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?  

T is for Time

2 05 2010

Rossini is supposed to have said of Wagner’s music: “He has some wonderful moments, but some terrible quarters of an hour”. I’ve observed (and taught!) lessons like that: some great moments but a lot of unnecessary time-wasting: over-prolonged warmers, games with little or no language output, instructions that take more time than the activity they’re designed to support, and so on. Time, I’ve come to the conclusion, is the single most wasted resource that teachers have available to them. And time is of the essence. The task of learning a second language is enormous. For many learners it is also expensive. To fritter the time away seems irresponsible.

Hence I’ve always liked the term “time-on-task”, since it captures for me an essential characteristic of good teaching: the capacity of the teacher to ensure that classroom time is optimized and that the learners are engaged in productive language activity to the fullest possible extent. This means, of course, that the learners know what is required of them – and there is a tension between, on the one hand, giving detailed instructions and, on the other, getting down to the task as quickly as possible. I knew one teacher who was dismissive about the need for clear task-setting. Her attitude was “Give them the material and let them get on with it – you can sort it out ‘in flight’”. I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I can see her point.

Likewise, I am suspicious of technology that isn’t already installed in the classroom and operational at the flick of a switch – or click of a mouse. Lesson time that is wasted in faffing about with cables and recalcitrant software is lost learning time. The same goes for games that require more explanation than their likely language affordances can possibly justify.

Time 'consumption' in different countries

Faffing about, as it happens, accounts for big chunks of lesson time in mainstream classes, according to figures that were published recently in a Spanish newspaper. The chart on the right shows how much time is lost in routine administrative activities (‘tareas administrativas’) and in controlling the class (‘mantenimiento de orden’) as compared to actual teaching (‘impartir clase’) in classrooms in a number of countries worldwide. Fortunate are the students in Bulgaria, where only round 10% of time is lost, compared to, say, Brazil, where up to a third of the lesson is frittered away.

Some recommendations, then, for exploiting time effectively:

1. Develop a set of reliable classroom routines that students will immediately recognise and which therefore require minimal explanation;

2. Resist the temptation to front-end the lesson with lots of warmers and ice-breakers. Get to the point as quickly as possible!

3. Evaluate any activity in terms of the likely language production it will generate against the time it will take to set up. If the pay-off is small, ditch the activity, or think of a quicker way of setting it up.

4. Use only those tehnological aids that you are already comfortable with and which are already installed and easily accessible in the classroom, and – even then – measure their worth against the language learning affordances that they are likely to provide;

5. Set for homework those activities (such as reading, listening, and doing grammar practice exercises) that might otherwise cut into classroom time that could more usefully be spent speaking.

6. Use the students’ L1 to cut corners, e.g. in explaining an activity, in providing glosses for unfamiliar vocabulary, in checking understanding of  a text, and even in presenting grammar.

7. Be punctual yourself – set a good example and impress on students the importance of starting (and finishing) on time. Likewise, don’t wait until the last student has arrived before you start the lesson.

8. With younger learners, reduce the time that needs to be spent maintaining order by keeping the pace of the lesson fairly upbeat, thereby avoiding the kinds of longeurs during which anti-social activity is likely to occur.

Any other suggestions out there?