An A-Z of ELT

8 12 2009

In 2006 I wrote An A-Z of ELT – an encyclopedia-dictionary of terminology relating to English language and English language teaching. As soon as it was published (by Macmillan) I was already planning an update. Hence this blog. Here I will regularly post articles relating to existing entries, or with a view to creating new entries, should the A-Z be revised. You can help me, by posting responses or making suggestions as to topics that you think should be included or amendments that should be made to existing topics. I’ll be dealing with topics in no particular order, simply as the mood takes me!
I support the round
Some of the most popular posts on this blog have been re-worked in the form of an e-book, called Big Questions in ELT, which is published by The Round.





M is for Mediation

23 04 2017
county agent 02

The county agent (North Carolina State University)

“Teachers don’t read research.”

This would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial claim, but it generated a fair bit of heat on social media when I made it at last month’s IATEFL conference – see for example, the Dynamite ELT blog.

Why don’t teachers read research, as I claimed? Simon Borg (2009) reports that lack of time and accessibility, combined with a perceived lack of relevance, are often cited as reasons. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the researchers don’t write with teachers in mind. As Tom Farrell (2016, p. 352) suggests:

When the word “research” is used in any publication, readers have particular expectations about what they will read in terms of the language that is used in the publication. In most cases, such publications in education are written with a particular audience in mind that for the most part is academics.

Mark Clarke (1994, pp 12-13) goes further, in suggesting that what underpins the ‘dysfunctional discourse’ between researchers and practitioners is an issue of power: ‘Given the hierarchical nature of the profession and the higher status of theorists […] the voices of teachers are subordinated to the voices of others who are less centrally involved in language teaching.’

In sum, as Nat Bartels (2003, p. 737) concludes, ‘studies of teachers’ consumption of and attitudes towards academic research articles show that such articles do not seem to function well as a mechanism for communicating information for teachers.’

So, how is information communicated to teachers?

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

It is the same question that John Carroll engaged with, as long ago as 1966 (p. 98): ‘How is the researcher going to communicate with the consumer of his [sic] research? Does he even know what his audience is and what his audience wants?’

Carroll answers his own question by arguing that the researcher is unqualified to ‘speak’ directly to practitioners. Instead, mediators are needed to ‘translate’ research into its practical applications – or to ‘particularize’ it, in Clarke’s (1994) terms.  Carroll likens this mediating role to that of the ‘county agents’ who functioned in the US as a bridge between agricultural scientists and actual farmers in their fields. ‘There could be an analogue of the county agent in education: the individual who makes a specialty of communicating the findings of research to the potential consumer, the teacher, teacher trainer, educational policymaker, or prepare of instructional material.’ And he adds, ‘the major problem that would be encountered… is the shortage of persons qualified to do this kind of educational liaison.’County-agent-Ammons-Ruth-O-Kelly-1925

What would qualify a person to take on this mediating role? And what qualifies me? In attempting to answer that question, I approached four other ‘county agents’ in our field – i.e. writers of well-known, globally marketed methodology texts —  and asked them a number of questions about the way they achieve ‘educational liaison’, including this one:

  • How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?

Interestingly, their answers varied considerably:

A. Imperative! Teachers need to ground their teaching in research-based findings and assumptions. And, more importantly, teachers themselves should not shrink from engaging in their own classroom-based “action research.” It’s an all-important interaction.
B. I simply fail to understand people who deny the role of research in helping us understand our practice and improve it. Research is, after all, what all good teachers would do if they had the chance.
C. It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
D. I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.  … I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

Which raises the question: Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? And would you expect the writers of such texts to be established researchers in their own right?

References

Bartels, N. (2003) ‘How teachers and researchers read academic articles’. Teacher & Teacher Education, 19.

Borg, S. (2009) ‘English language teachers conceptions of research.’ Applied Linguistics, 30/3.

Carroll, J. (1966) ‘The contributions of psychological theory and educational research to the teaching of foreign languages.’ In Valdman, A. (ed.) Trends in Language Teaching. New York. McGraw-Hill.

Clarke, M. A. (1994) ‘The dysfunctions of the theory/practice discourse.’ TESOL Quarterly, 28/1.

Farrell, T. (2016) Review of Teacher-Researchers in Action, by Dikilitaş et al (eds.) ELT Journal, 70/3.





N is for New edition

16 04 2017

New A-Z of ELT

I started this blog not long after the publication of An A to Z of ELT, with the express purpose of gathering feedback, amendments, corrections and additions for a possible second edition (and as a not-so-subtle way of putting pressure on my publishers to produce such an edition). I’m pleased to say that, just over 10 years down the line, including several periods of concentrated blogging, the second edition is now out – called The New A –Z of ELT. Outwardly resembling the first edition, but running to a hefty 320+ pages, compared to the first edition’s 256, the new edition is – in the words of soap powder marketing – 30% new and improved!

So, what’s different?

First of all there are many new entries, reflecting developments in linguistic theory, language education and, especially, technology over the decade since the first edition appeared. Many of these topics were dealt with in blog posts, especially those – such as othering, imitation, rapport, and coursebook – that attracted a lot of hits; some of them are old topics re-labelled (such as English as an international language, now subsumed under English as a lingua franca, rather than the other way round, and homework re-labelled as self-study). Some topics were just unaccountably missing, even from the index, of the first edition, like language, teacher knowledge, creativity and research. Still others reflect my recent interest in embodied cognition and dynamic systems theories, e.g. gesture, emergence, cognitive grammar and alignment.  And, of course, on-going technological developments prompted entries on adaptive learning, gamification, the flipped classroom, blended learning, mobile learning, and webinar, as well as revisions of entries on computer-assisted language learning, and computer-mediated communication, and a whole new entry simply called educational technology.30%

Other topics that are extensively revised in the light of my own reading and thinking, as well as feedback on the blog, are accuracy, fluency, bilingualism, method, communicative activities, and syllabus. Many of the entries dealing with phonology have been expanded to include more reference to American English (reflecting my own professional relocation).

Some former entries, such as ARC and self-access centre, were deleted from the new edition, on the grounds that they had reached their sell-by date.  By contrast, Demand high and reading aloud are allowed in.

One significant theme that emerged in the re-write was the steady seepage of the language of neoliberalism into the discourse of language teaching: witness outcomes, competencies, life skills, and benchmarking. My discomfort at this development is only thinly disguised. Witness:

Because ‘outcomes’ is a term borrowed from the world of business, it has negative associations for many educationalists, since it conjures up images of the school as a kind of factory, producing undifferentiated learners to order. On the other hand, it satisfies the perception by many stakeholders that educational institutions should be accountable, and meet externally imposed standards.

So, why blog again? For similar reasons as first time round: to encourage the same kind of rich and diverse conversation that informed the writing of the 2nd edition – with a view to a possible 3rd edition – who knows?  And, of course, for shameless self-promotion. (An overtly promotional talk I gave at the IATEFL conference two weeks ago was criticized in some quarters for being – erm – too promotional. As if writers weren’t allowed to promote their own books.)

As in the past, new posts will appear every Sunday morning (European time). All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my publisher. Comments are moderated, so mind your language. I don’t make money from this site: in fact, I pay WordPress to keep the blog ad-free. As recompense, you could, of course, buy the book – available in both print and e-book versions at the end of the month.

 





P is for Poverty of the stimulus

7 06 2015

plato_bustThe case for humans being innately and uniquely endowed with a ‘language instinct’ rests largely on the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument, or what is sometimes called ‘Plato’s problem’: How do we know so much when the evidence available to us is so meagre?

As Harris (1993: 57-8) elaborates:

‘One of the most remarkable facts about human languages – which are highly abstract, very complex, infinite phenomena – is that children acquire them in an astonishingly short period of time, despite haphazard and degenerate data (the “stimulus”). Children hear relatively few examples of most sentence types, they get little or no correction beyond pronunciation (not even that), and they are exposed to a bewildering array of false starts, unlabelled mistakes, half sentences and the like.’

Is this really true? Is the stimulus really so impoverished?

The quantity of the stimulus – i.e. the input available to a child –  is certainly not impoverished: it has been estimated (Cameron-Faulkner et al. 2003) that children hear around 7,000 utterances a day, of which 2,000 are questions (cited in Scheffler 2015). This suggests that in their first five years children are exposed to 12.5m meaningful utterances. At an average of, say, ten words an utterance this is larger than the entire British National Corpus (100m words), from which several hefty grammars and dictionaries have been derived.

What about the quality? While it’s true that the speech between adults often includes ‘disfluencies’ of the type mentioned by Harris above, studies suggest that ‘motherese’ (i.e. the variety that caregivers typically use when interacting with their children) ‘is unswervingly well formed’ (Newport et al. 1977, cited in Sampson 2005). In one study ‘only one utterance out of 1500 spoken to the children was a disfluency’ (ibid.).

Chomsky and his followers would argue that, even if this were true, the child will have little or no exposure to certain rare structures that, in a short time, she will nevertheless know are grammatical. Ergo, this knowledge must derive from the deep structures of universal grammar.

One much-cited example is the question-form of the sentence with two auxiliaries, e.g. The boy who was crying is sleeping now. How does the child know that the question form requires fronting of the second of the two auxiliaries (Is the boy who was crying sleeping now?), and not the first: *Was the boy who crying is sleeping now?, especially if, as Chomsky insists, the number of naturally-occurring examples is ‘vanishingly small’: ‘A person might go through much or all of his life without ever having been exposed to relevant evidence’ (Chomsky 1980: 40). The explanation must be that the child is drawing on their inborn knowledge that grammatical transformations are structure-dependent.

The_mother_of_JohnA quick scroll through a corpus, however, reveals that the stimulus is not as impoverished as Chomsky claims. Pullum & Scholz (2002, cited in Sampson op. cit), using a corpus of newspaper texts, found that 12% of the yes/no questions in the corpus were of the type that would refute the ‘invert the first auxiliary’ hypothesis. (It is significant that Chomsky impatiently dismisses the need to consult corpus data, on the grounds that, as a native speaker, he intuitively knows what is grammatical and what is not. Unsurprisingly, therefore, generative linguists are constantly, even obsessively, fiddling around with implausible but supposedly grammatically well-formed sentences such as John is too stubborn to expect anyone to talk to and What did you wonder how to do? [cited in Macaulay 2011]).

But even if it were the case that the (spoken) input might be deficient in certain complex syntactic structures, you do not need to hypothesize ‘deep structure’ to account for the fact that a question of the type *Was the boy who crying is sleeping now? is simply not an option.

Why not? Because language is not, as Chomsky views it, a formal system of abstract symbols whose units (such as its words) are subject to mathematical operations, a perspective that ‘assumes that syntax can be separated from meaning’ (Evans 2014: 172).  Rather, language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).  Children do not process sentences from left to right looking for an available auxiliary to move. (They don’t even think of sentences as having a left and a right). They process utterances in terms of the meanings they encode. And meaning ‘isn’t just abstract mental symbols; it’s a creative process, in which people construct virtual experiences – embodied simulations – in their mind’s eye’ (Bergen 2012: 16).

Thus, the child who is exposed to noun phrase constructions of the type the little boy who lives down the lane or the house that Jack built understands (from the way they are used in context) that these are coherent, semantic units that can’t be spliced and re-joined at will.  Is the little boy sleeping? and Is the little boy who lives down the lane sleeping? are composed of analogous chunks and hence obey the same kind of syntactic constraints.

What’s more, experiments on adults using invented syntactic constructions suggest that patterns can be learned on the basis of relatively little input. Boyd et al. (2009: 84) report that ‘even small amounts of exposure were enough (a) to build representations that persisted significantly beyond the exposure event, and (b) to support production.’  A little stimulus goes a long way.

daniel-everett-dont-sleep-there-are-snakes-life-and-langauge-in-the-amazonian-jungleIn the end, we may never know if the poverty of the stimulus argument is right or not – not, at least, until computer models of neural networks are demonstrably able to learn a language without being syntactically preprogrammed to do so. As Daniel Everett (2012: 101) writes, ‘No one has proven that the poverty of the stimulus argument, or Plato’s Problem, is wrong. But nor has anyone shown that it is correct either. The task is daunting if anyone ever takes it up. One would have to show that language cannot be learned from available data. No one has done this. But until someone does, talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation.’

References

Bergen, B.K.(2012) Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Boyd, J.K., Gottschalk, E.A., & Goldberg, A.E. (2009) ‘Linking rule acquisition in novel phrasal constructions.’ In Ellis, N.C. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds) Language as a complex adaptive system. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Cameron-Faulkner, T., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2003) ‘A construction based analysis of child directed speech.’ Cognitive Science 27/6.

Chomsky, N. (1980) various contributions to the Royaumont Symposium, Piatelli-Palmarini (ed.) Language and Learning: The debate between Jean Piajet and Noam Chomsky. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Everett, D. (2012) Language: The cultural tool. London: Profile Books.

Harris, R.A. (1993) The Linguistics Wars. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macaulay, K.S. (2011) Seven Ways of Looking at Language. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pullum, G.K. & Scholz, B.C. (2002) ‘Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments.’ Linguistic Review, 19.

Sampson, G. (2005) The Language Instinct Debate (Revised edition). London: Continuum.

Scheffler, P. (2015) ‘Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction.’ ELT Journal, 69/1.

 PS: There will be no more new posts until the end of summer and things calm down again.





A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance

References

Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

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

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





E is for English in the world

24 05 2015
soccer tavern

Photo: Christopher Collins

I’ve just completed a hugely enjoyable but challenging semester as instructor on a course I designed for The New School online MA in TESOL. It’s called English in the World, and replaces an earlier version of the course that was a casualty of some curriculum restructuring a few years back Here is the official description of the new course:

Throughout today’s postmodern, globalized and highly mobile world there are millions of students, both young and not so young, studying the English language. This phenomenon raises many questions, not only about the educational implications of teaching English as an International Language (EIL) – such as standardization – but also about economic, political and ethical considerations. In order to address these questions, this course will introduce basic concepts of sociolinguistics, including societal multilingualism and language contact and conflict, in order to contextualize the spread of English and its consequences. The relationship between language and culture, and language and identity, will also be explored, especially insofar as these issues impact on the fostering of intercultural communication. And, in response to charges of linguistic imperialism and the commodification of English, proposals for a socially-sensitive pedagogy will be explored, along with an examination of how English teaching might better serve the needs of societies in development.

Topics covered include:

  • Language variation and standardization
  • Multilingualism
  • The history of English
  • World Englishes
  • English as a lingua franca
  • Language and culture
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Language and identity
  • The ideology of English in the world
  • A pedagogy for English in the world
  • English and development
vote signs

Photo: Christopher Collins

Given the somewhat disparate nature of the course content, readings come from a variety of sources: names often invoked include Sandra McKay, David Graddol, Zhu Hua, Ryuko Kubota, B. Kumaravadivelu, Claire Kramsch, Adrian Holliday, Jennifer Jenkins, Sureish Canagarajah, John Gray and David Block, and many others. Thankfully, the connections between these scholars, and their relevance to the topic of English in the World seemed to cohere. One student wrote (in his reflective journal) ‘Everything we learned in this class was interconnected.’ And he added, ‘Luckily this course wasn’t just theory. It gave us very specific answers on how to apply this theory into practice.’ Some other comments (from students’ journals):

‘My mind is a lot more open than it was just three months ago.’ ‘Throughout the roughly four months spent on this course I have undergone a transformative period of growth and self-evaluation.’ ‘The course … has challenged my preconceived ideas and philosophies about language and teaching.’+

One student homed in on this quote, which to her captured the essence of what the course was about:

“The broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which [English language programs] occur have major implications for what occurs in the classroom, and what occurs in the classroom has great significance for the outside world […]  ELT is a controversial activity, and its implementation in any context is shaped by, and shapes, cultural politics at multiple levels” (Appleby, et al. 2002: 343).

Coursework included regular online discussions on such topics as ‘native speakerism’, cultural stereotyping, code-switching, the ELT global ‘industry’, standard English, and one on English in the linguistic landscape. To give you a flavor, here is my video feedback on this discussion:   Reference Appleby, R., Copley, K., Sithirajvongsa, S., & Pennycook, A. (2002) ‘Language in development constrained: three contexts.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36 (3).

Thanks to MA TESOL alumnus Christopher Collins for the photos.





D is for Dictation

17 05 2015

teacher Massé DixonIn my role as Handbooks editor, I recently had an interesting email exchange on the subject of dictation. Not about its value as a classroom activity so much as what exactly it is valuable for.

When I was a student of French at high school in New Zealand, la petite dictée was the standard opening activity of every lesson. And, in France it still is  – judging by the 2003 film Être et avoir. The film depicts the day-to-day life of a one-teacher school in rural France, where la dictée is clearly alive and well. The teacher, soon to retire, at one point calculates that he must have given more than 30,000 dictées over the course of his career.  What’s curious is that his technique – the somewhat pedantic delivery, sentence by sentence, of a short text – seems not to have changed in all the time he has been teaching. And it’s exactly the same procedure as was inflicted on us, in Hamilton, New Zealand, by Mr Bonny in the mid-sixties.

What was the point of it? Primarily to test knowledge of bottom-up language features such as spelling and punctuation, but also to test knowledge of the perversely imperceptible inflections of French grammar – whereby il parle sounds the same as ils parlent. (Does this account for the fact that dictation competitions are so hugely popular on French television?)

Distinguishing il parle from ils parlent relies, of course, on an understanding of the context: Il parle de ses parents vs. Ils parlent de leurs parents (‘he speaks of his parents’ vs. ‘they speak of their parents’). This is where dictations get interesting – where they are more than simply the encoding of sounds into words. In fact, given that any sequence of sounds is potentially ambiguous (hence the phenomenon of the mondegreen, the mishearing of song lyrics, so that ‘Gladly the cross I’d bear’ is heard as ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear…’) then dictation at anything above the phoneme level relies, to a greater or lesser extent, on the understanding of context.dictation

Because dictations involve processing of individual sounds or sound combinations, on the one hand, and of contextual information, whether lexical, syntactic or textual, on the other, their potential as integrative tests – that is tests of overall language proficiency, as opposed to tests of discrete items – was much feted in the 1970s and ’80s.  As Hughes (2003: 195) notes, ‘research revealed high correlations between scores on dictation tests and scores on much longer and more complex tests.’

Dictations also gave results similar to those obtained from that other nine-day testing wonder, the cloze test. (Think about it: doing a dictation is really all about filling in the gaps in a patchy mental representation). But, despite the ease with which they could be administered, problems of how to score dictations raised questions about their reliability. And, as with cloze tests, doubts as to exactly what was being tested raised questions about their validity. They do not, for example, test the test-taker’s communicative ability, so in what sense are they really integrative?

More problematic, it seems to me, is that, there is no agreed procedure for doing a dictation, which means that, depending on the length of the spoken segments, very different psycholinguistic processes are implicated.

teacher mexico 1923Think about it: what happens when we ‘do a dictation’? Acoustic information is first run through the brain’s phonological loop where it is matched against words stored in long-term memory. The loop has a capacity of roughly seven units of information. Unless rehearsed sub-vocally, these units ‘decay’ after around two seconds. But this is still enough time to do a dictation simply by ‘listening to the echo’, so long as the segments are very short (e.g. phrase length) and that they are either repeated or generously spaced, and that the material is familiar, and that enough contextual knowledge is available in order to disambiguate any ‘cross-eyed bears’.

Anything sentence-length or longer, however, is going to collapse the loop’s storage capacity. The material will have to be reconstituted and stored, not as individual words, but as mental imagery, which will in turn need to be retrieved and converted back into content words again, the gaps between them fleshed out with the appropriate grammatical ‘filling’ – a process that taps, not into echoic memory, but into the user’s current state of linguistic competence. This is why doing a dictogloss (i.e. a text-length reconstruction from memory, usually collaboratively) is such a different psycholinguistic process than doing a traditional dictation. It is also the reason why dictation may be a better test of aptitude than of learning, since the length of the loop, and hence the tipping point, seems to vary from learner to learner. In fact, the capacity to repeat sentences of increasing length has been used in placement testing. (I’m not sure if this is relevant, but the US Citizenship test also involves doing a (very short) dictation).

woman teacher 1950All of which brings me back to the discussion I had with my writer. What are dictations good for? If they are not reliable or valid tests, are they nevertheless worthwhile practice activities? Or is it the case that, as some writers have suggested, doing dictations is good practice only for doing dictations? Or, worse, that it is a form of crowd control?

Uncertainty as to what dictations are good for is indicated by the fact that writers of methodology texts never quite know where to include them (if at all). Wilga Rivers (1981), for example, puts them in her section on the writing skill. For Harmer (1991) dictation is simply a form of Practice. Ur (1996) puts them under Testing.

Others argue that, as intensive listening practice, dictation is a means of ear-training – developing the capacity to discriminate meaning from noise by strengthening the connections between the acoustic signal and mental representations. This may explain why the few studies of the subject (e.g. Kiany & Shiramiry 2002) indicate that doing dictations often correlates with gains in listening comprehension. I would argue, though, that it is more a form of ‘mind-training’ – developing the capacity to make informed guesses using a whole panoply of sources – phonological, lexical, syntactic and textual, not to mention the non-linguistic background knowledge that the learner herself brings to the process.

So, do you use dictations? Why? How?

References

Harmer, J. (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching (New edition). London: Longman.

Hughes, A. (2003) Testing for Language Teachers (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kiany, G.R., & Shiramiry, E. (2002) ‘The effect of frequent dictation on the listening comprehension ability of elementary EFL learners.’ TESL Canada Journal, 20/1: 57-63.

Rivers, W. (1981) Teaching foreign-language skills (2nd edition). Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Ur, P. (1996) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(Thanks to Penny Ur for triggering this line of thought.)





I is for Innovation

9 05 2015

This is a dress rehearsal of my opening ‘mini-plenary’ for the hugely successful ELT Innovate conference, held this weekend in Barcelona  – on the subject, unsurprisingly – of innovation.

These are the books and articles I refer to:

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a subversive activity. Penguin Education.

Selwyn, N. (2011) Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, London: Continuum.

Selwyn, N. (2013) Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. London: Routledge.

Selwyn, N. (2015) ‘Minding our language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it’, paper given to the ‘Digital Innovation, creativity and knowledge in education’ conference, Qatar, January 2015.