boooooo! hurrah!

Penn and Teller‘s show ‘Bullshit was a favourite of mine. Every week they debunked commonly held beliefs from 12-step-programs to cryptozoology. In one particular episode they asked people to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen monoxide -a substance found in ‘pesticides, baby food and the water supply’.

Hundreds of people signed up to demand the government ban H2O, more commonly known as water. So why would someone want to ban water? Probably because it was presented to them as a scary sounding chemical and ‘chemical’ is for many people a ‘boo’ word. 

‘Boo’ words, and their opposite ‘Hurrah’ words come from an old theory called Emotivism which holds that “ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes”. I’m not too concerned about the philosophical theory but I rather like the notion of boo and hurrah words. Put simply boo words are things that are just accepted as bad, and hurrah words, the opposite. When we hear ‘Chemical’ we mentally relegate it to the pantomime villain category and boo accordingly. 

So what are boo and hurrah words in education? Swan noted that:

the applied linguistic equivalents of democracy and motherhood – include ‘learner-centred’, ‘meaning based’, ‘holistic’, ‘discourse’, ‘discovery’, ‘process’, ‘interaction’, ‘negotiation’ and ‘strategy’. On the other side of the communicative fence, concepts related to ‘bad’ pedagogic attitudes felt to be discredited and undesirable include ‘teacher-dominated’, ‘form-based’, ‘discrete’, ‘sentence-level’, ‘transmission model’, ‘product’, memorization’, ‘repetition’, and ‘drill’. (2009:167). 

I would probably add ‘testing’ and ‘textbooks’ to this list. These words are often placed in ‘boo’ or ‘hurrah’ boxes and there they linger with little examination. And it’s not just ELT, as a comment on the now defunct ‘Web of Substance‘ blog wryly notes:

I am disappointed in you as well Harry. You should know by now that, in polite education society you label your OWN ideas as “authentic”, “innovative”, “Child-centred” and “21st Centruy” so that when anyone disagrees they are, essentially, arguing for a counterfeit, old-fashioned, child-hating, Victorian education. 

We often take our views ‘off-the-peg’, after all, none of us really have the time to go and read up on every single subject which may concern usWhat, for instance, is the link between wanting relaxed gun laws and thinking climate change is a hoax? Seemingly nothing, and yet (American) people with one of these views will often have the other. Have these people really reasoned out the pros and cons of each side, or have they adopted the views of the ‘tribe’ they most identify with? 

What this boils down to is ideology. Once we choose an ideology to follow, be it socialism, Islamism or environmentalism, we reshape reality to fit that frame. A petition to ban a chemical? Sure, where do I sign!


Is this a problem? As long as our chosen ideology is sound, the views that follow will also be sound, won’t they? Perhaps. But I’m uncomfortable, for two reasons. 

Firstly, our views are often unexamined. I can’t speak for other teachers, but I often find a lot of the TEFL discourse confusing because I can never sure the terms people are using mean the same thing to them as they do to me.  

Take for instance the discussion on PowerPoint on the Minimal Pair podcast. One of the presenters said something about trying to avoid using PowerPoint because they’re so ‘teacher centric’. Thassumption in this statement is that ‘teacher centric’ (whatever that means) is bad and should be avoided. I kept thinking, ‘are they teacher centric and if they are is that a problem?’ 

Secondly, we’ve seen this go wrong before. Learning styles rode an ideological wave to success. It is an appealing notion to imagine that every learner has their own special abilities and if we just teach them in the right way, tapping into their unique ‘intelligence’ they will flourish. It’s certainly more appealing than the notion that some people are just smarter than others and will do better than them no matter what we do. Learning styles is attractive, ideologically, but unfortunately its not true. 

Alan Waters, who passed away recently, wrote several articles examining ideology in applied linguistics noting that “a good deal of its discourse promotes or proscribes language teaching ideas on the basis of ideological belief rather than pedagogical value.” A view supported by 40 years of learning styles promotion. Dana Ferris, who is perhaps the leading scholar in written error correction notes that, on largely ideological grounds “composition theorists have for decades ignored, minimized, or even openly disparaged any issues related to error treatment in writing courses.” (2011:61) And Hyland suggests that although process approaches to writing may be appealing there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (2003:17-8)

These examples make me wonder, what teaching practices we are currently being ignoring because they don’t fit our ideology. And likewise, what teaching practices are popular because they appeal to our world view? Is a teacher-centric lesson bad because it limits learning, makes students unhappy and is boring, or is it because it’s ‘authoritarian’ and ‘traditional’ while we are modern, democratic, freedom loving sorts? Is there a difference between claiming you teach in a ‘a learner-centric, communicative way using only authentic materials’ and say claiming that you only eat ‘organic, gluten free, locally sourced, food?’

Walters wrote several papers on this theme, taking quite an extreme position at times. He claimed, for instance that the EFL world engages in a kind of Orewelian ‘newspeak’ where unacceptable views are supressed  and only, “approved’ ways of thinking, such as in the use of the term ‘authentic’” are acceptable. (2015) He argued that getting rid of textbooks or advocating learner autonomy or ELF are not just pedagogical choices, but markers of right thinking people

And perhaps he has a point. Are textbooks disliked more because they present materials in pedagogically unsound ways or because they are written by large companies who make lots of money? Arguably it’s a bit of both. So how do we stop ideology slipping into our teaching? I think it’s important to carefully scrutinise our beliefs. The first step would be making sure we have a clear and accurate definition of what it is we’re talking about. Take autonomy for instance, most teachers would consider it a good thing but as Mike Swan noted at a recent talk, while autonomy can certainly be good, the logical end point of autonomy, is no teacher. 

Next, we need to examine our biases, -what would we like to be true. I correct my students mistakes in class. Therefore I hope that that helps them learn. If I found out it didn’t help them, -even hindered them, I’m likely to feel pretty bad about that. Therefore, I have a vested interest in trying to find data that back that view up. I’ll also fight harder against, and examine closer articles which contradict that view.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves what our beliefs about teaching are based on. Do you teach the way you do because it’s the way you were taught to teach, or because it’s how everyone else teaches? What reason do you have to believe the things you do and more importantly, what would it take to change your mind. If the answer to the former is ‘I just know’ or ‘common sense’ and the answer to the latter ‘nothing’ then what you are describing is dogma. 

A chemical like H2O may save your life or, like H2O2 it might be poisonous. Chemicals themselves are not inherently bad, and H2O2 is excellent for dying hair while water may drown you.  


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

Review of ELT podcasts part 2

In my previous review of podcasts I wrote “2014 was a great year for EFL podcasts with several sprouting up like veritable fungi”. Well not only had I missed some, but also more soon sprouted up like…more fungi?

1. Lives of teachers

When I first wrote about podcasts Darren Elliott commented that I’d left his podcast out. I had! I was shocked to discover a TEFL podcast that had existed since 2010 and which started with an interview of Paul Nation as it’s first episode! Elliott has interviewed EFL luminaries like Mike Swan, Scott Thornbury and Jennifer Jenkins. The interviews are great and Darren is an excellent host. My only criticism of this podcast (apart from its irregularity) is the fact that the sound quality is poor at times. It has improved recently but early episodes, particularly at the start, were very quiet. 

this show started in July and hosts Marek Kiczkowiak and Robert McCaul have already managed to pump out 16 episodes. They’ve covered a wide variety of topics such as ‘Chinese v Western education systems’ and ‘product v process approaches to teaching writing’. It’s quite ‘loose’ in style and of the ‘two dudes talking‘ school of podcasting (Marek tells me he doesn’t worry much about editing). At times the sound quality isn’t great (the ‘live from the language show’ episode sounded like it was recorded in a submarine) but I’d still say it’s well worth a listen. I’m a little biased however since they invented me on to one of their recent episodes and let me ramble on for about half and hour. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this podcast. 



The ‘commute’, hosted by Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield‘s (and James Taylor at times*) is a rare beast. A TEFL podcast that isn’t about teaching. Instead they deal with peripheral issues such as ‘photocopiers’ and ‘translation’. My favourite episode so far was their examination of the movie ‘dead poets’ society’ from a teaching perspective. I really enjoyed that one. 

I would say that this podcast has far and away the best production values of these podcasts. It has clear sections, good art, good editing and (usually) great sound quality. They generally avoid teaching but do say in their blurb that it “might crop up A recent interview with Scott Thornbury which touched on ‘example sentences‘ got me wondering if this podcast would be even better if it did actually deal with teaching issues. 

4. SAGE language and linguistics (language testing bytes)

Glenn Fulcher started language ‘bytes podcast’ in 2010 and has so far produced around 20 episodes, so it’s a pretty infrequent. The episodes are also very short with 26 minutes being the longest and 8 the shortest. What it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Glenn is a leading expert in language testing and has guests like Alan Davies and Stephen box discussing issues like ‘aviation English testing’ and ‘rather bias in speaking assessment’. The podcast has been combined with one of Sage’s other podcasts so the language testing is interspersed with ‘child language teaching’ which seems like a rather odd combination to me. 


 
5. EdTechConcerns

Another podcast I really enjoyed was EdTechConcerns. It was also hosted by Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield (with Philip Kerr) and ran for 7 episodes. It focused on the use of tech in education and the potential problems associated with that. It was packed with interesting interviews and was a high quality production. I’m not sure that you can listen to it now as it doesn’t seem to be available. Was it a perhaps a trial run for the TEFL commute? 

  
So there’s been a huge expansion in ELT podcasts but a few seemed to have died off. The minimal pair which I talked about last time and KKCL podcast both now seem defunct. I still think there is room for more so here are a few ideas:


1. A TEFL podcast that focuses on actually getting jobs in various countries. So each episode would be about a certain country/sector including an interview with someone there.

2. Similar to the above but getting a local teacher from different countries to talk about the particular language issues that students they teach have.

3. An Applied linguistics podcast. There’s a lot of good stuff in TEFLology and and language testing bytes but it would perhaps be good to have a podcast about more academic issues with more in-depth discussion -but not too complex as to turn off listeners.

4. Academic reading circle. A podcast that discusses important/interesting ELT articles. One per episode. Even better if they could interview the authors.

5.A TEFL podcast with a female host.*

 Here’s looking forward to a 2016 of great podcasting! 

*As Shaun Wilden notes in the comments, the TEFL commute does in fact have a female host  Ceri Jones. So apologies Ceri!   

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. 



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.

merry xmas and happy new year

2012 is at an end and 2013 is nearly upon us and we still don’t really have a name for this  decade (the teens?). Lexical gaps aside it’s time for a run down of the year. But before that I’d like to post a few thank yous.

I’ve managed to meet loads of interesting people on twitter. This blog, which I started in March, has become more successful than I could have ever imagined so thank you for reading it, thank you for retweeting and thank you for commenting. The blog didn’t get off to a great start when one of the first people to read “is Korea the worst place to teach English” angrily ordered me to remove the post and then blocked me. Things slowly got better though and I had more views in the first week of October than I did for the whole of the first two months. Next, I had more views in the first week of November than the whole of October. A lot of these may have been bots (if the spam is anything to go by) but anyway, I’m grateful to anyone who bothered to read this stuff. The lovely things people have said have really made a difference to me and when I started I never thought it would get anywhere near as many hits as it has done. In this blog I’m going to tell you my dodgiest teaching practices, the most popular posts this year and then my own personal favourite posts. so here goes…
 
Thanks



Maybe writing a thank you post like this is a bit premature for such a small blog but I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to a few people. If you don’t want to read this then skip to the next heading.

Ok,Firstly Dan, who followed me first and told me to “keep writing”, Louise, Susie and Emma for the nice things you’ve said about various posts. Rich and the Ophelia for putting up with being forced to read almost every post before I publish them. Also some people who have given me feedback or ideas about what to write, including (in no order) Steve King, Alistar Logan, Jo (thanks for the mail), Glynis, Amos Paran, Michael Swan, among many others.  
 

I also really want to thank a few people on Twitter who have either encouraged me or given me some interesting things to think about. Specifically Michael Griffin who I think has contributed more to the success of this page than anyone and who seems lovely and is a very welcome  presence on twitter. Others include leo, Alex, laura, sophia,  kevchan, TysonJames, Patrick, Adam, Marisa, Anne (who seems lovely),  Dan, Rachel, John and others too numerous to mention (sorry if I missed you!) all of who have supported this blog in one way or another.

Dodgiest practice award


There have been so many great contenders this year but there can only be one winner.

In at number 3 is BrainGym. Yes exercise is good. No rubbing your temple won’t stimulate your brain buttons. It’s probably the wackiest of them all but only seems to have very limited usage among EFL teachers. also, should teachers actually use it, it probably won’t do kids any harm, as long as they don’t teach the bizarre science that goes with it.

At Number 2 is learning styles. Yes it’s true we all learn in different ways and yes teachers should probably try to get a good mix of activities into lessons, but with no practical application, unproven and contradictory claims about what learning styles are and no proven value for students even if they are taught using their favourite method, -this one’s a real stinker.

But the number 1 spot goes to the method that literally left me with my mouth hanging open. Yes, the 2012 winner is neuro linguistic programming! Practitioners are often a little coy about what NLP entails but when you dig down and find some of the incredible claims it makes, combined with the cost of courses and more importantly the prevalence of NLP in EFL literature (even getting it’s own, sightly dodgy ELTJ article) there can be no doubt about its selection for the top spot.

This year’s “worth a second look” prize goes to “mindfulness“. Despite it’s Buddhist background and the therapy upbringing there might be something to this. I’m not rushing out to buy the incense yet but having students think carefully about things or just having humans in general be more thoughtful is probably a good thing. More importantly for this blog, there seems to be evidence to support it’s efficacy.
 
Top posts

The most read posts on this blog are not necessarily my favourites but here they are at number three is the piece I wrote on Learning styles (300 hits). Number two is the first in the three part “why we need evidence” (450 hits). However, the clear winner with 1,400 hits is a non evidence-based look at the difference between the DELTA and MA. I guess this topic probably has pretty wide appeal unlike a lot of the other stuff.

As to the posts I enjoyed writing the most well, the look at who Vs whom inspired by grammargirl was really enjoyable and I like to think it’s quite a good read. I have a soft spot for the first post on the misuse(?) of the word “literally“. There were others which were a lot of fun, like Dr. Fox, the impostor syndrome and the Pygmalion effect but the one I enjoyed the most was Teacher beliefs in EFL. It’s a bit silly perhaps and doesn’t say all that much but linking penis theft and fan death with EFL is something of an achievement, right?

 
 
2013

It’s been a great year for EBEFL but it’s time to start thinking about next year. I’ve been dealing with a lot of low-hanging fruit this year, like NLP, brain gym and learner styles. I’m hoping to write about guessing from context, stress timing, dogme, over-teaching, skimming and scanning, paraphrasing and academic dishonesty among others. What would you like to see featured in the 2013 posts of Evidence based EFL? Post your ideas below.
 
Thanks for reading!

 

Cargo Cult Science

One of my favourite stories about human beliefs is the story of Cargo Cults described here by Richard Fenyman:

 In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land. (1974)

The whole piece can be heard here and is well worth a listen. He goes on to talk about cargo cult sciences and includes education among them. A cargo cult science is one which emulates science, but only superficially. So is applied linguistics guilty of being a cargo cult science? Well at times it doesn’t cover itself in glory. One thing I’d like to look at here is the use of supporting quotations in EFL writing. 

Citations are obviously necessary and useful for identifying sources and avoiding plagiarism but I’m a bit suspicious of some of the ways in which they are used at times. There follows a couple of examples of what I’m talking about. Recently writing a piece on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) I came across this odd discovery:
 
NLP claims to help achieve excellence of performance in language teaching and learning, improve classroom communication, optimise learner attitudes and motivation, raise self esteem, facilitate personal growth in students and even change their attitude to life (Thornbury 2001:394)

This quote is from a paper by Millrood (2004)  promoting the use of NLP among EFL teachers that appeared in the ELTJ.  What I would like you to think about is, what function does a quote like this serve? If you’re anything like me then you probably innocently assumed that page 394 of Thornbury’s article contains some glowing recommendation of NLP or at least, a description of NLP that mirrors the one above. Here is the reference in question:
More often, the discourse of therapy is interwoven into quai-humanaistic and anodyne concern for personal growth and social hygiene….Personal growth in this kind of discourse [NLP] is often associated with improved self-esteem, but it often seems that it is as much the teacher’s self esteem that is being targeted as that of the students. Unsurprisingly, NLP literature can only be found in the self-help section of book stores…a strong health warning should be attached to therapeutic practices when applied to non-therapeutic situations.

Now I’ve edited this a bit, for example Thornbury doesn’t think this is a reason not to use these kind of techniques, but the tone of the section could be fairly summarised as cautious and critical. There is also a reference to NLP, which does mention some of these factors but it is Thornbury quoting another author, and so should probably appear as  secondary citation. So then what exactly is the function of Millrood’s citation? The first problem is that it only tangentially resembles what Thonbury wrote. Secondly, anyone reading the first article would assume that Thornbury was quite upbeat about NLP which seems quite far from the truth. We could argue that the word “claims” exculpates Millrood, but why include the Thornbury reference in a piece which promotes NLP and is not in any way critical of the practice? The only reason I can think of, is that the name of Thornbury adds a certain weight to the quote. But I’m ready to be corrected.

Another slightly different use of quotation which worries me is when the “authority” has been discredited or is somewhat dubious. Takeo Doi was a Japanese writer who wrote about a ‘uniquely Japanese’ phenomena/emotion called “amae” Doi’s work is highly influential though it’s not at all clear why. He didn’t test his theories nor did he produce any evidence for this unique Japanese behaviour.  Critics suggest that Doi’s ideas are unsubstantiated nihonjinron (theories of Japaneseness): 


 

[Nakae and Doi] rarely supported their arguments with objective information. Instead their claims of Japanese uniqueness are mostly supported by stories episodes personal anecdotes Japanese specific language expressions and other kinds of examples. (Mouer & Sugimoto 1986; Sugimoto & Mouer 1982 quoted in Kubota 1999: 754)

 
Dale (1986) is even more critical of Doi noting that numerous sections failed to appear in the English translation because ‘the logic is so circuitous that, were it included, Doi’s whole programme, with its semantic juggling, would have been exposed to withering ridicule.’ (1986: 132)   The notion at the centre of Doi’s work that since the term amae does not exist in Western languages it must be a uniquely Japanese concept is harshly criticised by Dale who notes that Doi only knew two European languages.

Yet Doi appears unquestioned in TEFL literature. For example, in an article on the ‘the acquisition of communicative style in Japanese’ (1992) Clancey examines conversations between Japanese mothers and children in order to highlight the Japanese communicative style which she characterises as ‘intuitive and indirect especially compared with that of Americans’ (1992:213) Clancey then cites Doi to orientate her theory noting that ‘The Japanese view of communication arises from and contributes to amae.’ (217) Somehow calling upon an authority figure gives this spurious claim more weight and once published, in turn, further retrenches Doi’s position as an authority figure. 


If you only read Clancey or Millrood, you would not have the slightest inkling that there was any contention about the theories of amae or NLP. Putting quotation marks, the name of an expert and a page number in an article like this is the same as wearing coconut headphones, sitting in a bamboo air control tower and waiting for planes.  You might look the part, but you’re missing something crucial.



 references
  

Clancy, P.M (1992) The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese in schieffelin, BB & -Ochs, E. (Eds) Language Socialization Across Culture Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dale, P. (1986) The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness. Oxford: London. Nissan Institute, Croom Helm.

Doi, T. (1981). The Anatomy of Dependence English Tokyo: Kodansha

Kubota, R. (1999) Japanese Culture Constructed by Discourses: Implications for Applied Linguistics Research and ELT TESOL quarterly 33(1), 9-25.

Millrood, R. (2004). The role of NLP in teachers’ classroom discourse. ELT Journal. doi:10.1093/elt/58.1.28-37

Thornbury, S. 2001The unbearable lightness of EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402