P is for Push

11 07 2010

On my MA Methods course I’ve been pushing the notion of ‘push’. ‘Being pushed’ (I argue) is a precondition for effective learning. In order to progress, learners need to be challenged to go beyond their immediate comfort zone; they need to be coerced into extending their present level of competence.  Otherwise, there is a danger that they will simply mark time as language learners, or even – to use a now fairly discredited term – fossilize.

Merrill Swain (left) along with other plenary speakers at last year's JALT Conference

The term ‘push’ is borrowed from a comment that Merrill Swain made as long ago as 1985, in proposing what became known (in contradistinction to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis) as the Output Hypothesis. If you remember, Krashen had argued that comprehensible input alone is a sufficient condition for second language acquisition to occur, with the proviso that the input should be pitched a little above the learner’s present state of competence – what Krashen dubbed “input + 1”.

Swain, on the other hand, argued that, while input is necessary, it is insufficient. Instead (or as well),  the learner needs to produce language, and not only produce,  but be “pushed towards the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently and appropriately”.  She adds that “being ‘pushed’ in output … is a concept that is parallel to that of the i + 1 of comprehensible input”.

One reason for this is – as I point out in An A-Z - “being pushed to produce language puts learners in a better position to notice the ‘gaps’ in their language knowledge”, encouraging them to ‘upgrade’ their existing interlanguage system. And, as they are pushed to produce language in real time and thereby forced to automate low-level operations by incorporating them into higher-level routines, it may also contribute to the development of fluency.

So, what can teachers do to provide this extra ‘push’? Here are a few ideas:

1. Rather than accepting one- or two-word replies to questions, insist on more elaborated utterances, in the spirit of: “Ok, that was good. Now give me a full sentence.” Or, “Ok, say that again, but include two facts, not just one”.

2. Repeat tasks: research suggests that performance generally improves when learners repeat a speaking task. The second or third time round, ‘raise the bar’, e.g. ‘This time, do it from memory, without your notes’. Or, ‘This time do it in half the time’. If doing the same task seems like a chore, add variety by changing the partner for each ‘take’.

3. Public performance: Whereas pair and group work is great for task rehearsal, it’s also easy for learners to under-perform in this setting, especially when out of ear-shot of the teacher. Performing the task to the whole class, or publicly reporting on the outcome of the task, adds an element of formality that often encourages greater attention to accuracy. And knowing that they may be called upon to report or perform has a useful washback effect on the level of engagement during the groupwork itself.

4. Encourage learners to go beyond their present competence by incorporating novel language items into their performance. For example, if a role play involves making requests, establish the request forms that the learners are already comfortable with, then top up by teaching some new ones. Ask individuals to choose at least one new form, and to write it on a piece of paper, which they hold during the role play, and which they relinquish once it’s been used.   Alternatively, a cuisenaire rod can represent the targeted form – it helps if it is something physical that serves to jog their memory when the time is right.

5. Increase memory load. For example, write targeted words, expressions or structures on the board, in preparation for a speaking task, such as a class survey. As the learners perform the task, selectively erase the material from the board, placing greater demands on their memory in an incremental fashion.

6. Change the mode: for example, learners summarise a groupwork discussion in written form. Or they perform a dialogue that they have first scripted.  Or a rehearsed dialogue is then filmed. Or a Powerpoint presentation is then performed. And so on.


Swain, M. (1985) ‘Communicative competence:some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development’. In Gass, S.and Madden, C. (Eds.) Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House

F is for First Lessons

4 07 2010

Students doing pair work in the first lesson of the beginners group

The Methods course that I am teaching this summer has just embarked on a short round of teaching practice classes. To help the teachers plan their first lesson, I pulled a few old favourites out of the drawer. They are roughly divided into those that have a mainly interpersonal function (such as forging a collaborative group dynamic) and those that are primarily diagnostic (identifying strengths, weaknesses, interests, and styles). Feel free to post variants, additions – or attributions (apart from the few I dreamed up myself, such as the star warmer, I have no idea who invented the rest).

1.         Interpersonal

•          My name is… and I like… A memory game. Go round the class: the first person completes the formula “My name is …and I like ….” (Or “…and I’ve always wanted to…” or whatever seems appropriate for the level).  The  next person reports this (“Her name is …and she likes….”) and then adds their own name and something they like, and so on, each person reporting on what everyone else has said, before adding something new.

•          Five-pointed star: Learners each draw a five pointed star. On the first point they write a person’s name that is important to them; on the second a place name; on the third a number; on the fourth a date; and on the fifth a sign, symbol or logo.  They then get into pairs or small groups, show each other their stars, and ask and answer questions about them.

•          Find someone who…: Students circulate, with prepared questions, and then report to class. A useful variation is where everyone (anonymously) supplies an interesting fact about themselves on a slip of paper: these are then collected and one student dictates them to the class (“This person has been to Hawaii…” etc). The dictated sentences are then used as the basis for the Q & A milling activity.

•          Teacher interview: In open class, question a selection of students individually re jobs, English learning experience, mainly, about 5 minutes each, very conversational. Ask them to do same to you, but first to prepare questions in pairs (writing). Check questions; write erroneous ones on to board. Class check. They then ask you questions. In pairs/groups they write up a summary about you. Monitor writing and share any interesting errors. (If there are several teachers – as in the case of a shared teaching practice class – each can be interviewed in rotation by different groups, and then summaries compared).

2.         Diagnostic

•          Topic ranking: students in groups brainstorm topics they are interested in and would like to talk about in class. Feedback on to board in the form of a list.  Re-group students, and each group has to choose a short-list of, say, three. Feedback on to board. Then have an open class vote (show of hands) for the final three.

•          Questionnaire/survey: Prepare a questionnaire/survey about students preferred learning styles and activities. E.g. Do you prefer to work a) individually; b) in pairs; c) in groups; d) as a whole class; e) doesn’t matter?  Students complete individually, then discuss either in groups or open class. (Students could also prepare the questions themselves, working in pairs or small groups).

•          Activity smorgasbord: Prepare a sequence of short activities of different types, e.g. game, pair discussion, group paragraph writing, listening task (eg. describe and draw) etc. Each activity should last no longer than 5 minutes. Then hand out questionnaire listing the activity types and ask learners to rate them (e.g. like, didn’t like, neutral). Then compare findings in small groups and report.

•          Free discussion: generate an open class chat about a theme of common interest to all (e.g. the best/worst things about this town). Using your best dinner party host skills draw students out, and keep the focus off heavy correction. If/Once the discussion gets going let it run. Then put sts into pairs/threes to write a summary of what was said  e.g. as if for an absent class member. Monitor and correct. Note any interesting language stuff that emerges.

•          Discussion cards: Prepare some discussion topics on cards. For the first day, these could focus on language learning experiences and preferences.  Number the back of the cards. Place these face down on the floor at the front of the room. Students form groups: a representative from each group takes a card, returns to the group; the group discusses the topic until it’s exhausted; then they take another card. Groups report on their discussions at the end.

T is for Taboo

27 06 2010

What have the following got in common?

  • mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof
  • father expressionless or relaxed in trying circumstances
  • mother comforting young children
  • modern Native Americans working on ranches, in menial jobs, or doing construction work
  • people in Africa wearing native dress or wearing westernised version of African costumes
  • Hispanic young people always working on second-hand cars
  • old ladies with twenty cats
  • modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses

They are all images that a leading US publishing group advises its educational authors and illustrators to avoid, since they are likely to reinforce gender, racial and ageist stereotypes and thereby incur the wrath of government watchdogs.  Likewise, the following topics (among many others) are taboo in US textbooks: conflict with authority, controversial people (such as Malcolm X), creation myths, divorce, euthanasia, illegitimacy, and lying. This time, the prohibitions are motivated – not by a liberal multicultural agenda – but by right-wing attempts to promote and protect traditional American values. Either way, educational publishing is subject to massive self-censorship, due to a combination of “left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism”, according to Diane Ravitch in her (2003) book The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. Ravitch documents the way that

…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right.  Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.  (p. 96)

In ELT publishing the ‘verbal hygiene’ that publishers impose on themselves is motivated less by a wish to assert multicultural values than by the need to avoid offending potential markets. ELT publishers do have strict guidelines aimed at promoting ‘inclusiveness’, especially with regard to their treatment of women, and of different ethnicities and cultures. Nevertheless, the marketing imperative “means that the progressive and ethical dimension is all too often undermined by the perceived need to sanitize content” , as John Gray (2002) points out. The sanitizing process is enshrined in the lists of taboo topics that publishers provide their writers, such as the so-called PARSNIP topics: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. It’s this ‘parsnip policy’ that, arguably, imbues ELT books with a certain blandness – what Mario Rinvolucri once characterised as “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials” (1999, p. 14).

Of course, there are other reasons that publishers (and teachers) might wish to avoid controversial subject matter: for example, that it might disturb, annoy or distract the learners. This argument is typically advanced by those who argue that the language teacher’s job is to teach language, not content. There are others who, like Ravitch, might counter that any censorship of educational materials “should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas” (p. 159).

Given the competing goals of values education, language teaching, and marketing – is the content of ELT coursebooks as good as it will ever be?


Gray, J.  2002. ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. 2003.  The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.

Rinvolucri, M. 1999. ‘ The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect’. Folio, 5, 2, 12-14

C is for Curriculum

20 06 2010

I’ve been co-teaching on a curriculum design course these last two weeks, and the question has inevitably come up as to what’s the difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. The A-Z has this to say:

The terms curriculum and syllabus are often used interchangeably, but it is useful to distinguish between them. The curriculum is concerned with beliefs, values and theory (all of which may be captured in some kind of “mission statement”). The syllabus represents the way these beliefs, values and theories are realised in terms of a step-by-step instructional programme. The curriculum is, therefore, both larger than the syllabus, and more general.

The distinction seems to be born out in the corpus data. A quick check of their respective collocations shows that (in US English) syllabus very often collocates with course, whereas curriculum hardly ever does. On the other hand, curriculum collocates with school much more than syllabus does. In British English, syllabus is often associated with particular subjects (language, mathematics, sciences) whereas curriculum collocates with national, core … and hidden (more on that one later).

However, this distinction between the general and the specific, and between principles and practice, is not one that all writers on the subject adhere to.

David Nunan

David Nunan, for example, argues that the curriculum is the totality of what actually happens in an educational setting:

Traditionally “curriculum” is taken to refer to a statement or statements of intent – the “what should be” of a course of study. In this work a rather different perspective is taken. The curriculum is seen in terms of what teachers actually do; that is, in terms of “what is”, rather than “what should be.” (1988, p. 1)

According to this view, the curriculum is instantiated in classroom practice, whether or not this practice actually reflects the (often lofty) intentions of program designers and materials writers.   Douglas Barnes (1976) makes a similar point, with reference to mainstream education:

When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers …  A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution .. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (p. 14).

Applebee (1996) extends this line of thought to argue that we need to re-construe the concept of curriculum, not as disembodied ‘knowledge-out-of-context’, but  as  ‘knowledge-in-action':  “A curriculum provides domains for conversation, and the conversations that take place within those domains are the primary means of teaching and learning” (p. 37). He adds: “If curriculum is approached in terms of the significant conversations into which students enter… the emphasis form the beginning will be on knowledge-in-action”. (p. 118).  This echoes Neil Mercer’s (1995) notion of teaching and learning as being a ‘long conversation’, as well  as being a key tenet of Dogme philosophy, i.e. that language teaching should be ‘conversation-driven’.

Nevertheless, the notion persists that a curriculum articulates an institution’s principles and goals, made operational through syllabuses, lesson plans, etc.  At this point you may be wondering what the curriculum of your own school or college is. Where is it written down? Is there a ‘mission statement’? Who wrote it? Who has access to it?  And, if there isn’t one, shouldn’t there be?

Of course, it is often the case that the curriculum is implicit.  In the case of public-sector schools, the curriculum of the school may simply be that of the education ministry itself, and it will be embodied in such things as acts of parliament, policy statements, and official bulletins. These in turn will determine the nature of public examinations and the way materials, such as coursebooks, are specified and prescribed.

In fact, examinations and officially approved coursebooks offer insights as to the real values that the curriculum designers espouse, irrespective of how these are actually articulated. This ‘hidden curriculum’ can often be inferred by “reading between the lines”. Thus the blurb on a coursebook – or the publicity for a language school – might profess a communicative methodology, but at the same time the small print will extol its ‘step-by-step grammatical syllabus’. Likewise, a school’s website might promote its internationalist and globalised values while elsewhere boasting that it employs only native-speaker teachers. The very fact that a school uses coursebooks at all might suggest that it subscribes to a reproductive, ‘delivery model’ of education, rather than a  critical or transformative one.   More insidiously, an institution may claim to be commited to educational excellence, but in reality be nothing more than a lucrative exam prep factory.

A useful exercise might be to ask your colleagues: What is our curriculum? That is to say, what is it that we value, and to what extent are our practices consistent with these values?


Applebee, A. 1996. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press.

Barnes, D. 1976. From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.

Mercer, N. 1995. The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Multilingual Matters.

Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.

I is for Identity

13 06 2010

In one of a series of moving articles in the New York Review of Books, the historian Tony Judt, terminally ill with motor-neuron disease and reflecting on his life and work, admits to a feeling of never having had a narrowly defined sense of identity —  whether geographical, political or religious.  There is no single social grouping that he strongly identifies with. But this is not a source of anxiety. On the contrary:  “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another”.

Having myself lived most of my life “on the edge”, one way or another, I share something of Judt’s preference for  rootlessness. I’ve lived twice as many years away from my country of birth as I ever lived in it. And, despite having been granted Spanish citizenship, I don’t feel a strong affinity for my elective new ‘home’. (The test may come if New Zealand and Spain face one another in the World Cup!)  On the downside, however, this reluctance to forge an alternative Spanish identity probably accounts, in part at least, for my less than native-like fluency in Spanish.

Because, as I point out in An A-Z, the notion of identity has now moved to the very heart of second language learning theory.  As Norton and Toohey (2002) argue: “Language learning engages the identities of learners because language itself is not only a linguistic system of signs and symbols; it is also a complex social practice in which the value and meaning ascribed to an utterance are determined in part by the value and meaning ascribed to the person who speaks” (p. 115).  Becoming a member of what Lave and Wenger (1991) term ‘a community of practice’ assumes the capacity – and willingness – to identify, and be identified, with the  members of the target group (and, by extension, to relinquish membership, even temporarily, of one’s own group).

In fact, a post-modern gloss of Tony Judt’s condition (and of mine) is not that we have no identity but that we have multiple – and often contesting – identities, and it’s the business of the second language acquisition project to find a match between an existing identity and the target one.  This at least is the thinking that underlies the concept of ‘the ideal L2 self’ as promoted by Zoltan Dörnyei in his compelling new theory of motivation: “If the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ‘ideal L2 self‘ is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves” (2009, p.  29). But being an ‘edge person’ means that this ideal L2 self is elusive.

In the absence of having the identity of a real or potential L2 user, one possibility might simply be to manufacture one. This strategy, at least, seems to underlie the practice, in Suggestopedia, of assigning learners new, L2 speaking, identities, including giving them new names and biographies.  Larsen-Freeman (2000) comments that this is based on the assumption “that a new identity makes students feel more secure and thus more open to learning” (p.82).

Olivetti Oh, my Second Life avatar

More recently, the construction of an idealised identity is at the heart of computer gaming and of virtual environments such as Second Life (SL). My avatar in SL (see picture), for example, allows me to interact there in ways that  – arguably – out-perform my ‘real life’ personality.  Does online identity creation offer advantages to language learners, then?

James Paul Gee would argue most emphatically that it does. In his book What Video Games have to Teach us about Language and Literacy (2007) he suggests that, by allowing gamers to customise their virtual identities, video games “encourage identity work and reflection on identities in clear and powerful ways” (p. 46). Such identity work is crucial, he claims, since “all learning in all semiotic domains requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identities to the new one” (p. 45). Video games and virtual environments would seem to offer learners the opportunity to design ‘ideal language-using selves’.  The question remains, of course, as to whether these games and these environments provide the kind of language-using opportunities that these ideal selves can usefully exploit.


Dörnyei, Z., and Ushioda, E. (eds.) 2009. Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Multilingual Matters.

Gee, J.P. 2007. What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.) OUP.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. CUP.

Norton, B., and Toohey, K.  2002.  ‘Identity and language learning’.  In Kaplan , R.  (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics.  OUP.

G is for Gerund

6 06 2010

from Palmer's New Method Grammar 1938

I regularly rebuke my MA students for using the term gerund in their language analysis assignments, pointing out that in An A-Z, for example, there’s no entry for ‘gerund’. I am not alone, of course: neither Swan nor Murphy use the term in their various grammars, preferring, like me, the (somewhat ungainly) term ‘-ing form’. Most current coursebooks (e.g. Global)  follow suit.

Why this antipathy to the poor old gerund?  How else, after all, can we distinguish between the very different functions of -ing words, as in (1)  I went running (where running is more verb-like, hence a participle) and (2) Running keeps you fit (where running is more noun-like, and hence a gerund)?

Well, if only it were that easy. In fact, there seem to be a whole range of -ing form uses that cover a spectrum from total verby-ness to total nouny-ness (not to mention total adjectivey-ness), and with lots of  instances that are somewhere in between.  Consider these examples (from the British National Corpus) and you tell me which are gerunds and which are participles:

She remembers running up the aisle

a £17,000 flood after the royal taps were left running.

A HUSBAND and wife were convicted yesterday of running a brothel

I knew that my horse was capable of running well

We love running, so why not save on wedding cars?

Running a large application on a PC is fine

Mary waited and watched her running down the road.

Tomorrow Mr Foggerty is taking them running

there was a running battle between police and conservationists

accusations that its trains have suddenly started running late

“The only way you’re going to hurt me is by running away from me,”

The sort of things they do in the wild, running , jumping, pirouetting

As  Swan (2005) notes: “The distinction between ‘participles’ and ‘gerunds’ is not always clear-cut, and it can sometimes be difficut to decide which term to use” (p. 270).  While for Close (1981) the difference doesn’t really matter: “Whether the – ing form of the verb is what is traditionally called a present participle or a gerund is often an academic question, of no great importance.”

(By way of an aside, the difference did once matter, according to Sweet (1892). Historically there were two distinct forms for what we now call the present participle and the gerund: e.g. OE bindende and bindan, both meaning “binding”. By the Late Middle period changes in the suffix had narrowed the difference to bindinge and binding, a difference that effectively collapsed in the early Modern period, although the gerund still required an article: He thanked me for the binding of the book.)

Of arguably more importance, from a teaching point of view, is this: What is the rule that governs the choice of verb form – either -ing or infinitive – after particular verbs? Most grammars assume that there is none, that it’s simply an issue of collocation. Palmer (1938), in comparing these two sentences:

1. He begins to speak.

2. He stops speaking.

asks  “Why do we have to use the infinitive in one case and the gerund in the other?  Well, nobody knows what the real reason is, so we shall not try to find it”  ( p. 173)!

There are other grammarians who are less timid. Yule (1998), for example, argues that the choice is semantic, and that the to form (as in He begins to speak) connotes more verby-ness than nouny-ness, while the -ing form is just the opposite. In short, he distinguishes between ‘noun-like events’ and ‘verb-like acts’.  Thus, in the sentences:

1. He  considered going to the beach.

2. She suggested going to the museum.

the occurence of the verbs with an -ing complement “may be explained by thinking of the object of consider and suggest as an event (something more noun-like) than as the performance of an act” (p. 218). Whereas, in:

3. She told him to go without her.

4. He wanted her to go too.

“the focus is on the go act, and not on the event. The agency or performer of the act, is also mentioned in each case” (p. 219). Yule goes on to show how the following pairs exhibit the above  semantic differences:

5. I like to box/to dance/to swim/to ski.

6. I like boxing/dancing/swimming/ skiing.

“In [5], the speaker has to be talking about herself as agent performing the acts indicated in the complement. In [6], it is the event, not the act, that is the focus of attention, with the possibility existing that the speaker herself is not a performer in the events mentioned” (p. 220).

What do you think of Yule’s rule? Does it hold up over a range of verbs? And, more to the point, is it teachable?


Close, R. 1981.  English As a Foreign Language (3rd edition). George, Allen & Unwin.

Palmer, H.  1938.  The New Method Grammar. Longman, Green and Co.

Swan, M. 2005. Practical English Usage (3rd edition). Oxford University Press.

Sweet, H. 1892. Short Historical English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

Yule, G. 1998. Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

F is for Flow

30 05 2010

Ozbek, the publisher’s rep, got on to the subject of ‘flow’. He was driving me from the airport into the centre of Istanbul, and it turned out that he was currently researching a Masters dissertation on motivation. He was attracted by the idea that intrinsic motivation is located in the present moment, and reaches a peak when you are so absorbed in a task that time seems to slow down or even to stop altogther (akin to what the art critic Michael Fried calls ‘presentness’, as in “Presentness is grace”).  This is also what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.  It is the kind of ‘peak experience’ often reported by artists or sportspeople, when there is a perfect match between performance challenge and available skill. Here’s how a world-class figure skater describes a typical flow experience (from Csikszentmihalyi 1993):

I knew every single moment; in fact I even remember going down into a jump and this is awful, but thinking, “Oh gosh, this is so real!  I’m so clear in my thoughts.”  There was just a real clarity to it all… I felt such control of everything, every little movement, I was very aware, you know, like what was on my hand, I could feel my rings, I could feel everything, and I felt I had control of anything (p. 182).

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow experiences have the following characteristics:

1. they have concrete goals and manageable rules.

2. they make it possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities

3. they provide clear information about how well we are doing

3. they screen out distractions and make concentration possible

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993: xiv)

I had read about flow in the 1990s, and had been attracted by the notion that a task can be intrinsically motivating when one’s available skills are perfectly calibrated with the task’s degree of challenge.  The alternatives, such as too much challenge, or too little, are likely to result in either anxiety or boredom.

'Flow' as opportunity matched with capability (from van Lier 1996)

Appearing as it did around the same time as the popularization of task-based learning, the theory seemed to offer an elegant rubric for the design and management of second-language learning tasks.  The theory suggested that good tasks should stretch learners, pushing them beyond their immediate ‘comfort zone’, while at the same time providing them with sufficient support so as not to induce anxiety.  But since then Csikszentmihalyi’s theory seems to have lost traction, so I was intrigued to hear my Turkish friend (in gridlocked traffic that was the antithesis of flow!) update me on a couple of recent studies (copies of which he subsequently sent me) that have rehabilitated the notion of flow.

One of these – (Egbert 2003) – reports a study in which students rated their experience of various classroom tasks (such as reading aloud, group discussion, etc). The one task that seemed to have induced the greatest degree of flow, based on self-report data, was one in which the students (all US high-school students of Spanish) interacted freely in a chatroom discussion with Spanish-speaking contemporaries. The researchers concluded that tasks which are most conducive to flow are those in which the participants’ perceptions of challenge, control, and interest are optimal.

This leads me to wonder if the concept of flow applies, not only to learning, but also to teaching. That is to say, do teachers experience flow?  Of course, “flow” – in a slightly different sense – is a concept that has often been invoked by educators to capture a desirable quality of classroom management. For example, in a study of the metaphors that one teacher employed when describing her teaching, Munby (1986) noted the constant use of the metaphor of the “lesson as moving object”. E.g. “I keep it rolling all the time”, “I seem to move along real well with that class” etc. Flow, in this sense, is a function of having well rehearsed classroom routines, and it typically distinguishes the teaching of experienced teachers from the rather stop-start nature of novice teaching.

But, flow – in the optimal experience sense – is surely something more than just being a good manager. If so, what characterizes it, what kinds of teachers experience it, and what are its preconditions? And what might all this suggest for teacher education and development?


Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. NY: Harper Row.

- 1993. The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. NY: Harper Row.

Egbert, J. 2003. ‘A study of Flow Theory in the foreign language classroom’. The Modern Language Journal, 87/4.

Munby, H. 1986. ‘Metaphor in the thinking of teachers: An exploratory study’. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 18/2.

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy & Authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

G is for Gender

23 05 2010

According to a BBC report this week, “men are bigger liars than women”: they admit to telling around three porkies a day, compared to women who lie only twice.

Hmm.  This sounds like the kind of dodgy research that Deborah Cameron calls “soundbite science”. In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus (OUP 2007), she takes to task researchers who make newsworthy but unfounded claims for gender differences, of the type “Men interrupt more than women do”, or “Women are more talkative than men”. Or – as in the BBC report – “Men lie more than women”. For a start (she says) such claims ignore the fact that there is as much variation within each gender group as there is between them. Another problem is that such studies take linguistic behaviour out of context: “To make sense of linguistic behaviour we need to go back to the context and look at what a particular linguistic feature was actually being used to communicate” (p. 45). Asking people whether they lie or not overlooks the various pragmatic functions of “not telling the truth” – which can range from deliberate deceit of the Richard Nixon variety, to tactful avoidance of threats to face, of the type “No, it doesn’t make you look fat”.  One man’s deception might be another man’s (or woman’s) discretion.

Nevertheless, such spurious  claims for language-related  gender differences proliferate – especially on the internet. Of course, gender difference (whether real or invented) makes better news than gender similarity. A news headline that read “Women and men both tell a few fibs every day” wouldn’t attract much attention. Nor would it feed people’s apparent hunger to have gender stereotypes confirmed.  As Cameron argues, these alleged differences validate the very popular myth that men and women “speak a different language”, a myth that is founded on the following assumptions:

  1. Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men;
  2. Women are more verbally skilled than men.
  3. Men’s goals in using language tend to be instrumental—about getting things done—whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational—about making connections to other people…
  4. Men’s way of using language is competitive …Because of this, men’s style of communicating also tends to be more direct and less polite than women’s.
  5. These differences routinely lead to ‘miscommunication’ between the sexes.

(Cameron 2007, pp 7-8)

Cameron dismisses these claims fairly convincingly, exposing most of them as either fraudulent or exaggerated.  And, in the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (31:2, May 2010) she revisits the topic to critique what she calls “the new biologism”. This is the belief that linguistic differences connote gender differences that, in turn, are both biological and innate. Thus, evolutionary psychologists argue that men talk the way they do because their hunting ancestors had to be strong and silent, whereas women have inherited a nurturing and ‘mutual grooming’ role, reflected in their more empathetic and less assertive speaking style. Cameron argues that – if there are indeed differences between men’s and women’s talk – these owe to socio-cultural rather than to genetic factors. If women come across as less assertive, this may reflect an unequal distribution of power between the sexes in many social contexts.

In  the entry on gender in An A-Z of ELT I deal solely with linguistic gender (as in pronoun marking) and ignore these sociolinguistic issues. Reading Cameron makes me think I should take these issues up – along with the question (that Cameron doesn’t address directly) as to whether women really are better second language learners than men – for which there is a fair amount of supporting evidence, both anecdotal and research-based.

Which raises the question: if – as Cameron claims – women don’t have a genetic advantage, what might the reasons be for their supposed success as language learners?

C is for Coursebook (by Lindsay Clandfield)

16 05 2010


After six months’  blogging (28 posts, 870 comments) I thought it might be timely to hand over the reins  to someone else for a change. And who better than  my blogging ‘mentor’, the irrepressible Lindsay Clandfield! (You must know Lindsay’s Six Things blog by now – if not, give it a visit). Lindsay’s new course, Global (Macmillan ELT), has just been launched – so I thought it might be appropriate to ask him to blog on the subject of coursebooks.

Lindsay writes:

A cynic’s definition of a language coursebook might say something like the following: One of the most popular yet unnecessary tools for learning a language. This is true. But classrooms, schools and teachers are also unnecessary for learning a language. What is it, then, about coursebooks that provokes such negative feelings in our field?

After all, coursebooks are very useful tools in that they:

1 Provide a structure for teachers and students to follow. This can give a course a sense of security, of purpose and achievement as the class advances through the book.

2 Provide attractive, motivational, colourful and diverse content, which is increasingly multimedia (text, audio and video).

3 Provide graded content suitable for the learners’ level and a full syllabus that covers language skills and language systems.

4 Above all serve as a great timesaver for teachers, who are increasingly under the burden of administrative work already. Coursebooks represent great savings in terms of lesson and test planning time.

5 Provide a source of ideas and methodology. Modern teacher’s books come packed with extra ideas, tips and language explanations. This kind of material can help the teacher improve her teaching and knowledge of language lesson by lesson.

Arguments against coursebooks tend to fall into the following categories:

1 They all look the same. This perhaps isn’t so galling for students who do not, in general, spend as much time with a coursebook as a teacher does. Faced with teaching the same or similar material week in week out for years is not very motivating.

2 They all follow the same syllabus. Perhaps one of the contributing factors to a sense of similarity is that the majority of modern coursebooks follow a very similar grammar syllabus which forms, if not the backbone, then a very important strand of the course.

3 The grammar is wrong or misleading. Some arguments around coursebooks zero in on how certain grammar points are treated, and claim that these are either outdated, unclear or just plain wrong.

4 Texts serve merely as a pretext to teach discrete language items. Used in this way, the material stifles any real communication in the classroom.

5 Texts and topics are Anglo- or Eurocentric and/or promote a western consumerist ideology. This is the hidden curriculum, implicit or explicit, in the cultural makeup of a coursebook. The high number of good-looking, rich and famous people in coursebooks has also been criticized recently.

6 Texts and topics are safe, bland and vapid. Because they have to appeal to a wide audience, it is argued, coursebooks will tend to avoid more controversial topics. When the audience is very wide (e.g. international coursebooks), some argue that they are not suitable for certain national contexts.

7 Coursebooks are too big. One common complaint is that there is too much material to cover in an academic year. This complaint becomes more and more vocal with the additional material that accompanies most modern coursebooks.

The combination of these have led to calls to abandon coursebooks altogether, a posture well-known to readers of this blog. Most teacher training courses and key texts on teaching advise teachers to adapt the material that they use in class. Indeed, part of a language teacher’s professional development would seem to be developing a more critical view and use of published teaching material.

Coursebooks are intended to provide motivating material, ideas, a structure and cohesive syllabus to a language course. Some do this more successfully than others. The role of the teacher cannot be underestimated either. As the old adage goes, only a bad worker blames his or her tools. A good teacher can make even the most dire coursebook a motivational experience for learners and teacher alike.

From my point of view as a materials writer, having had to teach with and research lots of different kinds of coursebooks I would say that they have changed considerably over the years. Some of the arguments above are made citing examples from old and outdated books, a slightly unfair position to take. Any argument that begins with “all coursebooks are/do/have…” is in danger of being a reductionist overgeneralisation.

Many coursebooks are based on months, if not years, of research and feedback from teachers. Of the points above, #2 (the grammar syllabus) and #6 (too much material) may be valid but this is often in direct response to what users say they want. Attempts to do otherwise have often resulted in commercial failures.

Many of their “flaws” are not necessarily inherent to coursebooks. Some of the people who most read and follow the anti-coursebook arguments are coursebook authors themselves, or teachers who are working on an idea for a coursebook.  The best answer to these arguments, it would seem to me, is not: “drop the coursebook” but rather “try to make a better coursebook”.

E is for Error

9 05 2010

“It’s self-evident,” wrote an MA student of mine recently, in an online forum, “that most learner errors are caused by mother tongue interference”.  Is it really self-evident? It was certainly self-evident in the mid-twentieth century, when the notion of interference reigned supreme.  But the advent of interlanguage studies put paid to that.  The new science of error analysis (as distinct from contrastive analysis)  suggested that many – some would say most – errors are the effect of developmental  processes and performance demands, and have nothing to do with the learner’s L1. This is evidenced by the fact that many errors are shared by learners from different language groups, and occur in a similar developmental sequence and under comparable processing conditions.

Büyük Han, Nicosia

Nevertheless, the idea that errors are caused by negative transfer is a persistent one and is still invoked in order to justify proscribing translation activities in the classroom (see T is for Translation). I was intrigued, therefore, to find that the case against L1 interference in fact predates the work of Pit Corder and Jack Richards in the 1960s and 70s, judging by a book I found in a second-hand bookshop in Nicosia this week. (The photo shows Büyük Han, the restored Ottoman inn in one corner of which the bookshop was nestled). The book is called Common Errors in English: Their Cause, Prevention and Cure (!), by F.G. French (published by OUP in 1949).  The author states his case thus:

The argument here presented is that if errors are due … to cross-association, then the Japanese form of error should be one thing and the Bantu form quite another…. But that is not the case. .. The collection of ‘common errors’ … proves that the errors which exasperate teachers of English are indeed ‘common’.

French adds: “In seeking the source of error in the vernacular, the teacher is searching in the wrong field. The fact that the errors are common indicates that they have a common cause”.

This ‘common cause’, according to French (although he doesn’t use the term) is false hypothesizing, including over-  and under-generalising.  (The antidote that the author suggests, by the way, is much more typical of its time: he recommends the ‘drilling-in’ of correct forms, and the ‘drilling-out’ of errors, all of which involves “considerable trouble and constant vigilance”).

In discussing this topic on the bus from Nicosia to Kyrenia en route to the conference dinner, Nick Jaworski pointed out, that if transfer were the explanation, why is it that his Turkish students willfully produce errors like *I went Antalya, when the analogous verb + prepositional phrase exists in Turkish (even if the preposition is attached as a suffix)?  The same might be asked of the commonly attested *I working, *the boys playing etc, by speakers of languages, like Spanish, that have a matching auxiliary construction: estoy trabajando, los niños están jugando…

But is the case for interference  really dead and buried?  Isn’t it a fact that many (if not most) learner errors are – as my student suggested – directly traceable to L1 influence?  


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