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


Woo watch: Baba Vanga

Baba Vanga

Baba Vanga was a blind Bulgarian mystic. She is quite well-known among people who are into the weird and wonderful world of ‘parapsychology‘. She’s famous for her Nostradamus like predictions which had a ‘80% accuracy rate‘. She is said to have predicted, among other things the 9/11 attacks, the election of a Black president and the 2004 boxing day Tsunami.

Impressive stuff. Of course, like all good psychics there is quite a bit of artistic licence. And more importantly while the hits are counted, the misses are quietly forgotten. 2016 is over so we can say with some confidence that her prediction* that ‘Europe will cease to exist’ didn’t come true (a good woo-master would somehow link this prediction to Brexit ). It’s perhaps not surprising since she also predicted that 2010 would be when World War 3 started and that it would end in 2014, and that Muslims would wage war against Europe in 2013. So all in all, I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that we shouldn’t take Baba Vanga very seriously.
So what does Baba Vanga have to do with TEFL? The figure of 80% accuracy (60-70% here) in her predictions was reported by a group of scientists who worked for the Bulgarian institute of Suggestology and Parapsychology. The head of the institute was Georgi Lozanov who was the inventor of the TEFL method known as Suggestopedia.
Lozanov said of Baba Vanga (source) “The stories about Vanga Dimitrova are not fantasies…She is extraordinarily talented….Vanga does read the future for those who go to her personally…she has psychic capabilities…” (p. 275). Lozanov also reveals that he has psychic power and was able to ‘block’ Vanga to some extent. (p. 276)
The genetic fallacy means we shouldn’t write off an idea, just because of where it came from. However, in Lozanov’s case I think we have been a bit too generous. The same research group which produced the amazing results on the effectiveness of suggestopedia also took a psychic seriously and produced ‘scientific research’ showing how effective a psychic she was. It isn’t therefore that Lozanov had some whacky ideas but his research was solid. We have evidence that his research was extremely unreliable.
SEAL – a lozanov inspired org.

All of this information was available in the 70’s and yet Suggestopedia was generally treated fairly credulously. It receives serious coverage in works by Krashen, Larsen-Freeman, and many, many others. In Tomlinson’s ‘Materials development in language teaching’ a whole chapter is devoted to writing and grammar presentation in ‘the Lozanov method.’ The author Hansen, tells us that these days (1998) it’s easier to understand here Lozanov was coming from since “quantum science has become more familiar” meaning we can perceive in “multidimensional” ways. Even today you can find published papers (here, here and here for instance) examining the effectiveness of the method and even the ELTJ recently had an article citing Lozanov.

Baba Vanga died in 1996 but almost every year an article appears talking about one or more of her predictions and trying to link it to some current event. Lozanov died in 2012 but his influence lives on in suggestopedia courses, books and in articles. Usually defenders of Suggestopedia say we should take the ‘good stuff’ and leave the rest. I suppose we could do that with Vanga too. I don’t believe in seeing into the future or magic powers but suggestopedia does seems to have something of a charmed life and I don’t predict that changing any time soon.

*difficult to find reputable sources for these claims. Webpages tend to vanish when things don’t come true.

Review of ELT podcasts part 3

When I started reviewing ELT podcasts there were hardly any. Now we find ourselves drowning in them! At present I count more than 10 ELT specific podcast. However, over half seem to have fallen to the wayside. Elliott’s very good ‘lives of teachers’ podcast has very sporadic output these days. As does ‘Masters of TESOL’ which started strong and has since faded. The only three podcast that I have reviewed still regularly producing output are TEFLology, the TEFL show and the TEFL commute. Clearly the secret is having TEFL in your name somewhere. 

In my last review I had a wish list asking for, among other things, ‘a podcast with a female host’ and what do you know, three come along at once. 

1. One stop English podcast 

This podcast has only just started and is 8 episodes in but has made quite a nice start. Already the show has featured a debunking of learning styles, as well as featuring my former presentation partner Nicola Prentis, in the same episode. They have a ‘guest teacher’ slot, which is a nice idea and have so far featured, among others, the wonderful Natalia Guerreiro (who I cannot convince to write a guest blog post). In only 8 episodes they have had as guests, Hugh Dellar and Andrew Wakley, Adrian Underhill, Silvana Richardson and Scott Thornbury. This is quite a solid podcast, not too heavy and even including some practical teaching advice. It’s a pleasant addition to the pod-o-sphere and it will be interesting to see how it develops. 

Tea with BVP has everything I have ever asked for in a podcast. It has a well established academic (Bill Van Patten) talking about language teaching research. It has veryhigh production value. It also has a NNS female host. The main host is also a bilingual Spanish speaker so we get insight into MFL. It also provides a fascinating window into the American ELT scene (lost since the minimal pair podcast disappeared). With all this going for it, why don’t I love Tea with BVP more? I puzzled over this issue and it seems to me there are a few things which stop me enjoying this show more. 

Firstly, it’s not a podcast. Sure, it is released in podcast form but it is recorded as a radio show and a radio show it is. There are phone ins, there are awkward pauses when no one phones in, there are some quite ‘chatty’ sections and so on. Secondly, it’s very strongly wedded to a certain ideological position. I’ve listened to the whole 4(?) series and haven’t yet been able to work out what this position is. It seems to be something along the lines of ‘Krashen and Chomsky are right about everything’ (I jest, but only a bit). 

One of the frustrating things about the show for me is that ideas about teaching are presented as settled science. That is, that doing X or Y is the only way students will acquire language and that language is acquired through method Z. There is nothing wrong with having a position and arguing from that position per se, I just wonder if say Long, or Ellis, would agree with BVP’s take on language teaching. As a teacher with scant knowledge of the research discussed it’s hard to know what to think. 

The certainty with which certain views were espoused looked a little less convincing when, in a recent episode BVP gave some credence to the idea of learning styles. In the following episode he responded to listener who had written in to challenge him on this (not me, I promise) and his response was a little disappointing. Rather than say ‘yes, I got it wrong, learning styles aren’t real.’ he stated that individual differences don’t matter much in learning languages. 

Early on I wrote to the show and asked them if they would detail alternate views to the one espoused. I was hoping to find out what their position would be defined as and what other researchers think. The show is usually very good at responding to people’s questions on twitter and the like. They thanked me for my email but unfortunately this hasn’t happened yet.

Thirdly, related to the last point, they favour a teaching methodology called TPRS which I had never heard of. I kept thinking it was a mutant variant of TPR, but no, it’s something completely different. There are also frequent references to ACTFL which again, I had never heard of. But, it is interesting to learn that despite doing essentially the same job as these people, we seem to inhabit complete different worlds. TEA with BVP is a high quality podcast, but, for a British ELT teacher not familiar with the world of ACTFL, it can be a frustrating listen a times. 



This is a new and quite interesting little podcast. What I particularly like about it is that it seems to be set in China. The TEFL scene can be dominated by Spain/UK based teachers and so it’s quite interesting to get a podcast from somewhere else. The hosts are a Ross Thorburn, a British guy and  Tracy Yu, a Chinese woman

There are about 24 episodes now and it’s been around for less than a year, so the output is pretty high. The episodes are also really short at around 15 minutes each time. They generally tackle very general interest, practical issues like, monitoring, autonomy and materials. The format is usually the hosts (and perhaps a guest) reflecting on these topics. In that sense it’s similar to other TEFL podcasts, but the Chinese perspective is interesting. 


So that’s it! If you hear about a TEFL podcast (oh gawd, not another one!) please let me know. 

Other reviews of podcasts 

part 1

Part 2


 

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.

Review of ELT podcasts

2014 was a great year for EFL podcasts with several sprouting up like veritable fungi. I’m a huge fan of podcasts and think they can be a great way of learning while doing other stuff. So what TEFL podcasts are there and more importantly are they any good? 


1. TEFLology 

TEFLology is 45 mins, fortnightly podcast. The three guys who host it are, I think, lecturers in Japanese universities, which perhaps gives the podcast more of a slant towards applied linguistics, over TEFL topics. The very early episodes were quite unpolished, and there are still moment where the conversation just seems to fade out into  ‘yeah…mmm….right’ kind of moments but they seem to be getting better at editing these out. The Podcasts is usually divided into a ‘TEFL pioneers’ section, TEFL news and a more general discussion of some ELT topic like DuoLingo, linguistic imperialism or TPR. Overall The podcast is well-researched and well worth a listen. In fact the level of research they seem to put into the episodes does make me fear they will burn themselves out. The podcast has recently had an impressive list of guests such as Nina spada, Widdowson and even an ‘explicit’ interview with Rod Ellis. It’s also worth listening to for the ‘home-made’ jingle at the start. 



This podcast is almost the complete opposite to TEFLology. It’s ESL focused rather than EFL and is hosted by two Americans,  Jean Dempsey and Stephanie Axe who I think are adjunct professors (?) at a US university. They have had a number of interesting episodes on things like ‘What’s the last P in parsnip’ and  recap of goings on at the TESOL conference. I find this podcast interesting because I feel I get very little exposure to US TEFL culture and ideas. Obviously ELT is big over there too and I know their system is somewhat different to the UK, but I’m not entirely sure how. That said, in a number of episodes they have talked at length about catering for student learning styles and then were quite positive about prescriptive grammar, -my two pet hates.  Consequently I wrote a rather negative review of them. Since that there hasn’t been another episode. I hope the two events are not related. They have reassured me they will be back in the New Year, so here’s hoping. 



I thought kKCL was a pretty good podcast, with fairly high production values and a nice style. Their fifth episode was on the topic of learning styles. Guest Marjorie Rosenberg, discussed her new book with host Phil Keegan. I thought this particular episode was a good illustration of the problems with learning styles and so I wrote about it here. Unfortunately the podcast seems to have stopped after this. I hope the two events were not related. The curse of EBEFL? I hope not. Will 2015 see a reappearance of KKCL? Only time will tell.  




This podcast is the brand spanking new kid on the block. With only 3 episodes so far it may not seem worth reviewing but host Andrew Bailey has already managed to bag interviews with Scott thornbury and Ahmar Mahboob.And if that weren’t enough he also got a guest anecdote from none other than the Master of TESOL himself, Mike Griffin.I f you’ve heard the ‘freakanomics’ podcast, you may feel this has a similar vibe.  This podcast is new so it’s hard to say how it’ll turn out but it’s compact and slick and I’ve got this on my ‘one to watch’ list. It certainly has a lot of potential. 


Last but not least is ELTchat, the companion to the twitter #ELTchat. I have to include this because James Taylor would kill me if I left it out. This is a great podcast which includes well known, tweeters and bloggers like Vicky Loras, Tony Gurr and Marisa Constantinides. However so far it has only had about 12 episodes over four years and has only had one episodes in the last year (2014) which makes me wonder if perhaps it isn’t in need of a bit of love and attention? James? 





Hopes for 2015
I hope some of the podcasts mentioned here are produced a bit more regularly. It’d also be great to see a podcast offering actual advice for teachers about jobs, something like “guide to teaching in…” and each week the country would be different. It’d also be nice if podcasts included more NNS as hosts and if we saw more women hosts as well.

Did I get anything wrong here? Anything I need to add? Did I miss out any podcasts you think are great? Let me know in the comments. 

Part 2 here

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.

The importance of experience

I often talk about evidence on this blog (the name is a giveaway) but experience also has an important role. My various experiences as a language learner shape everything I do. Like most everyone, I generally get my opinions initially from my emotions, not from anything empirical. 

For example, I studied GCSE French in school because I used to love French in secondary school. I thought I was pretty good at it. Clearly my teachers disagreed. A few weeks into the course I found out I was in the bottom class and dropped out. I figured I’d never be any good at languages so I did music instead.

To this day, while the rational part of my brain tells me that levels are necessary and important my experiences makes me hate them. 

I studied a lot!


In summer 2000, I started my first teaching job in Japan with zero Japanese. In winter 2004 I passed the 1 kyu (now N1) Japanese test, the highest level of the test. This isn’t to brag…well, OK, it is , yeah me! But it’s also to say that everything about that experience colours my attitude toward teaching. I’ve done, what many of my students set out to do. I’m the “after” photo of slick advertising campaigns. and everything I do is filtered through the prism of being a language learner.

Firstly, I had no classes. I didn’t attend a school, have a textbook or get a tutor. This makes me suspicious about the value of these things. That’s right, I’m suspicious of the value of people like me. Research suggests that Instruction can aid language learning but It’s also possible that teachers can potentially also do a lot of harm to students. So another conclusion from my experience is that an ineffectual but ‘nice’ teacher is much better than a teacher who bores students or embarrasses them. 

I also never found out what my ‘learning style’ was, I didn’t know which was my dominant ‘intelligence’ nor did I meditate on the ‘here and now’. What I DID do was study a lot of Japanese words with flash cards, listen to a ton of people talking and singing in Japanese and tried to speak (and drunkenly sing karaoke) as often as I could; Lots of input, lots of studying, lots of practice and high levels of motivation and encouragement.  


Every week I see articles extolling the virtues of the flipped classroom, reflective practice, discovery learning, Dogme and technology. Many of these posts are passionate, articulate and convincing but my experience tells me they are also often peripheral and “A balance is needed between ancillary concerns and the central language teaching priorities that they are ancillary to” (Swan, 2013:170). In order to learn a language students have to learn the language

The problem with all this is though is that experience, isn’t always a great guide for what we should be doing. What worked form me may not work for someone else. I’ve seen some kids come out of 6 years of grammar translation classes with great English. Experience is powerful but it can also mislead us. We can see what we want to see, and also be unwilling to change our minds. And yet many teachers happily accept ‘experience’ as a good enough justification for just about anything. But this argument cuts both ways. 

I know many English teachers who, while claiming to know the best way to learn a language have failed to do so themselves, despite many years abroad. If ‘experience’ is going to be our benchmark then where does that leave teachers like this? Would anyone claim that these teachers are not as capable as those who have mastered a foreign language? And if it doesn’t matter, why doesn’t it matter? 

 

Try this it works! No.1: Practice makes perfect.

when I was a kid and trying to learn the guitar my dad used to tell me that if I practised something for half and hour, I’d be half an hour better at it than someone who didn’t.

When I first started learning Japanese there were a bunch of other teachers who arrived at the same time. We all went off to different schools and met six months later for training. By that point my Japanese had improved the most. In that six months I had practised for one hour every morning before work. I practised in my lunch break and after work and I studied during my weekends and holidays and I spent most of my time with Japanese people. 

Being ‘half an hour better’ may not seem like much but over a week that’s 3.5 more hours studied. After 6 months you’re 84 hours better. 

Practice is very effective for language students. Although that might seem like ‘lessons in the bleeding obvious’ or what Gillum 2004 calls ‘”duh” observations’ in EFL it’s actually not that simple. ‘practice’, can be a dirty word in EFL. ‘practice gets a raw deal in the field of applied linguistics’ DeKeyser (2007:1) suggests citing its associations with the ‘discredited’ field of behaviourism. In a 2010 paper he notes:

[practice has] taken a beating in recent decades. Krashen claimed that “learning does not become acquisition” (1982 p.83), R, Ellis that “the results [of empirical research] are not very encouraging for practice” (1994)

The paper, titled ‘don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater’ attempts to redress the balance and points out how much research evidence there is in EFL supporting practice. In fact, research into the benefits of practice for learning is some of the most compelling not only in EFL but also in mainstream education. Authors like Hattie, Willingham and Pashler all strongly recommend practice as a top intervention for improving learning outcomes. But what kind of practice should we be doing?


In order to be effective practice should meet certain criteria. Firstly it should ideally be meaningful. Lightbown who argued in 1985 that ‘practice does not make perfect’ noted that she was referring to mechanical drills and suggested that meaningful practice is ‘clearly beneficial and even essential ‘(2000:243). Pashler et al (2013) agrees, noting in a study looking at foreign vocabulary retrieval ‘repeat after me’ activities are less effective than students trying to recall the vocabulary themselves.

Secondly repeated practice must occur over time (spaced) not crammed into one lesson (massed). In Hatties Visible Learning ‘spaced practice’ (2009:185) has an effect size of 0.7 which is the 12th most effective intervention he lists. Hattie also reiterates the idea that ‘drill and kill’ simply won’t work. The exposure needs to be varied, with feedback and be related to various contexts. This, he argues, will ‘enhance mastery [and] also fluency’. 

In a paper called ‘inexpensive techniques to improve education‘ the authors list three strategies which are proven to be effective in the classroom and one of them is, you guessed it, ‘spaced practice’ while another is ‘retrieval practice’. Similarly Dunlosky et al (2013) in a paper on the best evidence-based practice, note that spaced practice with around 24 hours between exposure was more effective than both going over the same material on the same day or leaving a much longer gap. And as with Pashler, they suggest that having students try to recall, rather than just being exposed again was the most effective. Willingham (2009:120) reiterates this point adding ‘you can get away with less practice if you space it out than if you bunch it together.’ 

In relation to the amount of time between exposures Nation notes, that if enough time passes between learning a word and seeing it again it then the ‘encounter is effectively not a repetition but is like a first encounter’ (2008:67). Whereas if the chance to retrieve the word is close enough to the original encounter, the knowledge of the word will be strengthened. 

What does this mean for your class? 

Practice can be useful for fluency in speech and reading, learning vocabulary, improving pronunciation, writing and spelling DeKeyser (2007, 2010). It can also help with receptive skills (Thornbury 2006:196). Whether or not it can help with grammar is a complex and controversial question and one which I neither have the confidence nor space to discuss here (I would point you here, if you’re interested).


It’s my feeling that practice is skimped on in a lot of classes. It certainly has been in many of mine. How often have I explained words and seen students write them into their notebooks (or as Swan calls them ‘word cemeteries’) only to noticed they’ve forgotten them by the end of the week,  or have students repeat a word a couple a times in class but never go back to it on another occasion. How many times have I spent five or ten minutes on something but then not reviewed it, except perhaps as homework? Even when I have reviewed it it was only once or twice, a number nowhere near enough for automaticity to occur. 

I remember an experience recently where I taught a certain phrase that was very important to a group of students. The next day I asked them to write down the phrase we’d practise and only one out of 15 students was able to do it. I asked them again three days later and this time around half the class could do it. I waited till the following week and it was still only about half of the class. It wasn’t until the end of the second week that all but one student could write down this one single phrase.  

When I was learning Japanese and heard a new word I would walk around trying it out on everyone I met. ‘Hey, I learnt a new word today’. ‘Oh yeah? what’s that?’ ‘danson johin!‘ or whatever. Invariably I’d mess it up and they’d correct me, but I was getting good quality practice; it was meaningful, it was spaced and it was me trying to recall (with feedback) not someone saying ‘repeat after me’.

I’ve been teaching for over 10 years now and just this year I’ve realized how much repetition and practice I’ll need to incorporate if what I’m doing isn’t going to be completely futile. Worries about covering that day’s material or doing ‘boring’ repetition/review perhaps blinded me to what the research and ironically my own experience as a language learner spelt out. Try practice, it works!

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)