site. The learning scientist has some nice, clear downloadable resources. (Thanks to Anthony Schmidt for directing me to these two websites.)

blogs

There are a number of blogs which seek to present evidence in education. This blog, for instance has a ‘try this it works‘ section which attempts to summarise research. Philip Kerr has some good stuff on translation and adaptive learningIn addition to this Greg Ashman’s blog on teaching is usually well researched as is David Didau’s ‘learning spy‘ site. These last two are general education though. 


If I missed anything out please let me know and I’ll update this page. 

edit 1

A list of papers by topic for educational research
Simon Borg’s website
Reading in a Foreign Language Journal


Duy Van Vu’s list of open-access journals on ELT
Paul Nation’s articles


Try this, it works! Written Error Correction


I’ve come across a few posts on written error correction recently. ELT research Bites took on the topic in a two part post (2) and earlier in the year Gianfranco Conti (PhD applied linguistics, MA TEFL, MA English lit, PGCE modern languages an P.E.) wrote one. Conti claims that marking students books should be the ‘least of a language teacher’s priorities‘ but is he right?


Conti’s post starts with a reference to Hattie who has suggested that feedback is very effective. Conti notes that giving corrective feedback on writing has now been given top priority in many state schools. He then goes on to write that his post is a response to the numerous teachers who have written to him asking whether the time and effort they put into marking is justified. Conti states:

I intend to answer this question by drawing on thirty years of error-correction research, my personal experience as a learner of 14 languages and teacher of five and, more importantly, neuroscience and common sense.

Impressive stuff. 14 languages! 30 years of error correction research! AND neuroscience! However when we get to the research we run into a problem. 


What jumps out initially is the age of the references. Conti promises ‘thirty years of error correction research’ but sadly those 30 years seem to be 1974-2004. The most recent reference, Conti 2004, is to his own writing. In fact, the only post 2000 references are to his own writing. I would have liked to read the works in question to evaluate the claims made but as Conti doesn’t provide a reference list or hyperlink to the texts referenced in the post, this wasn’t possible. 

Now, references don’t have best before dates, and to this day E still equals MC squared. That said, the age of Conti’s references does present an issue in this case. For instance, Dana Ferris, possibly the world’s leading expert on written corrective feedback (WCF) is only mentioned in relation to a 1999 paper. She has, since then, written extensively on the subject including three books (Response to student Writing 2003, treatment of error in second language 2002, 2011, and with BitchenerWritten Corrective Feedback 2012). None of these are mentioned in the section called “What L2 error-correction research says”. 

What’s more, the research findings show a distinct change in the period Conti leaves out. For instance, Ellis and Shintani note that whereas in 1996 it was possible for Truscott to argue that the effectiveness of WCF could not be supported, this position is no longer tenable (2013:271). And as if spookily preempting Conti,  Ferris, in a ‘state of the art’ paper from 2004 notes that ‘since 1999, I have done a considerable amount of both primary and secondary research work on the issues surrounding error correction in L2 writing‘ (2004:50). 

A lot is missed if we miss out the last 15 years of research. In a recent meta-analysis looking at WCF, of the 21 studies that met the inclusion criteria, only four were published before 2004. Conti’s post does not include any of the 17 remaining studies. This is important as the research design of ‘early (pre-Truscott, 1996) studies‘ contained design and execution flaws (Bitchener and Ferris 2012:50) perhaps indicating why ‘studies published after the year 2000 showed a significantly higher effect size…than that of the studies published before 2000‘ (Kang and Han 2015:99). 

So what does the research say about corrective feedback? 


Research tends to suggest that error correction is effective. Ellis and Shintani state that ‘both oral and written CF can assist L2 acquisition.’ (2014:268) It has a positive effect on student writing (Ferris 2011, Bitchener and Ferris 2012). Kang and Han conducted a meta analysis of current research and concluded that “written corrective feedback appears to have a moderate to large effect on the grammatical accuracy of L2 students” (2015:7)Research by Van Beuningen et al (2012) also points to the efficacy of WCF noting that it can improve subsequent pieces of writing. This contrasts Conti’s claims  that ‘both direct and indirect correction do not impact students’ accuracy more effectively than no correction at all‘ (though it is perhaps possible that the bold font cancels out the research evidence).

It isn’t clear from his post, but Conti may be talking about lower level students. As Schmidt notes on the ELT research bytes webpage, the Kang and Han meta Analysis found that ‘[WCF’s] efficacy is mediated by a host of variables, including learners’ proficiency, the setting, and the genre of the writing task‘ (2015). Notably, Kang and Han’s analysis suggests WCF is less beneficial among lower level learners. 

And what type of feedback is best? 


Conti claims that direct correction is ‘pretty much a waste of time’  and ‘Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know’ (section 2) But what does the research say about types of correction? 

Direct or indirect? 

direct*


Direct correction, that is telling the students exactly what is wrong, and what they ought to write, ‘is more effective than indirect’ and direct feedback alone ‘resulted in gains in grammatical accuracy’ (Ellis and Shintani 2014:271). According to Shintani and Ellis ‘Bitchener and Knoch (2010), Hashemnezhad and Mohammadnejad (2012) and Frear (2012) all reported direct feedback to be more effective than indirect’ (2015:111In older studies no difference was detected, or indirect CF appeared superior  (Ferris 2011:32) but recent studies report a clear advantage for direct forms of feedback.’ (Bitchener and Ferris 2012:74). As an interesting side note, teaching guides tend to promote indirect feedback (Ellis and Shintani’s 2014:279). 

In conclusion, we can say fairly confidently that feedback of some kind is, in most cases, better than no feedback. Research suggests that even a ‘single treatment’, particularly if focused on a grammar point with a clear rule, is effective. (Ellis and Shintani 2014:271). 

indirect coded 

Coded or uncoded? 

Coded feedback is using some kind of code like ‘V’ for verb or ‘S/V’ for subject verb problems. These are usually accompanied by some kind of meta-linguistic explanation. Uncoded feedback, on the other hand, would just be highlighting that an error had occurred but not providing an indication as to what it was. The theory behind correction codes is that students will have to work a bit harder to work out what their errors are. 

indirect uncoded 

Interestingly, there is no evidence that coded feedback is superior to uncoded (Ferris 2011:34). Both teachers and students, however,  believe that coded feedback is more effective. (Ferris and Bitchener 2012:93) and there is some research supporting the idea that meta-linguistics explanations make feedback more effective (Ferris 2011:100). 

Focused or unfocused?

Focused just means concentrating on one type of error, verb forms or articles for example, rather than picking up different types of errors. The research is not that clear here. According to Ferris most researchers now believe focused feedback is more effective than unfocused (Ferris 2011:51, 2010:182). Shintani and Ellis (2015:111) are more cautious, noting that research has shown focused feedback to be effective ‘in the sense that it results in gains in grammatical accuracy in new pieces of writing‘ and adding that it is more effective than unfocused feedback ‘in some cases‘. 

So the jury is seemingly out on focused vs unfocused WFC. However, whereas a study that compared focused and unfocused feedback found no difference between the two (Ellis et al., 2008) both were superior to the ‘no feedback’ group. A finding which seems to contradict Conti’s bold statement. 

Doesn’t error correction demotivate students? 


Finally, a common complaint is that error correction demotivates or humiliates students. This is certainly possibleConti quotes research from 1998 noting that ‘an excessive concern with error treatment may affect students’ motivation negatively‘. Well yes, it may, but (ready the bold font) it also may not. Ellis and Shintani argue that the case for this is perhaps overstated, pointing to the fact that ‘learners typically state that they want to be corrected’ (2014:275) a point Ferris (2011:51)  and Conti himself (see point 1) concur with. In my context (academic English writing) a study by Weaver (2006, N=44) suggests, like much research on this subject, that when students are asked, they say they like and want feedback. In fact, 96% of business students surveyed by Weaver agreed that ‘tutors don’t provide enough feedback’. Unless they actively enjoy humiliation (a hypothesis I’m sure someone could investigate,) then it seems unlikely that students mind WCF.  

Conclusion 

Conti has written a great deal on this subject. His blog includes posts explaining how current essay feedback practices are questionable, ‘7 reasons why traditional error correction doesn’t work‘, why asking students to self correct is a waste of time and why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students writing. Clearly, there is a theme here (and no, it’s not starting blog posts with the word ‘why’). Conti doesn’t think error correction is all that worthwhile. To be clear, he doesn’t think it is worthless either, just that it shouldn’t be given as much importance as it currently is. It would be really useful though, when making statements like “There is no conclusive empirical evidence that EC can be effective” (2.7), if he could explain why he chooses to only discuss evidence that is 15 or more years old. I don’t know Conti’s teaching context so can’t comment on whether or not there is an overemphasis on WCF there. What I can say is that, on my reading of the evidence at least, ‘there is a clear case for correcting learners written errors’ (Ellis and Shintani 2014:276). 




*I realise ‘I like dogs and I like cats’ isn’t a great sentence. 

Try this it works! Error correction for speaking

I first met Chris Smith at IATEFL 2014. I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to his talk entitled error correction for speaking: An evidence based approach” (write up here) How could I resist? I didn’t agree with all of Chris’ conclusions but I did enjoy his talk and when I ran into him in the pub the other day I invited him to write a guest blog post. Here it is!

Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf

Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach – See more at: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-different-perspectives-feedback#sthash.ynbUmxLA.dpuf



(Chris is an EAP tutor in the ELTC at the University of Sheffield You can follow him here.)


There are lots of ever-present arguments and controversies in EFL, but few are as persistent as whether error correction for speaking actually has any effect. One of the principles of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is that students should be allowed to speak, communicate and develop fluency. Concurrent with that have been ideas to reduce error correction (EC) or even avoid it all together. Are these good ideas? What evidence is there about EC?

A short history of EC in EFL

(Although I wasn’t there, so feel free to tell me it wasn’t that way!)


Tracing a rough history of error correction in ELT, back in 1960s, a behaviourist influenced Audiolingual approach dominated. This argued that errors should not be tolerated, with correction being immediate and direct (Richards and Rodgers, 1986, p58) because they would propagate bad language behaviour.

The pendulum began to swing the other way with Communicative Language Teaching prevailing in the 1970s until we find the Natural Approach in the 1980s, stating: “Our view is that overt error correction of speech, even in the best of circumstances is likely to have a negative effect on the students’ willingness to try to express themselves” (Krashen and Terrell, 1988, p177). So the argument here is that EC is worse than useless! Firstly it doesn’t work and secondly it will kill any desire to communicate in the student. Krashen’s position creates two separate points although in this post I’ll focus mainly on the first: whether EC is actually effective in terms of acquisition or learning.

Krashen’s ideas were very influential in EFL literature. Harmer (1991, p49) warns against intervention during communicative activities. Ur (1996, p247) recommends correcting for accurate production but not for fluency exercises. Edge (1989) argues that EC should only be given on recently taught items and that learners need uninterrupted communication. Hedge (2000, p290) reports that trainee teachers are often advised to avoid correcting insensitively and causing anxiety or embarrassment.  

Types of corrective feedback


A previous post, from Leo Selivan, talked about the way applied linguistics does not use the same terminology as teachers, and this is true in error correction literature too. This is perhaps understandable since EFL literature is aimed at training teachers, while applied linguistics research is required to be peer-reviewed. Nevertheless it makes it confusing when different terminology is used to describe the same topics.


Numerous taxonomies of error correction techniques can be found (e.g. Harmer, 1991; Lyster and Ranta, 1997; Ur, 1996), all describing the same things, but often doing so in different ways. For example, Ur uses “explanation”, while Lyster and Ranta use “metalinguistic feedback” and Harmer uses “echoing” whereas Lyster and Ranta use “recast” (albeit with a slightly different definition). Most journal articles seem to follow Lyster and Ranta’s terms now, but this may be difficult terminology to grasp for teachers trained with teaching manuals.

In broad terms, we can divide EC into 3 groups: implicit correction, which can involve repeating in correct English (recasts) and negotiating meaning, but where the discourse is not stopped to highlight an error; explicit correction, which can use a variety of techniques, but crucially, where the teacher ensures the error and correction are noticed; and delayed correction, where the teacher allows conversation to continue but then later picks up on errors made, perhaps writing several on the board and eliciting corrections and explanations.

Evidence on the effectiveness of error correction

There have been a number of observational or experimental studies in which two or more groups of students are given instruction, with one control group receiving no EC, while the other group(s) receive(s) (different types of) EC. Here are a few, which are all describing spoken EC studies.


Lightbown and Spada (1990) analysed 4 different classes of 10-12 year olds over a 5 month period. They did not intervene in the teacher’s styles, but by observing and noticing the differences between teachers, they concluded that fluency, accuracy and communication could be developed best by a teaching approach that includes EC.

Carroll, Roberge and Swain (1992) compared adult learners at 2 different levels, one group getting EC and the other not, for instruction on particular vocabulary and grammar points. They found positive results, stating “correction clearly had an effect on learning in all the conditions tested” (p.185).

Carroll and Swain (1993) examined the effects of 4 different types of EC in separate groups against a control group of no EC. All 4 groups significantly outperformed the control group when tested on the target grammar point, with the group receiving explicit correction with an explanation performing the best.

Lyster and Ranta (1997) asked whether all types of feedback are equally effective. Their experiment yielded data which suggested explicit EC was more effective than implicit EC. This suggests it is important for teachers to make sure students realise that a correction has been provided.

Loewen (2005) analysed 17 hours of classroom interaction, counted 491 instances of explicit correction of non-target language and devised individualised tests to check recall of this. He found positive results, concluding “incidental focus on form does have some effect on L2 learning” (p381). This contradicts what was recommended in some earlier teaching manuals, which recommended only correcting target language, and not correcting at all during fluency activities. Loewen’s evidence suggests correcting at any time can produce improvements in language development.

Ellis, Loewen and Erlam (2006) found that explicit feedback was more effective than implicit feedback and that the benefits became more evident over time, suggesting explicit feedback aids long term acquisition, so this supports Lyster and Ranta (1997).


Some studies have been less conclusive than those described; however, the general trend is for research to demonstrate that EC has a positive effect on language development. There has been controversy over implicit corrections, including recasts, as learners may not notice them. However, the research shows them to have some beneficial effect (it’s worth remembering that although the speaker may not notice the correction, other learners might). In an overview of recasts,  Long (2007, p76) stated: “There is mounting support from research in both first and second language acquisition for the claim that [negative evidence] does affect competence, facilitating language development when it occurs.”

There is even stronger support for explicit EC where the teacher makes sure the learner notices they have made an error. The studies above found it to be more effective than implicit EC. In a comprehensive overview of studies into corrective feedback, Ellis (2008, p885) states: “There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning.”


So, when it comes to evidence based EFL, we can conclude that the evidence shows that error correction works. I would also assert that if people want to argue that it does not work, they cannot merely cherry pick one or two articles that did not find a link. They would need to show why all the clear evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong. So going back to Krashen and Terrell, they asserted that EC is useless, and this idea has been dogmatically perpetuated. However, this is demonstrably wrong. The evidence shows that EC clearly is effective.


Another aspect of Krashen and Terrell’s argument was that EC will raise an affective filter, discourage communication and prevent learning. This is an idea that keeps being brought up and I presented about this at IATEFL 2015. The recording of that is available here, so I won’t repeat the content of that at length. Suffice to say that when I investigated my students’ (EAP pre-sessional) attitudes to EC, they overwhelmingly said they believed it to be effective, they did not find it embarrassing and they wanted more of it than they were getting, which flies in the face of the affective filter concept.

Implications for classroom practice


EC works, students know this and want more of it, particularly explicit corrections with explanations. If students are making mistakes, they want to know, want to be told why it’s wrong and want the correct form provided. This is how they can improve the accuracy of their speech.


So more class time should be given over to EC, form-focused instruction, feedback on production, working with what students are saying and helping them to say it better. If you plan a stage where the students speak for 5-10 minutes related to a language point, you can include a post speaking EC stage, telling them you are going to correct any mistakes or try and improve their language, by asking a display question to each student.

If you are listening to a student and the focus is meaning, you may not want to stop them in the flow of speech but you can make a note and come back to it later. If your students are involved in a discussion task, let them get on it with it, but make notes, and once the task is finished, do some language work. All of these things need time, so they need to be considered at the planning stage.


And if you are unsure whether your own students would respond as positively to more error correction, ask them. You can include it on a needs analysis form, or as a separate survey, so that you can adopt an evidence-based approach

References

CARROLL, Susanne and SWAIN, Merrill (1993) Explicit and Implicit Negative Feedback: An Empirical Study of the Learning of Linguistic Generalizations. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15, 357-386.

CARROLL, Susanne, SWAIN, Merrill and ROBERGE, Yves (1992). The role of feedback in adult second language acquisition: Error correction and morphological generalizations. Applied Psycholinguistics 13, no. 2 173-198.


EDGE, Julian (1989) Mistakes and Correction. London, Longman.
ELLIS, Rod (2008). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, OUP.

ELLIS, Rod, LOEWEN, Shawn and ERLAM, Rosemary (2006). Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback  and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar.

HARMER, Jeremy (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching (New Edition). Harlow, Longman.

HEDGE, T (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Second Language Classroom. Oxford, OUP.

KRASHEN, Stephen D. and TERRELL, Tracy D. (1988) The Natural Approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Hemel Hempstead, Prentice Hall.

LIGHTBOWN, Patsy M. and SPADA, Nina (1990). Focus on Form and Corrective Feedback in Communicative Language Teaching. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 429-448.

LOEWEN, Shawn (2005). Incidental focus on form and second language learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27(03), 361-386.

LONG, Michael H. (2007). Problems in SLA. London, Lawrence Erlbaum.

LYSTER, Roy and RANTA, Leila (1997). Corrective Feedback and Learner Uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 20, 37-66.

RICHARDS, Jack C. and RODGERS, Theodore S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

UR, Penny (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

The myth of neat histories

Pure evil!

You’ve probably heara version of this story of before.


A long long time ago in a place called the 1950s there lived an evil wizard called ‘Skinner’ who lived in a castle with his many adherents. Skinner was a cruel man who practised a version of dark sorcery called ‘behaviourism’ which generally involve torturing animals and turning men into machines all in the name of science. His worst torture device was the Skinner box into which he put all manner of creatures including his own children. 

Skinner believed that people were really just machines and so if you wanted some kind of response from them all you needed was stimulus. Something like an electric shock would probably do the trick. 

Poor misguided TEFL teachers were caught in the hypnotic gaze of Skinner and developed a ridiculous  style of teaching called the Audio-lingual method. This involved forcing students to sit in a classroom listening to recordings of conversations for hours on end all the while repeating  mantras like so many zombies. Skinner enjoyed this depraved form of torture. In fact it helped him stay young.

One day, a brave young hero called Noam appeared and with a swish of his sword of logic he defeated the evil Skinner. Chomsky showed that language was innate and that people didn’t have to be robots. On this day pair work was born and since language was innate no one needed to teach grammar anymore. Native speaker teachers everywhere rejoiced. 

OK I’m exaggerating but this is the way the history of these events often seems to be presented. For example:

…Behavioralist accounts of language learning became popular in the 1920s and 1930s… (64) In Behaviorist theory, conditioning is the result of stimulus response and reinforcement (51)…In a book called verbal behavior, the psychologist Bernard [sic] Skinner suggested that much the same pattern happens in language learning (52)…Behaviorism was directly responsible for audiolingualism (52)” (Harmer 2007)


And Harmer is by no means alone. Wherever you look, from Richards and Rogers, Ellis or Lightbown and Spada, the story is made up of more or less the same building blocks. Behaviourism? check,  lab animals? check, habit-formation? check,   Skinner? check, Chomsky? check? The pattern of events is clear and well-known by most teachers, but is it true? 
Something about the story niggles and my own personal dislike (not very evidence-based) of everything Chomskyan led me on a journey into the odd world of one of the most famous academic debates in history. Unfortunately this project continues to sprawl horribly out of control but I would like to share with you a few interesting things I’ve managed to find out. So here are the top 5 myths and misconceptions about the infamous Chomsky/Skinner debate and its aftermath:

https://youtube.googleapis.com/v/I_ctJqjlrHA&source=uds1. Chomsky’s review was a forensic deconstruction of Skinner’s verbal behaviour 

Well…it was an attempt deconstruction of ‘something’ – though it wasn’t Skinner’s book Verbal Behaviour. In fact all the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn’t read Verbal Behaviour or didn’t understand it. The reason we can make this assumption is that Chomsky makes several mistakes in his review, attributing, for example, classical behaviourist beliefs to Skinner, whereas Skinner wrote about ‘operant condition‘ which was a different beast altogether. 

MacCorquodale, in a comprehensive review, notes, that Chomsky’s review didn’t receive a reply from Skinner or any other psychologist, not because they were ‘defeated’ but rather because …Chomsky’s actual target is only about one-half Skinner, with the rest a mixture of odds and ends of other behaviourism and some other fancies of vague origin.” Chomsky’s review has also been criticised for misquoting Skinner and taking quotes out of context. Skinner himself said of the review:

let me tell you about Chomsky…I published Verbal Behaviour in 1957, in 1958 I received a  55 page type-written review by someone whom I had never heard of named Noam Chomsky. I read half a dozen pages, and saw that he had missed the point of my book and read no further. (see the second video 5:50)
https://youtube.googleapis.com/v/FlyU_M20hMk&source=udsAlso interesting is that most of the other reviews of verbal behaviour at the time were positive. This by itself doesn’t mean Chomsky was wrong, but it might make us pause for thought. 

And rather than ‘forensic’, Chomsky’s review was just really really mean. MacCorquodale, described the review as “ungenerous to a fault; condescending, unforgiving, obtuse, and ill-humoured“. I urge you to read a few pages and see what you think. I’m not one to be overly concerned with comments about the ‘tone’ of someone’s argument, but Chomsky actually seems to be personally offended by Skinner’s book. Skinner often commented that he couldn’t understand why Chomsky seemed so angry. A sample of the language can be seen in  Virues-Ortega 2006‘s review:

perfectly useless,” “tautology,” “vacuous,” “looseness of the term,” “entirely pointless,” “empty,” “no explanatory force,” “paraphrase,” “serious delusion,” “full vagueness,” “no conceivable interest,” “quite empty,” “notion,” “no clear content,” “cover term,” “pointless,” “quite false,” “said nothing of any significance,” “play-acting at science” (from )

The tone isn’t so much the problem as the chilling effect this kind of academic writing can have on others. When a writer’s work is discussed in such a dismissive tone it can give the impression to the uninitiated that the matter is settled, -which in this case, was very far from the truth. 

2. Skinner’s Behaviourism led to Audiolingualism 


This is a tricky fish to fry. In order to answer this you need to be able to authoritatively identify Skinner’s behaviourism, Audiolingualism and then the link between them. First we should examine the timeline. Skinner was born in 1905 and published Verbal Behaviour in 1957. Chomsky’s review came out in 1959. The first mentions of the audiolingual approach were in the mid 1950s. But it starts to really get mentioned in the early 1960s. This would mean that ALM became popular AFTER Chomsky’s review. 
Another problem is that there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the audiolingual method actually was. When reading Lado’s 1964 book entitled ‘language teaching: a scientific approach’, ALM is describe simply as the approach where (in contrast to grammar translation) speaking and listening are taught first. Yet others, like Cummins and Davidson conflate the audiolingual approach and the ‘scientific approach’. 

things get more confusing as many others like Hall (here) and Lacorte suggest that ALM was synonymous with or grew from ‘the army method’ in 1945 (certainly before both Verbal Behaviour and Chomsky’s review). While Coady and Huckin suggest that ALM is also known as ‘the structural approach’ by those who created it. They pin this honour on Fries in 1945. And Harmer, suggests it came from the Direct Method (p.64) There are also mentions of contrastive analysis being an important component by some authors while not being mentioned at all by others. 
As  Peter Castagnaro* notes neither Brookes, Fries or Lado (three names often associated with ALM) make much mention of Skinner at all in any of their books. True they use language associated with stimulus and response, -but why could this not  be inspired by Pavlov, rather than Skinner? (Harmer does link to earlier behaviourists Watson and Raynor). The only person who actually draws a direct link between Skinner and ALM was a critic of ALM, Wilga Rivers in “the psychologist and the foreign language teacher” and Castagnaro believes that Rivers’ book is the cause of much misunderstanding, noting that it was Rivers who “saddled Skinner with being ALM’s theoretical parent”(523).

So, if we believe the literature on ALM the approach came from the Army Method, the Structural Approach, Contrastive Analysis or the Direct Method and was big in the 40s-50s (lightbown and Spada), or the 50s-60s (Richards & Rogers, Thornbury). It may or may not have been based on a book written in 1957 and then undone by a review written in 1959…even though, according to Richards and Rogers, the term Audiolingualism wasn’t invented until 1964 -that’s five years after Chomsky’s review. Am I the only one feeling confused? 


*More than anyone else Peter Castagnaro (thanks to Harmer for this link) has attempted to unweave the knotted misunderstandings surrounding ALM. I would direct anyone to read his article for a much more concise examination of this topic.


3. Chomsky’s review lead to the death of Audiolingualism 

In his ELTJ review of reviews, Alan Maley describes Chomsky’s review as ‘destructive’ and one that ‘changed the course of events’. Now while it is undeniable that Chomsky’s review was influential and made his name, did Chomsky kill off Audiolingualism? 

After reading the previous section it becomes clear that this is unlikely. Not only does the timeline not work, but simply put methods and approaches are fashions and as such aren’t killed off by logic of any kind. If methods are killed off, who killed off the silent way and suggestopedia? 


Almost certainly ALM just withered on the vine. In education, as Swan among others has noted, fashions rule and these fashions are often polar opposites. With Grammar translation reading and writing was paramount. Next came methods that banned reading and writing and translation of any kind. That an approach where people mechanically practiced  artificial sentences while worrying greatly about making mistakes should be replaced by an approach which allowed free ‘authentic’ conversation with little care for errors, should surprise no one at all. 

It’s also difficult to properly perform an autopsy on the undead. As authors, like Scrivener note, many of the the techniques of ‘ALM’ “continue to have a strong influence over many classrooms”(38)

4. Chomsky’s review led to the death of Behaviorism


Again, not true, Behaviorism carried on and continues to this day( see herehere and here). Skinners’ book still sells well (better actually than Chomsky’s response) and Skinner is considered one of the most important figures in psychology

Behaviorism is successful, despite the image problem, precisely because it works. It works in treating autistic children and if you’ve ever had any kind of therapy, it’s likely it was CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) which is another.

5. Chomsky’s new linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today

Absolutely not. Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth, the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected, and could only apply to syntax anyway. Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by ‘stimulus‘. the generative grammar paradigm he created has been rewritten several times by the Chomsky himself in a failed attempt to salvage it. 

A recent scathing review by Behme describes Chomsky as not seriously engaging with criticism, misrepresenting the work of others and providing little or no evidence for his claims. She highlights, as many others have, his tendency to “[ridicule] the works of others”. These claims are not surprising since they are pretty much the same claims made about his attack on Skinner 50 years earlier. 

Behme also lists Chomsky’s other tactics, such as claiming his opponents are ‘irrational’ or have mental issues. This may seem shocking until we read papers by his former student Paul Postals who writes “After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he says is false. He will lie just for the fun of it...It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake.” Postal also suggests Chomsky has written “the most irresponsible passage ever written by a linguist in the entire history of linguistics”. 

An interesting note for all your corpus fans out there is that Chomsky has been a consistent critic of Corpus Linguistics considering them pointless and the data worthless. Rather, he suggests, Native Speakers should just sit around and think up examples: 

Chomsky: the verb ‘perform’ cannot be used with mass word objects: one can perform a task, but one cannot perform a labour.

Hatcher: How do you know, if you don’t use a corpus and have not studied the verb perform?

Chomsky: How do I know? Because I am a native speaker of the English language. (source)

One can ‘perform magic’, of course. This extract I think sums up Chomsky perfectly; unassailable arrogance.

Reality is not the neat history presented in so many EFL histories. In truth, almost every chain in the link is broken. Skinner wasn’t the behaviorist he’s painted as, he didn’t inspire audiolingualism -whatever that is, and he wasn’t overthrown by Chomsky, who isn’t quite the ‘hero’ we might imagine. We should not be surprised that the facts about Skinner are often wrong in ELT as he is often misunderstood by psychologists too

As Hunter and Smith note ELT tend to package complex history into convenient bundles. This packaging may make digestion easier but it often involves cutting the corners off to make things fit. Sometimes the facts are fudged to give us a pleasing narrative where ‘traditional’ (read: dull and wrong) methods are superseded by all the great stuff we’re doing these days. It’s a nice story to tell ourselves but reality is more messy. 



What we talk about when we talk about Authenticity

While listening to the TEFLology Podcast I happened to hear a discussion on authenticity with guest Richard Pinner. I don’t know Richard but I liked what he had to say. I asked him if he’d consider doing a guest post and he agreed! The result is the rather excellent post below. 🙂 

Introduction

At the end of 2014, I was lucky enough to be invited on tothe TEFLology Podcast to discuss authenticity. The reason I was asked is that I am doing a PhD in which I am (attempting) to look at the connection between authenticity and motivation. I am also currently working on a book about authenticity which will be available next year (all being well).  
Authenticity in language teaching is a thorny issue, and especially in English language teaching because of the nature of English’s use worldwide as an international language, with many diverse varieties. What do you understand by the term authenticity? For most language teachers, the word authentic is part of our daily vocabulary. It is stamped onto the backs of textbooks, it is mentioned when describing a particularly motivating task, and it is often used alongside other words like motivation and interest. So, just what do we talk about when we talk about authenticity?

Shadow-boxing with the definition

In his now famous article, Michael Breen (1985)identified that language teachers are ‘continually concerned with four types of authenticity’, which he summarise as:

  • 1.       Authenticity of the texts which we may use as input data for our learners.
  • 2.       Authenticity of the learners’ own interpretations of such texts.
  • 3.       Authenticity of tasks conducive to language learning.
  • 4.       Authenticity of the actual social situation of the language classroom.

Following Breen, I created a visualisation of the domains of authenticity, mainly just because I like diagrams. 

Figure <!–[if supportFields]> SEQ Figure \* ARABIC <![endif]–>1<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>: The domains of authenticity

 This is basically what Breen was talking about, and as one can see there is a lot of overlap and yet authenticity can relate to four very different aspects of the work we do in the language classroom. What is fundamentally important here, is that a teacher could bring in an example of a so-called ‘authentic’ text and use it in a way which is not authentic. For example, a teacher could bring an English language newspaper to class and tell her students read the text and underline every instance of the present perfect aspect or passive tense, then get them to copy each sentence out into their notebooks. Is this authentic? Although for many people the newspaper is a classic example of an authentic text, what is happening in this class is anything but authentic language learning.

Authentic materials are often defined as something not specifically designed for language learning, or “language where no concessions are made to foreign speakers” (Harmer, 2008, p. 273). In the Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, the definition of authenticity is covered in a short entry, and boils down to materials “not originally developed for pedagogical purposes” (Richards & Schmidt, 2013, p. 43). Are there any problems with this definition? When I speak with other teachers, this is generally the definition they come up with, unless we are in the midst of a particularly philosophical discussion, which, don’t worry, I will come to shortly. 
Henry Widdowson is one of the biggest names associated with the authenticity debate, and I had the honour of meeting him in Tokyo last year in November 2014. Widdowson made the famous distinction between materials which are authentic and materials which are genuine (1978). Basically, genuineness relates to an absolute property of the text, in other words realia or some product of the target language community like a train timetable or the aforementioned ‘classic’ newspaper. Authenticity, however, is relative to the way the learners engage with the material and their relationship to it. Hung and Victor Chen (2007, p. 149) have also discussed this, problematizing the act of taking something out of one context and bringing it into another (the classroom) expecting its function and authenticity to remain the same. They call this extrapolation techniques, which they criticise heavily for missing the wood for the trees. In other words, simply taking a newspaper out of an English speaking context quite often means you leave the real reason for interacting with it behind, which seriously impairs its authenticity. Another very big problem with this definition is that it seems to advocate the dreaded ‘native speaker’ idea, which as we all know is an emotive argument that has been discussed widely in recent years, particularly with the rise of English as a Lingua Franca and Global English.  When Widdowson made his arguments it was during the rise of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and as part of this methodology there was an explosion in the debate around authenticity. In particular, people writing about authenticity wanted to distance the concept from the evil ‘native speaker’ definition. But what about learning aims? What about the student’s needs? How was the debate made relevant to the actual practice of teaching? 
In his famous and fascinating paper, Suresh Canagarajah (1993) discusses the way students in Sri Lanka were not only ambiguous towards, but at times detached from the content of their prescribed textbooks, based on American Kernel Lessons. The students had trouble connecting the reality presented in the textbooks with their own reality, which was markedly different to say the least. Canagarajah notes that some students’ textbooks contained vulgar doodles, which he thought could perhaps have been “aimed at insulting the English instructors, or the publishers of the textbook, or the U.S. characters represented” (1993, p. 614). This connects strongly with What  Leo van Lier (1996) calls authentication; the idea that learners have to make the materials authentic by engaging with it in some way on an individual level. Van Lier’s reasoning is that something can’t be authentic for everyone at the same time, but the important thing is to try and get that balance. 
As I think this article has already shown, the concept of authenticity is not easy to define. Alex Gilmore, in his State-of-the-Art paper identified as many as eight inter-related definitions, which were:                            
  

                                I.            the language produced by native speakers for native speakers in a particular language community
                              II.            the language produced by a real speaker/writer for a real audience, conveying a real message (as in, not contrived but having a genuine purpose, following Morrow, 1977)
                            III.            the qualities bestowed on a text by the receiver, in that it is not seen as something already in a text itself, but is how the reader/listener perceives it)
                            IV.            the interaction between students and teachers and is a “personal process of engagement” <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE van Lier1996271128(van Lier, 1996, p. 128)2712716van Lier, LeoInteraction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity1996LondonLongman0582248795<![endif]–>(van Lier, 1996, p. 128)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
                              V.            the types of task chosen
                            VI.            the social situation of the classroom
                          VII.            authenticity as it relates to assessment and the Target Language Use Domain <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Bachman1996143(Bachman & Palmer, 1996)1431436Bachman, Lyle FPalmer, Adrian SLanguage testing in practice: Designing and developing useful language tests11996oxford university press0194371484<![endif]–>(Bachman & Palmer, 1996)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

                        VIII.            culture, and the ability to behave or think like a target language group in order to be validated by them


  Adapted from Gilmore (2007, p. 98)

In order to simplify these definitions I have developed a diagram to show how they overlap and contradict each other. I will use this diagram later as the basis for a continuum of authenticity in language learning.  

Figure <!–[if supportFields]> SEQ Figure \* ARABIC <![endif]–>2<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>: Summary of Gilmore’s Eight inter-related definitions of authenticity

Another way of thinking about authenticity is from a wider perspective, something that encompasses not only the materials being used and the tasks set to engage with them, but also the people in the classroom and the social context of the target language. To better illustrate this, I proposed that authenticity be seen as something like a continuum, with both social and contextual axes (Pinner, 2014b)

The vertical axis represents relevance to the user of the language or the individual, which in most cases will be the learner although it could also be the teacher when selecting materials. The horizontal lines represent the context in which the language is used. Using this continuum, materials, tasks and language in use can be evaluated according to relevance and context without the danger of relying on a pre-defined notion of culture or falling back into “extrapolation approaches”.

As you can see, although the word Authenticity is used all the time in staff rooms and to sell textbooks, if we actually drill down into it we get into very boggy ground.

Dogme ELT and Authenticity (and motivation)

Most readers will probably be familiar with the idea of Dogme ELT, which basically tries to get away from “the prevailing culture of mass-produced, shrink-wrapped lessons, delivered in an anodyne in-flight magazine style” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2003). This movement in ELT has strong connotations for authentic language teaching and also provides a very real connection between authenticity and motivation.

In essence, the Dogme approach places a premium on conversational interaction among teacher and learners where communication is authentic and learner-driven rather than pedagogically contrived and controlled by the teacher. Choice of learning content and materials is thus shaped by students’ own preferred interests and agendas, and language development emerges through the scaffolded dialogic interactions among learners and the teacher. Relevant to our concerns here is the value Dogme places on students’ own voices and identities in these conversational interactions. (Ushioda 2011, p. 205)

In essence, Ushioda is noting that Dogme is both authentic and potentially motivating because it places the emphasis on the learners as people. 

If we take a moment to see where we are with the issue of authenticity, we will realise that the definition of authenticity, although a tangle of concepts and resistant to a single definition, what it seems to be pushing at is essentially something very practical. If something is going to be authentic, it needs to be relevant to the learners and it needs to be able to help them speak in real (as in not contrived) situations. In other words, when they step out of the classroom, what they did in the classroom should have prepared them to speak and understand the target language. In order to achieve this, what they do in the classroom has to be as authenticas possible, and by implication it needs to be engaging. Essentially, authentic materials should be motivating materials.

Why should we care about any of this though, can’t we just get on with it?

I would like to bring this long discussion back to the practical realm by sharing an example from my own teaching. One very successful example of an authentic task comes from a class I taught in a Japanese University in 2011. The class was entitled Discussions on Contemporary Topics which meant I could teach more or less anything. The students expected “just another course about news and current affairs” but what we ended up doing was trying to make the world a slightly better place. The final assessment was a group video project and this is what one group produced for their final piece.
 
It is obvious from watching this video that what the students did here was highly authentic, in that it was personal and achieved something real. This was all their own idea as well, I just told them to make a video and offered suggestions here and there. 
Authenticity is a good thing. It sounds like a good thing and by association, anything labelled as inauthentic must be bad. However, I think that the word authenticity is complicit with many of the problems in English language teaching. Authenticity is still too often defined in a way which, either directly or indirectly, infers the privilege of the native speaker (Pinner, 2014a, 2014b). However, if we can get away from that, authenticity can be a powerful concept to empower both learners and teachers, because authenticity connects the individual learner to the content used for learning. 
So, in summary ‘keep it real’.
References
Bachman, L. F., & Palmer, A. S. (1996). Language testing in practice: Designing and developing useful language tests (Vol. 1): oxford university press.
Breen, M. P. (1985). Authenticity in the Language Classroom. Applied Linguistics, 6(1), 60-70.
Canagarajah, A. S. (1993). Critical Ethnography of a Sri Lankan Classroom: Ambiguities in Student Opposition to Reproduction Through ESOL. TESOL quarterly, 27(4), 601-626. doi: 10.2307/3587398
Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 40(02), 97-118. doi: 10.1017/S0261444807004144
Harmer, J. (2008). The practice of English language teaching (Fourth Edition ed.). London: Pearson/Longman.
Hung, D., & Victor Chen, D.-T. (2007). Context–process authenticity in learning: implications for identity enculturation and boundary crossing. Educational Technology Research and Development, 55(2), 147-167. doi: 10.1007/s11423-006-9008-3
Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2003, Thursday 17 April 2003). Dogme still able to divide ELT.   Retrieved 4th February, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/apr/17/tefl.lukemeddings
Pinner, R. S. (2014a). The Authenticity Continuum: Empowering international voices. English Language Teacher Education and Development, 16(1), 9 – 17.
Pinner, R. S. (2014b). The authenticity continuum: Towards a definition incorporating international voices. English Today, 30(04), 22-27. doi: 10.1017/S0266078414000364
Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (2013). Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics. Harlow: Routledge.
Ushioda, E. (2011). Language learning motivation, self and identity: current theoretical perspectives. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 24(3), 199-210. doi: 10.1080/09588221.2010.538701
van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.
Widdowson, H. G. (1978). Teaching language as communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Left brains and right brains in English language teaching

 
Author Gaetan Lee . Tilt corrected by Kaldari. CC
From Wiki

Well hello! Good news, I have a guest post today and who else but the original TEFL sceptic, Philip Kerr! The author of books on vocabulary,  and co-author of inside out and straightforward   he also recently wrote a book on how to use L1 and translation in the classroom and has spoken in support of translation and L1 several times at conferences ( see here for example). He’s recently been writing about adaptive learning over on this blog.  

 
If you’ve seen my IATEFL talk, you’ll know that someone asked why I didn’t include ‘left brained/right brained’ teaching. Well, as I mentioned then, one of the reasons is that Philip had already done a pretty thorough job of critiquing it. Unfortunately the article in question was not available online, -until now that is!

This was originally published in issue 36, 2011 of ebulletin TESOL Macedonia-Thrace northern Greece. (p.5-7)

Left brain / right brain differences in ELT

 
If you ever go to ELT conferences or read magazines for language teachers, you will probably have come across references to the differences between left and right brains. For example, at the 2006 TESOL France Colloquium, Rita Baker gave a presentation entitled ‘The Global Approach to Understanding English Tenses’, the abstract for which says that ‘the Global Approach is a ‘whole brain’, visual and kinaesthetic way of teaching and learning, starting with the ‘big picture’ (right brain) so that the ‘details’ (left brain) can be understood in context.’ An article by Larry Lynch (2007),entitled ‘Using Right and Left Brain Activities in English Language Teaching and Learning’, describes the importance of developing the different skills and abilities located on either side of the brain. One best-selling international coursebook (Cunningham & Moor, 2005) offers a quiz for students that asks them to consider whether they are left or right brained. The examples I have given here are purely illustrative: a quick internet search will bring up many, many more.

 
Many, but certainly not all, of the references to left / right brain differences in the discourse of ELT are to be found in texts associated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) or Brain Gym. On the British Council / BBC website, Teaching English, for example, there is an article by Steve Darn, (2005), ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming in ELT’, which explains that NLP ‘encompasses or is related to left / right brain’ functions’. The online magazine, Humanising Language Teaching, contains an article by Tom Maguire (2002) about Brain Gym, which he describes as a holistic approach to learning that ‘enables students to find an equilibrium between both sides of the brain and the body’.

 
Lynch (2007) provides a brief summary of the left brain / right brain issue for ELT practitioners. Learners can be categorised as predominantly left-brained (number skills, written language, reasoning, spoken language, scientific thought) or right-brained (insight, three dimensional, art / visual / images, imagination, music). More generally, it is implied that left-brained individuals are rational, linear (boring and male); right-brained individuals are typically intuitive, emotional, creative (fun and female). By extension, classroom activities can be categorised in the same way so that particular activities will particularly suit a learner of left (e.g. using lists) or right-sided (e.g. singing) lateralisation. The significance of these differences is that schools, and the activities that take place within them, tend to bias the left brain, thus disadvantaging certain types of individual.

 

The popular history of left brain / right brain differences

 
The interest of educationalists in brain lateralization (the functional differences between the two cortical hemispheres) dates back to the 1960s when Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga conducted research into epileptic patients who had had their corpus callosum (an area of white matter that connects the hemispheres) cut. It was observed in such patients that certain cognitive functions could be attributed to one or other of the hemispheres. Their findings were rapidly picked up on by others, and, in 1972, Robert Ornstein published his massively influential ‘The Psychology of Consciousness’. In this book, he argued that education needed to place greater emphasis on the more creative, intuitive functions of the right brain. Other, even more popular, books, including Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ soon followed. At the same time, NLP and Superlearning® (both of which drew on ideas about ‘whole brain’ learning) began to take off in educational and management circles. Corballis (2007: 293 ff.) provides a useful, short history of the evolution of right / left brain ideas in popular consciousness. From a combination of these sources, ideas about brain lateralization have found their way into the discourse of ELT.

 

There is, however, a problem with the application of these ideas to education. The idea that people can be categorised as predominantly left brained or right brained is a myth. As Dörnyei (2009: 49) puts it, this idea is ‘simplistic at best and utter hogwash at worst.’ Dörnyei uses strong words, perhaps because of the widespread acceptance of such a myth in the world of education and language teaching, in particular. It is, he believes, very unfortunate, ‘that the aspect of brain research that has most succeeded in filtering through to the wider domain of public knowledge [i.e. left brain –right brain discrepancies] is a highly problematic, and a somewhat outdated, area of cognitive neuroscience.’ His view is shared by Usha Goswami at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge, who describes the ‘current gulf between neuroscience and education’ (2006: 406), a gulf that is filled with ‘packages and programmes claiming to be based on brain science’ but are actually full of ‘neuromyths’.

 

Academics such as Dörnyei and Goswami may be justified in their irritation with the durability of these myths. Almost thirty years ago, Michael Corballis (1983) drew attention to the popular misunderstanding of what researchers refer to as hemispheric specialization. ‘Hemispheric specialization means that one side of the brain is more adept than the other. It does not necessarily mean that the other side cannot perform a function at all or is not routinely involved in a particular activity. […] Virtually all behaviors and modes of thinking require both hemispheres working together.’ (Hampson, 1994) Researchers are in broad agreement that there are differences between the information-processing biases of the brain’s hemispheres, but that these exist at the micro-level, and not at macro-levels such as language or spatial processing. The idea that the left brain is rational and analytic or that the right brain is intuitive and suggestive is not a scientific idea: it is pop psychology or pseudo-science. As it is scientifically meaningless to talk about left-brained or right-brained learners, it is correspondingly meaningless to talk about classroom activities that favour one particular side of the brain or that contribute to inter-cerebral communication.

 

The power of metaphor

 
The fact that we do not use only one side of our brains to be either intuitive or analytical does not, of course, mean that some people are not generally more or less intuitive or analytical than others. There is nothing wrong with contrasting intuitive insights with rational ones. Learner differences exist, and the idea that we should adapt our teaching to our individual learners is neither new nor contentious. The problem is how we categorise these differences, and there is no research-based consensus on how we should go about this. If there is agreement on anything, it is that individual differences are not absolute and context-independent (Dörnyei, 2005: 218): such differences are situated in particular contexts.

 
This is, frankly, unfortunate. It would be nice to have a way of categorising learners (e.g. into left and right brains, or into visual / auditory and kinaesthetic, or into one of Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’) and then to devise learning programmes and activities that addressed their different needs. It is unfortunate, too, in that those people who argue that we should move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching have a very valid point. Teaching does tend to be excessively rational, atomistic and analytic, and would almost certainly benefit from a more emotionally-rich and holistic approach. The people who talk about left brains and right brains offer us pegs on which we can hang our cultural preconceptions (Corballis, 2007: 300) and their ideas resonate in very positive ways. The left / right brain metaphor is comforting (Sternberg, 2008: 419) and may be useful in correcting some of the problems in our approaches to teaching. Unfortunately, it is only a metaphor.

 
It has sometimes been argued that we should judge theories by their transformative potential, rather than the extent to which they can be subjected to empirical testing. Should we worry if left brain / right brain ideas are actually hare-brained … so long as they lead to improvements in the real world? Perhaps not, but there is a deep problem when writers like Lynch or Maguire co-opt the language of science in order to confer a spurious scientific respectability on their ideas. Their practical suggestions may be good, but their cause is not advanced by appeals to pseudo-science. It may be the case that, at some point in the future, science will unequivocally legitimize some of these practical suggestions. However, as Sternberg (2008: 419) points out, we are not there yet. Importantly, too, there is a very substantial literature, going back almost three decades, that cautions educators against jumping to conclusions. To ignore such literature is surely to lose the right to call oneself an educator.

 
For teachers who are interested in the relationship between neuroscience and education, the website of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education may make a useful starting point http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/neuroscience/ . Alternatively the books by Blakemore & Frith (2005) or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) will provide intelligent and informed reading. For a brief no-nonsense summary of educational principles that can be derived from research in neuroscience, Christison (2002) is also useful. Developments in this field are fast and furious. They deserve our respect and interest. The crude simplification of insights from this research in order to sell us a coursebook, an interactive whiteboard or a teacher training course deserves our contempt.

 

References and further reading

 

Blakemore, S.J. & U. Frith (2005) The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Oxford: Blackwell

Bruer, J.T. (1999) In Search of …Brain-Based Education Phi Delta Kappan Vol. 80 / 9

Calvin, W.H. (1991) The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain New York: Bantam

Christison, M. (2002) Brain-based research and language teaching English Teaching Forum April 2002 pp. 2 – 7

Corballis, M. C. (1983) Human Laterality New York: Academic Press

Corballis, M. C. (2007) The dual-brain myth. In Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain Ed. Della Sala, S. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 291 – 313

Cunningham, S. & Moor, P. (2005) New Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate. Harlow: Pearson Longman

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner. Mahwah, NJ: LawrenceErlbaum

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Edwards, B. (1999). The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Tarcher

Goswami, U. (2006) Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7 pp. 406-413

Hampson, E. (1994) Left Brain, Right Brain: Fact and Fiction Organization for Quality Education Newsletter, December 1994 http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/newsletter/archives/left.pdf

Lynch, L. M. (2007) Using Right and Left Brain Activities in English Language Teaching and Learning Ezine Articles http://ezinearticles.com/?Using-Right-and-Left-Brain-Activities-in-English-Language-Teaching-and-Learning&id=833921

Maguire, T. Brain Gym® Humanising Language Teaching Year 4 Issue 3 http://www.hltmag.co.uk/may02/mart3.htm

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science

Ornstein, R. E. (1972) The Psychology of Consciousness. San Francisco: Freeman

Sternberg, R.S. (2008) The Answer Depends on the Question: A Reply to Eric Jensen Phi Delta Kappan, February 2008 pp.418 – 420

Willingham, D.T. (2006) ‘Brain-based learning: More fiction than fact’ American Educator Fall. (available online at http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/fall2006/willingham.cfm)

 

 

EBEFL asks part 2: The evidence strikes back…

One odd thing that happened after IATEFL was people suddenly assuming I was an EFL expert. I started getting questions about the efficacy of this or that method or the merits of vocabulary versus grammar. To be honest I generally have no idea and while it may be expedient for me to cultivate an image of being a knowledgeable so-and-so that’s not the case. I’m not expert in very much and more importantly other ‘experts’ are probably not as expert as we may think. 

How do I know this? Maths. 
 
According to Fred Perry there are around 100 journals relating to SLA and language teaching at present. Each of these puts out around 3 or 4 issues a year (3×10=300) and each one has, let’s say, about five articles a piece which is about 1,500 articles a year. There is no way anyone could reasonably be expected to keep up with these and all the articles/books that have gone before them. Rod Ellis may be an expert on SLA but how would he fare in discussions of ELF, testing or corpus linguistic?
 
So in short I don’t know that much and nobody knows everything. These two points bring me to two requests:

No. 1. I’d like to try to help spread the ‘ask for evidence’ meme created by Sense about Science. If anything came out of the talk at IATEFL for me it’s the need for teachers to be less afraid of asking questions and challenging the status quo. I had a large number of emails thanking me from people saying they’d always thought something was not quite right but never felt they couldn’t say anything. Some had even got into trouble for questioning ‘established practice’. There is nothing wrong with asking the question ‘how do you know that?’ In fact, it’s sad that educators should feel they can’t. As long as you are not rude or patronising it’s reasonable to expect an answer.

So the next time someone claims that ‘teacher talking time should be reduced’ or ‘grammar mcnuggests are bad for students’ or that ‘students have nine different types of intelligence‘ politely enquire on what grounds the speaker makes those claims and be cautious of accepting ‘my experience’ or ‘it’s obvious’ as answers. There may be very good reasons for the claims, then again there may not. Either way, you’ll learn something. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that people, who are probably far busier than me, have taken the time to respond to my emails. And that brings me to…

No. 2 I’d like to ask anyone who is an expert/knowledgeable in a particular field, be it motivation or vocab to get in touch. As I said earlier, it’s impossible for anyone to know everything and with that in mind I’d really like to start having some guest bloggers, particularly those who can offer teachers practical advice based on research. Ideally you’d be highlighting the research evidence that a certain practice or set of practices ‘work’ or conversely, don’t.
 
Let me know at rm190@le.ac.uk
 
 

  

Trust us, we know what’s best for you.



Language for giving opinions

At a recent BALEAP conference the plenary speaker said something I found was quite startling. She was talking  about the fact we often teach things to students which are not, according to corpus data, representative of natural speech. That is, when we teach students things like ‘language for giving opinions’ we may present phrases like “I tend to think that..”, “I consider…” and ”in my opinion’ as a possible ways of alternatives to “I think” despite the fact they are actually vanishingly rare in speech, and are not really alternatives.   

I was worried when she reached her conclusion as it differed from mine, and I was speaking later that day! I had rather foolishly assumed that this meant we should stop teaching language which was unnatural of uncommon and instead focus on more useful, high frequency items. She didn’t see it that way. She suggested that international students using odd or uncommon phrases, -especially if they were female, may sound quite ‘charming’.
 
What I heard sounded familiar. I was reminded of my own experiences of learning a foreign language. Learning Japanese in Japan meant I had fairly natural sounding Japanese (brag brag). I only ever heard it from Japanese people speaking and I didn’t have a textbook so my only input was them. I would occasionally meet people who studied abroad and would often find their Japanese odd or unnatural. For example, I would say the casual male 俺 ore for ‘I’ and they would say the more formal 私 watashiI would say “eh, what?” (e? Mou ikkai?) and they would say “I’m sorry but could you please repeat that.” (sumimasen ga mou ichido itte kudasai) etc etc. It was really clear to me. The Japanese these people were learning was nothing like the Japanese I was hearing in Japan. 
 
Sometimes Japanese folks would be surprised and say things like ‘foreigners shouldn’t use Japanese like that.’ or try to persuade me that really ‘watashi’ was a better choice of personal pronoun marker despite the fact none of the guys I knew used it. 
 
I’d also often hear ‘you don’t need to learn that Japanese’ from well meaning folk, who no doubt had my best interests at heart. I later found that in 1988, the idea  of creating a ‘foreigner Japanese’ called Kanyaku nihongo with all the politeness markers removed was funded by the National Language Institute of Japan. This was no doubt to make it easier, for us poor foreigners trying to learn what is, according to many Japanese anyway, the most difficult language on the planet. Now, anyone who knows anything about Japanese can tell you that removing the politeness markers from Japanese is like removing the alcohol from beer. Technically possible but kind of defeating the object.

I found all of this patronising. I didn’t want to learn foreigner Japanese I wanted to learn Japanese. Thus my experience leads me to think that students probably don’t like being fobbed off with ‘pseudo language’. They pay for and expect the real thing. My experience leads me to think this but I’m only one person and I could well be wrong.
 
It’s not fair for me to assume that what I want is what my students want any more than it was fair for those well meaning Japanese folk to decide what I did and didn’t need to learn and how I should sound. The danger with experience is always over extrapolation. This worked for me, in this place, at this time, so it must work for everyone.

In the past some teachers told students that they should strive to sound like a native speaker and probably a certain type of native speaker.  Some teachers now tell students not to try to sound like native speakers. In both these cases, the person telling and the person being told, haven’t changed.
If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that’s fine. If they don’t that’s fine. It’s their money. But even if students aren’t interested in sounding like native speakers that’s no excuse for us to teach them unnatural language and phrases because it’s easier for us to teach like that.  All we are then doing is creating an alternative version of English -not ELF, just a pseudo English bleached and stripped of reality and no one is asking for that, no matter how ‘charming’ it might be.

Thought terminating cliches

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B: You say that but I’m a Christian and as such I believe that God created humans beings with the intention of them procreating. A good example of His wishes can be seen in the fact that the first two people he created, according to The Bible were a man and a woman. 

 

  Compare that with this:

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B:  God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve

What’s great about this phrase (and there isn’t much) is that it neatly encapsulates a whole position in a short pithy phrase. It conveys a lot of information in a small space and solidifies thinking on a position. It can also be a good conversation stopper, -unless you have an equally neat retort. These phrase are an excellent way to avoid cognitive dissonance a good example would be the religious person who thanks god for surviving a serious disease, but when questioned why God allowed them to get the disease in the first place will say “God works in mysterious ways”. Job done. end of.

And don’t think I’m singling out the religious, everyone does this. For example, I’ve talked before about the nonsensical phrase “the exception that proves the rule“. It neatly ends a conversation (despite not making any sense). Other examples are the phrases “it’s political correctness gone mad!”, “I’m entitled to my opinion” and “Gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people!”. Recently I’ve discovered that these phrases are called ‘thought terminating cliches a phrase invented by Robert Jay Lifton who wrote:
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis…for instance, the phrase “bourgeois mentality” is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments.

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China,

I’m glad I know the name because I’ve seen a lot of these phrases used when I talk to teachers about evidence in education. For example when I suggest that research might be useful I often hear “teaching is an art, not a science“. I’m not going to tackle this one in particularly because Daniel Willingham has already done so in this video.
One that I do want to look at is the idea that ‘context is king’ (also know as ‘think of the variables!’) in teaching. This is something I hear regularly expressed in sentiments like those expressed by Simon Andrewes in a recent comment on this blog. He mentions Kumaravadivelu and his idea of the “unique classroom” and notes that this means it is “practically impossible for teaching theory to apply to all cases.” He’s not the only one. I’ve heard many teachers claim that the most important thing is context and so research is a waste of time because the number of possible variables a context can bring will render any research invalid. It can’t be generalised to other classrooms because there are too many factors which relate to one classroom and one group of students in particular.  For this post, I will call this position ‘the argument from relativism‘.
 
Relativism is a very fashionable position in all kinds of fields, not just teaching. You’ll hear people tell you that ‘truth is relative’ and your truth is different from my truth, that there’s not objective truth and ‘everything’s relative.’ We also have moral relativism, which is equated by many with progressive thought, so different cultural practices are not objectively ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than things we do in the west, they are just ‘different’ but equally valid.
 
All of this generally comes from a good place and can be seen as a reaction to things like colonialism and racism where everything was seen through a lense of hierarchy with (usually) rich white straight Christian men at the top. The problem is, for all its good intentions, relativism is just plain wrong. As Nagel notes:
 

Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity — self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. (the last word 1997:6)

That is, the statement that “everything is relative” must include itself. So either the statement itself is relative (and is therefore meaningless) or is an ‘objective’ fact, true about ‘everything’ in which case in contradicts itself. Nagel goes on to note the danger that relativism brings:
The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life – not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others.(1997:5)
What I think Nagel gets at here, is the “thought terminating” nature of this phrase and the detrimental effect this has on arguments. Under the tyranny of relativism it becomes impossible to say that belief systems espousing hatred for gay people or promoting child brides are objectively ‘wrong’, that’s just your Western version of reality -don’t try to force it on other people.
 

Relativism has the same chilling effect on discussions of language teaching. Whenever the topic of research comes up, hands are quickly thrown into the air and the words “context” and “variables” appear and that’s that; everyone nods and the conversation moves on. Context absolutely must play a part in a teacher’s decision making process -but it’s not the only part. There is also truth. There are things we can learn which can apply to many, if not most contexts. despite the protestations of relativists all of our students have the same hardware in their heads -they all have brains and they all learn in exactly the same way.

 
The last sentence may have caused consternation about some teachers aware of another ‘thought terminating cliché’ namely that ‘every student learns in different ways’ but this is not quite the case. While all students like to study in different ways learning happens in the brain, in exactly the same way for everyone. A good analogy for this is Nuthall‘s statement that “We all have different food preferences…[but this] does not mean that the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different” (Nuthall, 2007:34) Since learners all possess a human brain, why would we not think there were some things we could generalise from one classroom to the next?
 
There is also another problem with the argument from relativism, which is to what extent do we apply it? Now sure, Japanese school kids may have slightly different needs from Spanish school kids but not all Japanese school kids need the same thing. A busy Tokyo high school may have different needs from a small rural high school. And when you really think about it, wouldn’t the male students, in both cases, have different needs to the female students? And all students have different levels of English and different aptitudes.  When you get right down to it, isn’t each individual student their own ‘unique classroom’ with its own needs, -and those needs may change from day to day, or hour to hour?

If this sounds ridiculous then remember that this is, in a sense, what humanistic ‘learner centred’ approaches already promote. Not only should you know each student’s individual level but also whether they are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, whether they are ‘power planners, expert investigators, radical reformers or flexible friends’ (Rosenberg 2012) Whether they are left brained or right brained thinkers, and which is their dominant intelligence. You might also consider what their preferred representational system is and just how emotionally intelligent they are. This presents (not including first language, age, sex, level and aptitude) around around 1080 (3x4x2x9x5) different possible combinations. 

This doesn’t seem to faze teachers though who manage somehow, to produce material for the ‘whole class’. And if learning can be generalised from the individual to the class with all the differences it purportedly contains, why can’t it be generalised to other classes, in other contexts?
 
Despite protestations, research is possible and will help to improve teaching. And why would teachers object to their job becoming more professional, with a more reliable skill set and deeper professional knowledge? The awful alternative is the idea that nothing is ever really knowable in teaching and knowledge only lasts as long as the class is together and is then gone. This is the logical conclusion of relativism, where best practice is only ever something that can exist for one class, or one student at one point in time. If this is the case, scrap journals, scrap teaching qualifications, scrap blogs and scrap conferences, because none of them matter.



 

Guide to methods part 2: NLP in ELT


Would you like to have it all? Be the person you’ve always known you could be? Unleash the real power of your mind? Even have the ability to influence other people’s decisions? All of this is possible through the power of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). 
NLP is a therapy type of self-help program which was invented in the 1970s by two undergraduates, a linguist, John Grinder and a mathematician, Richard Bandler (though he later studied psychology). It was based on the idea that everyone views the world through one of their senses (PRS) and that if you know which sense is dominant in an individual then you can subtly influence their behaviour. NLP trainees are taught that a person’s ‘PRS’ can be detected by listening to the language they use.  For example a person who says “I see” a lot is visually orientated and someone saying “I get your meaning” is more of a kinesthetic person.  If this doesn’t work you can always watch their eye movements and this will also tell you what PRS a person has. 

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of NLP you can become a “master practitioner” in around 12 days for the bargain basement price of £2,000. It’s so easy that the BBC’s Chris Jackson managed to have his cat George registered with the British board of Neuro Linguistic Programming; an impressively short amount of time for something claims to give users so much power and promises so much.

And promise it does; NLP practitioners can apparently cure allergies, phobias, depression, among (many) other things. It is also claimed that NLP is useful for business people, teachers, writers, athletes and even parents.  There is certainly no shortage of ways to find out about NLP, as well as the training courses there are over 400 NLP books listed on amazon

To devotees NLP is incredibly effective and its creators are geniuses. Devotees fill conference halls and pay thousands to watch the likes of Bandler speak. It is also vague enough to avoid really close scrutiny. Claiming to offer “more success” or “greater happiness” are not things which can be easily measured or falsified. Some of the more concrete claims however can, and have been subjected to scientific evaluation and the results are not pretty. 

Two large reviews of NLP literatureshowed it to be ineffective; it is all but ignored in the field of psychology where it is regarded as pseudoscience. More specifically, research has shown flaws with the basic tenets of NLP, that eye movements neither indicate honesty nor show that PRS is a useful concept. None of this, of course, fazes supporters of NLP, who, like fans of homoeopathy or horoscopes “know it works”. 

NLP is also something of a shape-shifter. It started in the field of psychology but moved to self-help where it currently resides. It has also moved into business and teaching and from there it started making inroads through both business English and through the more touchy-feely humanistic side of ELT. 

In the field of TEFL, NLP has continued to have support among a small but dedicated group. There have been books and numerous positive articles in TEFL magazines like English teaching professional, and there has even been an uncritical paper about NLP in the hallowed pages of The English language teaching journal

And while NLP is not a major approach (some teachers have no doubt never heard of it) it does have a hard-core of committed enthusiast headed up by Mario Rinvolucri. These teachers spend time trying to work out their students’ PRS by watching their eyes or listening to which words they use. All this means we have the rather ironic situation where educators and education journals promote ineffective pseudo-science in the name of education. Perhaps though, as Ben Goldacre has shown with BrainGym’s widespread use in schools this shouldn’t be all that surprising.  

On a final note, there is also a potentially sinister side to NLP. The idea of ‘programming’ students, -changing their way of thinking- potentially against their will and without them even knowing you did it, is at best creepy, and at worst unethical. Luckily, by all accounts, NLP doesn’t work, so we don’t need to worry about that. It does however cost a lot of money and goes against what teachers really should be doing in class. More worryingly though is how easily our educators can be fooled into buying into this kind of magical thinking. I wonder anxiously if our classrooms will soon be full of teachers touting the benefits of tarot cards for vocabulary retention and Ouija boards for improving reading skills.