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. 



Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching

If you had to teach a lesson in which you were required to discover students’ blood types or star signs in order to tailor lessons according to the results, you might feel that this was both inappropriate and a waste of time. You may even argue that knowing whether your student was a Pisces or O negative couldn’t possibly help her to learn English because star signs, like blood types have no evidence of validity. However, TEFL teachers all over the world routinely and enthusiastically engage in this kind of testing. What is more, this kind of ‘vacuous nonsense’ is promoted by leading TEFL authorities, is the subject of talks at IATEFL, is considered an essential part of CELTA training and is promoted in journals and on the websites of Universities.

Despite having as little credibility as astrology, various brain-based myths exist in education. Perhaps the mostly widely believed myth is the idea that students will learn better when information is presented to them in their preferred learning styles. This myth was believed by 93% of teachers surveyed in one study (Dekker et al 2012), which is a remarkable number when it’s noted that the idea of learning styles has never been shown to be valid.

What happened to OG?
A further problem with the popular VAK model is the choice of senses it opts for. VAK, sometimes known as VAKOG stands for visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory. These would seem to map onto the ‘traditional senses’ humans are supposed to have, but this is not as clear as it first seems. Firstly, there is the question of why the numerous other human senses, such as the sense of balance, pain, time and temperature, are missing. If we are happy to stick with the ‘traditional senses’ then it seems odd that ‘touch’ is substituted by the ‘kinaesthetic’, sense which is the sense of motion. Further, why, in discussions of learner styles are the final OG so often absent? It is perhaps unkind to suggest that the whole concept starts to unravel when we imagine catering for students whose ‘dominant modality’ is ‘smell’ or ‘taste’. This idea has been lampooned by satirical newspaper ‘the onion’ with an article entitled ‘parents of nasal learners, demand odour-based curriculum’. The ludicrousness of this should be enough to stop VAK on its own but no, it trundles on seemingly oblivious to its own internal contradictions.

One dominant style?
Just how a teacher can separate out a student who learns visually and one who learns kinaesthetically is very unclear to me. Websites suggest that kinaesthetic students like to move things around and touch them, but they are still going to have to use their eyes in order to do this. Another classic is to advise them to take notes (note: that is a University web site). The only problem is that anyone taking notes must also be listening and looking at what they’re writing, so how is this kinaesthetic?

Why the VAK love
Coffield et al identified 80 different paradigms, and only one of these was VAK(OG).

· convergers versus divergers

· verbalisers versus imagers

· holists versus serialists

· deep versus surface learning

· activists versus reflectors

· pragmatists versus theorists

· adaptors versus innovators

· assimilators versus explorers

· field dependent versus field independent

· globalists versus analysts

· assimilators versus accommodators

· imaginative versus analytic learners

Now are all these valid or only some? If they’re all valid then don’t we have an ethical duty to find out our students ‘total’ learning styles and test for all 80? If some are more valid, then which ones and who chose and how did they know? There is a clear problem here. Simply put, they can’t all be correct. These criticisms beg the question why are learning styles, particularly the VAK model, so popular?

Personalisation: the Forer effect
Whenever I get taking to another teacher about learning styles, which happens probably a bit too often for their liking, I invariably have a conversation that goes something like this.

Me: …and that’s why learning styles isn’t a particularly useful concept.

Teacher: hmmm yeah I see (pause)…I’m a really visual person, me.

This is all too reminiscent of commenting to a friend, with incredulity on the popularity of horoscopes only to have them nod and say ‘well a Sagittarius would say that.’ Horoscopes might actually give us some insight into the popularity of learning styles. How true would you say the following is about you?

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

Betram Forer’s students were told that this was an evaluation of their personalities but actually they all got exactly the same results. Despite this his students on average rated the feedback as being very accurate (4.26 out of 5). In short, in the same way some people can see the face of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, (how does anyone know what she looked like anyway?) many people can see something relating to themselves in something which could be true of just about anyone. Compare this with a learning styles questionnaire:

1. When I operate new equipment I generally:
a) read the instructions first
b) listen to an explanation from someone who has used it before
c) go ahead and have a go, I can figure it out as I use it

2. When I need directions for travelling I usually:
a) look at a map
b) ask for spoken directions
c) follow my nose and maybe use a compass

3. When I cook a new dish, I like to:
a) follow a written recipe
b) call a friend for an explanation
c) follow my instincts, testing as I cook

4. If I am teaching someone something new, I tend to:
a) write instructions down for them
b) give them a verbal explanation
c) demonstrate first and then let them have a go

5. I tend to say:
a) watch how I do it
b) listen to me explain
c) you have a go

Learning styles questionnaires are similar to horoscopes (and personality tests) because they seem to have been specifically designed for you. We are so fascinated with ourselves that things like this can bypass our critical facilities and head straight to our emotions. “I can’t read maps! I always just follow my nose! OMG! this is totally me! I’m totally kinaesthetic!” the idea of finding out “what kind of person one is” has some eternal and deep appeal’ (Pashler et al 2008:117)

You may also have noticed something missing from this list? It is reminiscent of the famous loaded question “when was the last time you beat your wife?” The questions presuppose you actually have a learning style. There are stubborn folk who won’t play along and chose (above) something like A, B, C, C, B which seems to render the whole thing redundant, but don’t fear, they are labelled multimodal! I love the quote on that site “Multimodal learners can take in information by using more than one method”, -ah! You mean, like all normal human beings! I see.


The problem is basically that if you believe in, and accept something, no stubborn facts are going to change your mind. If your back was cured after you went to a
chiropractor or had acupuncture, then neither explanations of the placebo effect, or the mass of tests that have shown these two things to be ineffective is going to change your mind. Even something as ridiculous as horoscopes where it is clearly and demonstrably unfeasible still has millions of believers and may even affect people’s lives in serious ways. Astrology is in most newspapers daily and it’s ‘experts’ are rich and famous. Astronomers on the other hand have Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. True-believers will just dismiss all of this with a wave of the hand, and the common refrain, ‘Well I think it’s useful.

Back to Front
Trying to publish an article on learning styles is easy, -trying to publish one saying they are not real is much harder. I dunno, call me old fashioned but when you’re suggesting that something exists, isn’t it up to you to provide the evidence? If tell you I saw ghosts or aliens, you’re going to want to see some convincing evidence. In the world of publishing however, unlikely interesting sounding ideas (like precognition) will get you published ten times faster than something pointing out that that probably isn’t true.

This is evidenced by the huge number of articles on learning styles out there. Here is a tiny sample of some of the articles I found relating to EFL and learning styles:

· The learning style preferences of ESL students

· Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom

· Match or mismatch? Learning styles and teaching styles in EFL

· The Relationship between Gender and Learning Styles in Internet-Based Teaching-A Study From Kuwait

· A cross‐cultural study of Taiwanese and Kuwaiti EFL students’ learning styles and multiple intelligences

· The learning styles of Japanese students

· Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice

· Bridging the cultural gap: A study of Chinese students’ learning style preferences

· Assessment of language learning strategies used by Palestinian EFL learners

Not only is it widely accepted, it also seems to be under some kind of magically protection. People write articles, like one recently in ELTJ, listing everything that is wrong with the idea, and then note “but we should continue to use them as they are a useful concept.” (Hatami 2012) Harmer, among others say pretty much the same thing. Call me old fashioned but if we have no evidence something exist, despite decades of testing, we might want to think carefully about what that tells us. If we are to accept their conclusion then Horoscopes and blood types should surely also be part of our teaching arsenal as, ‘it is clear that they […] address self-evident truths’ (Harmer 2007:93) and ‘facilitate appreciation for the divergent approaches to thinking and learning’ (Hatami 2012:2) Whatever that means.

Why we need evidence part 3: expert opinion

What do Rod Ellis, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener all have in common?  Yes, they’re all white, native speakers and they’re all men in a profession which is largely female, non-white and non-native speaker. But that’s not what I was aiming for, no they are all TEFL “authorities”, and probably for whatever reason, the most recognisable names in TEFL/applied linguistics.

This isn’t a post attacking them. I happen to like all of them (though Swan is my fav!) but it’s more to question the authority that is afforded to them. Harmer for example is a teacher and a teacher trainer. Is he better or more capable than any other teacher trainer? -I have no idea and I have no idea how you would even work that out. Like Thornbury, Harmer has written a very influential book which means he’s certainly dedicated and driven, but is what he says any more reliable than a teacher who hasn’t written a book?

I have taken a lot of useful advice from Harmer’s practice of English teaching, as I’m sure many people reading this have. But I’ve also seen him recommend teachers test students to find out their learner styles in spite of the evidence he himself quotes against it. I’ve also seen him promote NLP, without a single word of criticism. though in this regard he’s no different from the British Council which seems to have no problem promoting either of these things.

Thornbury scores more highly in both these areas. He’s also refreshingly honest about some of ELT’s more entrenched practices which have dubious credibility. But one has to wonder about Dogme, criticised, -somewhat ironically perhaps, -by Harmer here.

I like both Harmer and Thornbury’s books, but neither men, as far as I can tell, are researchers. Their words should have just as much (or just as little) weight as anyone else’s. Even if they were researchers and leading researchers in their field, like Rod Ellis for example, it wouldn’t mean that their opinion on a given issue is necessarily the right one. For example Swan takes issue with Ellis’ whole approach to language teaching, -so which expert are we to believe?


In the world of evidence based research, opinion albeit “expert” opinion ranks dead last, (and sometimes doesn’t appear at all) -and for good reason. The whole purpose of research and the power behind the scientific method derives from the fact that people are often wrong, and often wrong about being wrong. The Nobel Prize winning Scientist Linus Pauling serves as an important cautionary tale:
After becoming convinced of its worth, Pauling took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds. Excited by his own perceived results, he researched the clinical literature and published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. He began a long clinical collaboration with the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in 1971 on the use of intravenous and oral vitamin C as cancer therapy for terminal patients (wikipedia)

I’ve highlighted a very important sentence in bold here. Pauling believed that vitamin C really really worked and thus ignored his scientific training. Other people may take this idea seriously because such a famous researcher said it. They may even use an authority figure’s opinion as evidence of a point they are making, -and I have documented cases of that here. This is often called the “argument from authority” for obvious reasons.

But how does someone become an authority? Well, you need to get people to listen to you. Imagine tomorrow I announced that I would be starting a new teaching method called “langology”. I laid out all the precepts and techniques and wrote a passionate call for teachers to use it. How many people would? I’m guessing the number would be zero. Yet there are others who could affect the way thousands of teachers teach, just by doing this, get books published off the back of it and even stir up controversy in the TEFL world. Yet the people who suggest new theories or give advice about best practice are really only giving you their opinions.

Of course, opinions may come in a range of probabilities depending on the claims being made, but we should never forget that they are, no matter how accurate they sound, just opinions. And as such, the opinion of say Dr. James Ascher (the Dr. appears on all the TPR stuff) that TPR is good for kinesthetic students, is exactly and entirely as valid as my saying that “langology” will not only make you fluent in any language in a matter of weeks but it will also make you more successful, handsome and probably slightly taller. And importantly should be given exactly that much weight. This is unlikely to happen though, but why?

I can’t really answer that question but I would guess that it has something to do with the Halo effect.  This is what makes us think a celebrity giving us insurance advice is worth listening to or what leads to better looking students getting higher marks for an essay. Also perhaps it relates to how easily we are convinced by authority figures. Either way, it’s something we should be on our guard against. The next time someone at work, round the water cooler, mentions that “Harmer is big on drilling!” or that Ellis doesn’t think contrastive analysis is useful,  remember that in the absence of evidence, this is just an opinion.

Learning styles: facts and fictions

This article originally appeared in Modern English Teacher, volume 21 No.4.  Thanks to Dave Francis for allowing me to reproduce it here.  
 
 Learning styles (sometimes ‘learner styles’ hereafter LS) are pervasive in education and there are far too many articles examining the learning styles of various groups of students to reproduce here. However a quick search of Google scholar will bring up numerous articles examining the various LS of various groups, from Iranian freshmen to Taiwanese and Kuwaiti students. However, for the amount of attention they receive there is very little evidence of their efficacy:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated (Pasler et al 2008:117).
 This essay will examine LS in the EFL literature and question whether they actually provide a useful tool for aiding students language learning or whether they are merely a pseudo-scientific distraction. Firstly, This essay will examine the theory of learning styles, focusing on the VAK model in particular. It will then examine references to LS in a small sample of EFL literature. Finally some of the problems with the theories of LS will be outlined.
 
What are learning styles?
The basic premise of LS is that ‘individuals learn in different ways'(Nel 2008:51).  There is a large body of literature related to the various types, whether they be visual, audio or, kinesthetic, (VAK) left brained or right brained, concrete or communicative, levelers or sharpners, plungers or non-committers, convergers or divergers, the list, while not endless is certainly long!  The thrust of the various theories is that if a teacher caters to a student’s particular LS then said student’s learning will be enhanced. (Thornbury 2006)  Therefore a teacher should prepare a variety of approaches when introducing material in order to cater for these disparate needs.  
There does appear to be some conceptual confusion (Nel 2008) with regard to this term. Whereas for some, LS simply indicates the things different students prefer to do in order to learn,  For example, student A may use flash cards and student B may like writing lots of notes. For others LS indicates a scientific theory relating to ‘the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others’ (Dunn & Griggs, 1988:3). There is quite a difference here between that which is preferential and that which is biologically constrained. This paper will specifically deal with latter of these two notions, though it is possible that the vagueness of the concept has actually aided its popularity, as a wide range of activities can be grouped under one catch-all term.   

weak and strong forms

It is useful to divide LS into two versions, for the sake of criticism. The first can be termed the ‘weak’ version in which it is posited that all students learn in different ways and while one student can find a activity enjoyable or an explanation clear, another student can find the same activity dull and the same explanation confusing (Pashler et al 2008:116). Also, as noted earlier, students have their own favourite ways of learning. All of this is relatively uncontroversial and probably quite familiar to most teachers. The ‘strong’ version however moves from this position to suggesting that not only do students learn differently, but that that difference is attributable to a certain biological difference within each student. Furthermore this difference can be reliably discovered through testing (often in the form of self-report questionnaires)  and that a teacher can then target lessons to suit the students particular LS which will in turn accelerate a student’s ability to learn. In this version, LS is presented as a complete and well defined theory. This view of learning is as problematic as it is popular.  
 

References to LS

The weak form can sometimes be used as a wedge to introduce the strong form. Alternatively, criticism can be deflected by appealing to the more general and ‘common sense’ ideas of the weak form while the strong form is pushed as being a legitimate technique. An example of this can be seen in ‘the practice of English language teaching’ in which Harmer, despite noting that the claims of this theory have not ‘been subjected to any kind of rigorous scientific evaluation'(2007:93)  suggests carrying out computer based tests of students’ multiple intelligences. Harmer notes that the Coffield study has severely criticised learning styles including the following quote ‘[we] advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments’ (Coffield et al 2004:140) Yet continues to promote learning styles claiming that they are useful for making teachers aware  of  ‘self-evident truths, – namely that different students react differently to different stimulus’ (2007:93). While it may be the case that learners learn differently, it does not follow that therefore LS are the answer to this. nor is it at all clear why teachers need to be made aware of things which are ‘self evident’. The same tact is employed elsewhere in the section:
         It may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all – or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group (2007:89)
 Understanding that students are individuals is quite a different thing from employing specific LS tests and classroom practices. In the above quote Harmer refers to evidence based criticisms of LS and yet dismisses these criticism, without evidence, merely by asserting that ‘this is not the case’.  
 
Thornbury is more damning of LS noting that there is little evidence ‘that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that preference in one area predicts success in language learning.’ (2006:116-7) Yet despite Thornbury’s  caution LS are presented uncritically in a large amount of EFL literature, or criticisms are brushed away, as with  Nel (2008) who after acknowledging the conceptual confusion in LS and listing criticism of LS, then goes on to suggest, similarly to Harmer, that teachers should still test their students to find out their LS in order to ‘maximise the learning opportunities of their students'(2008:57). However, as the next section will show, even if we accept LS as a legitimate theory, it is hard to see how it’s implementation would actually aid students learning in any way. Ellis is equally critical of the research noting that his original conclusion of their limited worth did not require updating for the second edition, published 14 years later. He also apologies for the lengthy treatment of LS noting that this merely reflected the huge amount of “attention it has received from researchers”(2008:671-2).
 The evidence problem
There is very little credible research to support LS (Coffield et al 2004:140). Specifically in the field of L2 acquisition Ellis notes that there is uncertainty over whether “any useful generalisations can be based on the research undertaken to date”(2008:669 ) Pashler et al. (2008:116)  in relation to research on the subject which reaches an acceptable level of credibility note that :
 
only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence that meet this standard, and we therefore conclude that the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings… several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis
 
Despite this there is a very lucrative industry built around testing and providing materials for different learner types. Another unfortunate trend as noted is, when faced with disappointing results, or criticism of LS,  some in the EFL world seem reluctant to accept them, possibly noting that there is not enough research yet or that the ideas are still, on some level, useful.
 
It is also worth noting that what I have mainly described (VAK) is just one version of the LS theory. Coffield et al note that ‘learning style researchers do not speak with one voice’ (2004:140) For example is a pragmatist the opposite of a theorist or a reflector?  It depends on which theory you choose. The proliferation of theories, all lacking direct comparability and each with their own technical terms, ‘is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialise in this field.’ (Coffield 2004:136)
 Another issue is, as Pashler et al (2008) point out, the subject being taught may well define which approach to the content is best. Whereas they give geometry as an example, for EFL perhaps the idea of a listening lesson for non-audio learners would be sufficient to highlight the absurdness of LS. Or perhaps trying to think of ways to teach reading to non-visual learners.  But if moving around the classroom with bits of text or reading out loud comes to mind, I have to admit I despair for our profession.
 
The feasibility problem
Another problem with LS is that even if it were a viable theory, it is doubtful that it would be of any use to use in the EFL field. As Harmer notes (2001:90) different intelligences mean some learning tasks might ‘not be appropriate for all of our students.’  He then suggests activities which might appeal to different types. There is something of a catch 22 here though which seems to remove all the supposed benefits of the approach. If we imagine a class with three learners, with LS X,Y and Z doing an activity targeted at style X will perhaps be less than optimal for Y and Z. so any benefit of supposed accelerated learning is instantly lost when we are inclusive. Any benefit gleaned from knowing the student’s LS would be lost. We could divide the students up by their individual LS as we divide students up by ability now but the cost of ‘interventions built around learning styles’ would be huge as students would need to be tested, customized materials made and teacher’s retrained. (Pashler et.al 2008 116) And how would we know which version of LS to use in the first place?   Can we ethical test students for their optimum VAK LS while ignoring their right-brain/left brain potential?  But that’s not all, some students may, according to the theory, have two LS or a mix of all 3 (in the VAK model). You maybe for example be 30% visual and 70% kinaesthetic.  If the purpose of this knowledge is to inform a teachers about the method of delivery it is hard to see how it is anything but general to the point of useless. Even if LS could be proved to be effective, the benefits would have considerable to make up for these costs. Is it not infinitely more sensible to spend this time teaching all these students language in as engaging a way as is possible? 

Conclusion

Students have a limited amount of time in the classroom. We um and ah over whether to schedule practice tests in class time, whether to use a whole hour for review and whether the students are getting enough practice time. Despite this we seem perfectly happy to throw away lesson time on something which is untested and probably completely useless. Pashler et al (2000:117) recommend (as Coffield et al cited earlier) due to the problems citing in this essay, use of LS at present is an ‘unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.’
 There is also the question of the massive amounts of research time that is wasted on this kind of thing. Not only the researchers’ and their subjects time, but the time of the trainee teacher, keenly devouring article after article on ‘getting the best out of kinaesthetic learners.’ Then there are the hours wasted by the likes of Coffield et al and Pashler et al debunking these ideas only to leave us back where we started knowing no more about teaching than we did before.  This time could have been spent teaching students more language, researching better ways for students to retain language or reading articles which actually tell us something of use. Not only are we wasting our student’s time but we’re also making ourselves look foolish. Worse, we risk the students, who may well also be teachers, uncritically adopting these ideas and spreading them in their home nations.

References

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K., (2004) ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : a systematic and critical review’ London; Learning and Skills Network.

 Dunn, R. and Griggs, S. 1988. Learning Styles: Quiet Revolution in American Schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals


Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford:Oxford University Press.

 Harmer J.2007 The Practice of English language Teaching Essex: Pearson Education Limited

 Nel, C. 2008. ‘Learning styles’. In Griffiths, C. 2008 (Ed.). The good language learner: A tribute to Joan Rubin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 Pashler, H.,  McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. 2008 ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and evidence’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest9/3, 105-119

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A to Z of ELT Oxford: Macmillan 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prediction

Imagine an alternative universe in which a large number of teachers, experts and textbooks promoted a model of teaching which was untrue.  Imagine that despite ample evidence of the flaws of this approach,  in the form of books and journal articles, teachers and publishers just carried on teaching it, -all the time taking students money for this “education”.   Unfortunately, many EFL teachers live in that world where reading skills are concerned.  I’m hoping to write more about reading skills, but this entry will only deal with prediction.

Prediction is a popular EAP activity.  One of the key principles of reading listed by Harmer is prediction.  He notes that things like the title can help students to form opinions relating to the work before they begin reading (2007).  Grellet (1990: 56)  adds that, “reading is an activity involving constant guesses that are later rejected or confirmed”.  The British council note that ” Prediction is a valuable stage in…reading activities. It mirrors L1 skills use, where predictions form an important base for being able to process language in real time.”(online)  Prediction is an idea that comes from one model of reading, “this model of how people read is called the “psycholinguist guessing game model”(Grabe 2009:102). 

Grabe makes two important points about this model of reading.  The first is that it is very popular among “applied linguists” and the second is that “it has been proven wrong in its predictions by accumulating evidence for the past 20 years” (Grabe 2009:102).   Grabe hammers the point firmly home noting that this approach “has no empirical validity and is problematic”(Grabe 2009:103)  adding “One needs only to pick up a newspaper in an unknown language to verify that background knowledge and prediction are severely constrained by the need to know vocabulary and structure.” (1991: 380)  

 20 years of being wrong and we still use it?  Still teachers may not be familiar with articles in obscure second language reading journals and Grabes book only came out in 2009.    If only an article had appeared in something more accessible, like the ELTJ a little earlier, say around 1996…….if only!

In 1996, Amos Paran in an article called “reading in EFL facts and fictions” published in the ELTJ bemoans the use of the “psycholinguistic model” of Reading in EAP courses, noting that it “was never accepted as an important model in the first place “(1996:29) and adds:

                As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how the Goodman and Smith view of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

A point made perhaps more worrying by fact the paper was first presented at IATEFL in 1992.  Despite this, I can still pick up textbooks, such as Oxford’s “well read” which include, in Swan’s words, “the standard battery of exercises designed to train students in ‘skimming’, ‘scanning’, ‘predicting’, ‘inferring’ and so forth, that one finds in textbook after textbook” (2008:266)

Swan, beating Paran by 8 years, noted another problem with this model, namely the assumption that non-native speakers lack the ability to predict.  With his usual finesse for cutting through bullshit he writes:



               One of the comprehension skills which we now teach foreigners is that of predicting. It has been observed that native listeners/readers make all sorts of predictions about the nature of what they are about to hear or read, based on their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with the speaker or writer, and other relevant features. Armed with this linguistic insight (and reluctant to believe that foreigners, too, can predict), we ‘train’ students in ‘predictive strategies’. (For instance, we ask them to guess what is coming next and then let them see if they were right or wrong.) But I would suggest that if a foreigner knows something about the subject matter, and something about the speaker or writer, and if he knows enough of the language, then the foreigner is just as likely as the native speaker to predict what will be said. And if he predicts badly in a real-life comprehension task (classroom tasks are different), it can only be for one of two reasons. Either he lacks essential background knowledge (of the subject matter or the interactional context), or his command of the language is not good enough. In the one case he needs information, in the other he needs language lessons. In neither case does it make sense to talk about having to teach some kind of ‘strategy’. (Swan 1985: 8)

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting our students’ time?

references

British Council (2012) Prediction.  In teachingEnglish. Retrieved July 6 2012, from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/prediction

Grabe, R (2009) reading in a second language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

Grabe, W. (1991) Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, no 3, 375-406

Grellet, F. (1990) Developing reading skills Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harmer, J. (2007a) How to teach English Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Swan, M. (2008) Talking Sense about Learning Strategies RELC Journal 2008 39: 262 261-273

Swan, M (1985) a critical look at the communicative approach 1 (1), ELT Journal 39/1, pp.2-12