P is for Problematizing

9 10 2011

‘How is Carlos?’ I once asked a friend in Spanish, referring to a mutual acquaintance. But, confusing the two verbs ‘to be’, estar and ser, what I actually said was ‘What’s Carlos like?’ – Carlos ¿cómo es ? instead of  Carlos ¿cómo está?   Mischievously, my friend replied,  Bueno, es calvo, bajito.. (‘Well, he’s bald and short…’).  Puzzled at first, I then realised my mistake, and was able to repair it. But the good-humored feedback made a lasting impression. By responding to the literal – but unintended – meaning of my question, my friend had effectively problematised a distinction that I hadn’t fully internalised. The effect (I’m guessing) was more memorable than had he simply ignored the error and answered my intended message (Carlos está bien) or had he explicitly corrected me: ¿Quieres decir “Cómo está”? (‘Do you mean: How is he?’)

Problematizing a language item means alerting learners to the fact that a distinction that they had otherwise regarded as trivial or insignificant actually matters. One way of doing this is deliberately to induce an error and then show its effect.  This is sometimes called a ‘down the garden path’ intervention, in that it lulls learners into a false sense of security and then intentionally trips them up.

R. Ellis (2008, pp. 883-84) describes it thus:  “Most production practice is directed at enabling learners to produce the correct target language forms (i.e. by avoiding errors)”.   He contrasts this with an experiment by Tomasello and Herron (1988) in which the researchers compared the effects of two kinds of instruction on errors caused by overgeneralisation (like my ser and estar error).  “In one treatment, the problems were explained and illustrated to the students (i.e. explicit instruction).  In the other, which Tomasello and Heron referred to as the ‘down the garden path’ treatment, the typical errors were induced and then immediately corrected.  The results of this study show that leading students down the garden path was more effective”.

Ellis continues: “Two explanations for the results were offered. First, Tomasello and Herron suggested that the ‘garden path’ technique encourages learners to carry out a ‘cognitive comparison’ between their own deviant utterances and the correct target-language utterances.  Second, they suggested this technique may increase motivation to learn by arousing curiosity regarding rules and their exceptions.”

A ‘garden path’ approach works best, I think, when learners are unaware of a problem until they’re suddenly confronted with it.

As Nick Ellis (2008, p. 240) puts it “”We rarely think about driving, until it breaks down; as the clutch grinds, or the child runs into the road, these are the times when we become aware of the need to escape automatized routines.  ‘The more novelty we encounter, the more conscious involvement is needed for successful learning and problem-solving” (Baars, 1997).”

One way of engineering this ‘novelty’ is through forcing a misunderstanding. As Tony Lynch (1996, p.85) puts it:

Comprehension problems are vital opportunities for learning.  If learners encountered no difficulties in understanding, they would not need to go beyond their current level.  It is by having to cope with a problem — either in understanding someone else or expressing themselves — that they may notice the gap and may learn the missing item.

As an example, here is an activity adapted from one in Uncovering Grammar (Thornbury, 2001). Ask the class to draw the following:

a room with a glass on the floor

a man buying paper

a girl with a long hair

a room with a light in it

a bowl with tomato in it

a room with glass on the floor

[At this point some students will cry: “We’ve already done that one!” Ignore them, and continue]

a bowl with a tomato in it

a man buying a paper

a girl with long hair


When students compare their drawings, they’ll discover that what at first seemed quite simple is now vastly confusing!  The feature of language that has been problematised is, of course, the indefinite article that flags countability (a paper vs paper).  For learners who are fairly dismissive about such ‘details’, the activity acts as an entertaining wake-up call!  As R. Ellis says, elsewhere (1997, p. 128):

Learning becomes possible when the learner admits responsibility for the problem and so is forced to play [sic] close attention to the input. It follows then that it is not comprehension per se that aids learning, but… lack of comprehension.

My interest in problematizing was pricked when a fellow teacher trainer once commented that he was very suspicious of observed lessons that ‘go like clockwork’: “If there are no problems, there is probably no learning”.

A complex systems view of learning (as proposed by Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2008, for example) would seem to support this view. A system that is relatively stable is resistant to change. But when a system is teetering on the brink of chaos, when it’s at its ‘tipping point’,  it doesn’t take a lot to trigger a ‘phase shift’ – that is, a qualitative restructuring of the system.  Problematizing a feature of the language that is in ‘free variation’ (like my verbs in Spanish) might just provide the necessary catalyst. N. Ellis (2008, p. 240) sums up the dynamic nature of this complex system:

L2 acquisition involves learners in a conscious dialectic tension… between the conflicting forces of their current interlanguage productions and the evidence of feedback, either linguistic, pragmatic, or metalinguistic, that allows socially scaffolded development.

Problematizing is a way both of heightening that tension and (hopefully) of resolving it.


Ellis, N. 2008. ‘The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 92: 232-249.

Ellis, R.  1997. SLA Research and Language Teaching.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Larsen-Freeman, D.,  & Cameron, L.  2008.  Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lynch, T. 1996. Communication in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan.

Tomasello, M., & Herron, C. 1988. Down the garden path: Inducing and correcting overgeneralization errors in the foreign language classroom.  Applied Psycholinguistics 9: 237-46.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.



34 responses

9 10 2011

HI Scott,

An interesting read. On the ground, I think there is a lot to be said about this notion of problematizing. I encourage my teachers to develop what Lewis refers to as “response-ability”, meaning that they respond to students’ linguistic and para-linguistic needs. The response in feedback is ‘filling the gap’, that hopefully students have noticed in their efforts to make meaning. I wonder how this notion of problematizing is fundamentally different from the concept of noticing. Is it expressing the same idea in different words? Is the difference the more deliberate inducing of the problem?

In any case, what seems to be at stake is that learners should be encouraged to make and comprehend meaning, followed by teachers responding to ensuing ‘problems’.

9 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Derek – your question (as to whether the notion of problematizing is fundamentally different from the concept of noticing) is a good one, and I guess the short answer is that problematizing a feature of the language is a way of inducing noticing, not just by making the feature salient (hey, look at this!) but by showing how it matters (hey, there’s a huge meaning difference here – look at the effect of getting it wrong!). Many learners (and I am one of them) tend to ignore awkward grammatical distinctions (in my case between the imperfectivo and the pretirito in Spanish, or between various demonstrative pronouns – este, aquello etc) simply because in the end they don’t seem to matter very much – a bit of context (including pointing) sorts things out. All very well if you’re speaking, but not if you’re writing – or if you’ve got an exam to sit. Devising activities that demonstrate that these distinctions really DO matter has become a kind of obsession of mine. (I wish someone would do it for Spanish!)

9 10 2011
Mike Harrison


Thanks for an interesting read. I’d always struggle with raising awareness of articles in ways other than dry gap fills and explaining rules (and then exceptions to the rules!), but what better way than asking learners to draw the grammar. I remember an example from Jamie Keddie’s Images book (OUP Resource Books for Teachers) of using drawing to raise awareness of grammatical errors. One of the illustrations was ‘I paid the hamburger’ rather than the more usual, more correct ‘I paid for the hamburger’.

I really like engaging with language in non-verbal ways, such as through drawing and images and sound effects. I can’t explain in very good terminology, but I think these media are so much more direct in linking the outside world with concepts we have in our minds. Language can then flow from and be linked to this.

Thanks again.


9 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mike. The original activity on which the articles idea is based involved learners listening to sentences and identifying the picture being described (a girl with long hair vs a girl with a long hair etc). It’s a bit like a minimal pairs pronunciation activity (ship or sheep? mouth or mouse?). The idea of having the students draw what they think they’ve heard (rather than simply select the right picture) came out of a discussion I’ve just been having with my MA students about different ways of using minimal pair activities. I think it could be quite fun.

9 10 2011

I would say this is THE advantage classroom instruction offers because learners are rarely corrected in their everyday interactions outside the classroom (at least that was my experience –I don’t know to which extent this is generalizable). Also, I guess this is the main problem with recasting: students sometimes take it as a conversation move (meaning “I understand”) rather than a correction move. Another difference I see is the type of error that problematising lends itself to correcting: while it seems to focus on a breakdown in communication, recasting seems to focus on more formal aspects (third person –s, for example). Still, it seems recasting is far more common than problematizing (Sheen, 2004). I wonder why this is so.
Sheen, Y . Corrective feedback and learner uptake in communicative classrooms across instructional settings. Language Teaching Research, 8, 263–300.

9 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Miguel. Yes, re-casting was the flavour of the month briefly, largely beause it seems to be a frequently used conversational move in ‘motherese’, and some theorists thought it might be equally effective in learning an L2 as it is in L1 acquisition. But the evidence has been patchy.

At the same time, I think that ‘problematizing’ involves more than simply feedback moves. Its any intervention that forces learners to recognise that a feature of the language that they’d previously thought of as ‘unproblematic’ IS problematic – and that its misuse can have an important effect on intelligibility.

9 10 2011
Natália Guerreiro

Fantastic post as usual! 🙂 It got me thinking about whether I had seen that technique in use. Then I realized my colleagues and I always employ it to draw att to the distinction between the possessive adjective YOUR and HIS/HER/ITS/THEIR, Brazilian learners’ English nightmare. Ask any Brazilian teacher or student, they will tell you that one too many times they have seen a teacher look outraged after a student’s report of a classmate’s weekend involved “spending time with your husband.” Teachers in this situation always reply “MY husband!? What was she doing with MY husband!?” Of course students flush and then laugh at the seemingly jealous teacher.

My experience tells me that students learn to self-correct very quickly, but the thing is: they keep making the same mistake. They can understand the mistake when you point it out, and eventually some of them start self-correcting without your help, but if you get them at the right level, you’ll be doing that to the same group of students (and to the same student) over and over and over again. And while later on it becomes less common, I’ve used that technique for possessive adjectives even at advanced levels, which means that it does get better, but it never really goes away. Is that the best one can strive for?

Not sure I have a point with all that. Just got me thinking… I understand that you wouldn’t claim that problematizing can be the new ELT panacea, but what could we do to erradicate that L1 transfer that so affects meaning (and annoys the bejeezus out of teachers, lol)?

9 10 2011
Cecilia Lemos

Hi Scott,

Thank you for the great Sunday morning reading 🙂 As far as raising students’awareness to important distinctions and recurrent mistakes they make, it seems to be more effective and lasting – especially if done with a humourous touch to it, like your friend did with you.

In his comment Miguel mentions recasting as possibly more common than problematizing. I am a big recaster myself, but I think there’s a difference: you can’t problematize every single mistake the students make (there has to be an essential distiction to be pointed out, something that may lead to misunderstanding and/or a breakdown in communication. Recasting can be done with anything. And even though I recast a lot in class, I have serious doubts about its effectiveness – just as Miguel, before me. Recasting seems to be as useful in getting students to reflect upon the mistakes they make as correcting written work and handing the student that paper filled with notes, words crossed out, etc.. Most students barely look at them.

I feel most problematizing I do is related to mistakes that happen because of the learners’ L1 interference. For example, a common one is the use of ‘your’ instead of ‘her’ or ‘his’ . In Portuguese it’s correct to use ‘sua’ or ‘seu’ to refer to a third person (i.e. Cecilia e sua filha gostam de música – Cecilia and her daughter like music). Even though ‘sua’ would be translated as ‘your’ in English, due to context and grammatical rules, it is even more corrected than using the equivalent to ‘her’ (Cecilia e a filha dela…). So students always transfer that. The funniest time this happened to me was when I student said : My mother and your husband are traveling on a second honeymoon. I made a big fuss about MY husband being on a honeymoon with HIS mother 😉 We had a few laughs and I’d like to think he won’t make that mistake again.

So, I finish my comment here with 2 questions. First: is problematizing something closely related to the structure (and differences in structure) of the learners’ L1? Having only taught Brazilian students all my life I don’t think I’m fit for answering that. And my second question (or something I believe and would like to know your view on it) is: Does that fact that we commonly take a humorous (caricatural, maybe?) approach to problematizing, make the experience more enjoyable and therefore memorable?

Cheers. Sunny regards from Brazil.


9 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Natália and Cecilia – forgive me for addresssing you both together, but you simultaneously referred to the same transfer error, and one which you both rightly note is a prime candidate for the sort of problematizing feedback I was referring to in my ‘How is Carlos?’ example. (Luiz – below – also refers to it). It would be interesting to attempt to pre-empt this error (rather than simply waiting for students to make mistakes with it) by devising an activity in which students were forced to concentrate on the difference – similar perhaps to the drawing the indefinite vs zero article sentences I mentioned in my post. Maybe drawing a family tree in response to the following sentences: Maria and Paulo are married. Her mother’s name is Carmen. His sister is called Chrstina etc. Would that work?

10 10 2011
Natália Guerreiro

LOL Brazilian learners are all the rage here today. 🙂

Thanks for the tip. I’m looking forward to my copy of “Uncovering Grammar” after some examples were quoted here!

As for the suggested task, I’ll have to take a shot at it. But I believe that if I say “I have two friends: Lisa and Graham. His t-shirt is yellow. Her t-shirt is blue” they will have no problems drawing a man in a yellow t-shirt and a woman in a blue one, but make them describe the picture afterwards and they’re bound to slip a “your t-shirt” here and there.

Perhaps the his/her/their substitution may be a necessary step in their interlanguage, so in a sense there might be no way the teacher can prevent that mistake from occurring, don’t you think? I mean, regardless how much you make them practice before the your/his confusion stage, regardless of how much input, they always seem to fall in that linguistic trap.

10 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Natália… yes, my family tree activity (I now realise) did not address the ‘her/his’ vs ‘your’ distinction, rather the ‘her’ vs ‘his’ one. There’s actually a joke in Spanish which plays on this confusion, and I’m wondering if it can be enlisted for problematizing purposes. Briefly, it involves a boss asking one of his workers to spy on a colleague who has been behaving oddly lately. The ‘spy’ reports the daily routine of the colleague – e.g. at midday he has lunch with his wife, he then makes love with his wife, blah blah, and reurns to work. The boss says, “Well, there’s nothing strange about that’, whereupon the ‘spy’ asks: “¿Me permite tutearte?” I.e. can I use the informal ‘you’ form? (This implies he has been using the formal – and ambiguous – ‘su’ form, which further implies that it was not ‘his’ wife that the man was making love to, but ‘your’ wife. Groan.) Talk about problematizing!

9 10 2011
Luiz Otavio Barros (@luizotaviobs)

Great read, Scott, thank you.
Three comments:
1. In my experience, too, the more L1-rooted a deviant form seems to be [e.g. his/her vs. your in the case of Portuguese], the harder it is for students to internalize the correct form – I’m taking about the students I’ve taught over the years and I wouldn’t want to generalize beyond that, of course. Interestingly, I’ve witnessed several problematization instances that were so powerful and so meaningful that students never made the same mistake again – or if they did, they self-corrected immediately.
2. A lot of what students get wrong doesn’t cause misunderstandings at all [especially in monolingual groups], right? “I look forward to go there”, “Does he lives there?”, “I didn’t went there”, “I’ve been there yesterday” and so on and so forth. Making that kind of corrective feedback more memorable and relevant, especially to those students who prioritize message conveyance above all and will gladly settle for an inaccurate sentence that “gets the work done”, is the issue most teachers I know seem to be always grappling with. In other words, how to make the sort of negotiation of meaning Merrill Swain advocated possible across a larger number of “correction episodes” in class.
3. The “lesson that goes like clockwork” comment is so very true. The fewer questions, detours, unexpected events, the fewer “learnable moments”, in my opinion. This is why I tend to despair of exchanges like:
Teacher: “Any problems?”
Class: “No…”
Teacher: “Good!”

10 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Luiz, for your comment. I agree that – where a sentence is simply ill-formed, as in your examples ‘I didn’t went there’ etc, problematizing isn’t really an option. This points to the difference (mentioned in the comments to the last post on prescritpivism, I think) between grammar-as-structure and grammar-as-choice. It’s only in the latter – where the learner is faced with a choice between two or more competing forms, and where the choices may at first appear arbitrary – that problematizing is a viable form of intervention. Aspect choices would head the list (He’s written 10 novels vs He wrote 10 novels), but also article and preposition choices, phrasal verb particle choices (they made out vs they made up) etc..

9 10 2011

a short sweet comment: love it!

9 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I loved those awareness-raising tasks in Uncovering Grammar when I first saw them, and I still chuckle recalling your San Quentin example 🙂

9 10 2011

It was so grpiping I couldn’t resist commenting.

It’s always interesting to discover how the technique you have intuitively been using for ages (without realising that it is, in fact, a technique) turns out to have a solid scientific grounding :). I’ve also found that regardless of whether the error is pre-empted or corrected after it actually appears, and whether or not it is caused by L1 interference, some instances of witty problematising correct the error almost immediately, and I can avoid the drill-and-re-drill routine. Yet, in other cases the problem persists. This may be due to the fact that the error has got deeply rooted, or that the learner is, so to speak, reluctant to change (for some reason they “do not like” the correct form).
The idea about the lesson that runs too smoothly was enlightening. However, on thinking about it I can argue that good re-casting and problematizing do get the lesson run like clockwork in that these techniques keep up communication, rather than stop it to run to the blackboard and embark on rule-based explanations 🙂

10 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Katherine. That’s a fair point about lessons running smoothly – this may in fact be an indication of expert interactional management on the part of the teacher, rather than a lack of cogntiive challenge. I guess there’s smooth and there’s smooth!

10 10 2011
Jason Renshaw

Hi Scott,

Reading over the comments so far (in particular Cecilia’s and the example of HER husband going on a honeymoon with a student’s mother, as well as her point about not being able to problematicize every mistake), I think it can be an important strategy to focus on those elements that really matter in communication. Pronouns and possessive pronouns are a big one across many languages and the transfer issue.

It’s interesting how poignant they can become in real communication situations. My wife (Korean), in organising a playdate with our son’s friend’s mother, received a text message asking ‘what number’ we were (in terms of address). My wife responded with our phone numbers (thinking the person was asking ‘what is your (phone) number’), belatedly realised that the text message indicated the person already HAD our number and wanted a number in a different context. She felt terribly embarrassed, but I assured her the experience was one that meant she would be unlikely to forget the difference in future.

I’m just wondering how useful it can be to really take language learners’ production very literally in order to problematicize and facilitate noticing… I do it, of course, but try to balance it very carefully against confidence and which ‘slips’ are likely to cause the most confusion in real world communication settings. For example, your exercise with articles above isn’t one I would use until post-Intermediate levels because it is — in my opinion — quite subtle and not exactly ‘life threatening’ in terms of capacity to use and understand the language.

I think it can be a useful strategy for teachers to have a sort of basic list of features to look out for and problematicize according to level and the given communication needs/contexts for different groups of learners. But is that asking too much for some teachers?


– Mr. Raven

10 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason – I agree that the articles exercise isn’t ‘life-threatening’, although we can never be 100% sure that a really important consequence might result from what might at first appear a trivial choice. As an example, apparently the Israeli government favours the English over the French wording of a UN resolution on withdrawing from the occupied territories, because the English verstion omits the definite article!

10 10 2011
Scott C

Oh the fun you can have in class trying to help a late Brazilian work out where they ‘lost’ their train and getting the class to help them find it!

10 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, and how mercilessly I teased my Egyptian student who said, “My sister is very beautiful. She has a long hair”! 😉

10 10 2011
Stephanie Ashford

Hi Scott,

You suggest “pre-empting errors (rather than simply waiting for students to make mistakes with it) by devising activities in which students are forced to concentrate on the difference”.

By why pre-empt them? Errors that ‘matter’ will crop up soon enough. Also, you may find your students don’t fall into your carefully laid trap because they already know the difference.

Of course, it helps to be able to produce the perfect ‘noticing task’ as and when the need arises. For example, my business students use ‘until’ when they should use ‘by’, and when this happens I go for a swift and effective solution rather than dallying down garden paths. My quick-fix ‘by/until’ lesson (pared down to three minutes!) consists of drawing two packets of butter, one labelled ‘stays fresh until (+ date)’ and the other ‘must be eaten by (+ date)’ I ask the students to figure out the rule themselves, which they can manage. However, I find that if they don’t apply it immediately it doesn’t stick. To help them develop a feel for usage, I ask them to list all the deadlines looming in their lives – and there are many. (“I have to hand in my term paper BY…”, “I have to return an overdue library book BY…”, “I have to pay my tuition fees BY) and explain the consequences of missing those deadlines. No worksheets needed!

In other words, I find that noticing tasks are most effective when they’re introduced on a ‘need to know’ basis, followed up with practice.

10 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Stephanie – thanks for the comment – and the great example of ‘need to know’ teaching. I tend to agree with you, i.e. that reactive teaching is more effective than pre-emptive (and the research evidence is on our side), but so much of teaching is organised around pre-selected items that I felt the value of pre-emptive problematising shouldn’t be ruled out entirely.

As it happens, the book I’m reading at the moment, on content-based teaching, makes a similar point, making a case “for a reactive approach to form-focused instruction, because of its propensity for systematic intervention during meaningful interaction, to be used in conjunction with a proactive approach to form-focused instruction, which provides planned intervention without the constraints of brevity and the risk of supplying confusing information” (Lyster, R. 2007.Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A counterbalanced approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, p. 57)

11 10 2011

A strong form tasked based learning approach could easily accommodate the proactive form-focused instruction (a teach phase following a task), and the intervention ( monitoring and providing intervention during task). Systematic intervention is where the notion of problematizing would apply, if I am following this correctly.

10 10 2011

Another great post Scott that manages to pinpoint and explain an important area of teaching and that has that “ah, yes I know that’s what I mean” factor. I do like the idea of tension when students are met face-to-face with one of their errors and have to deal with it or are helped to do so. When I used to teach CAE and CPE+ this seemed to be the main core of my lessons but had to be handled well. I also had to explain how working on problems was as valuable as learning new things, particularly for EFL exams.

I really feel that if you can lead students to these areas, create a safe and supportive environment in which to work on them and then show that progress has been made, you have a great classroom environment. Of course, there will be students who refuse to admit they are in the wrong or who just can’t reprogramme themselves to use the correct version. I’ve always felt that too many students take language learning errors and mistakes personally but if they took learning a language as any other subject and learned how to learn it, improve it and how errors and ways to improve, then they would not see making mistakes as losing face.

At the moment I’m doing a lot of 1-to1 teaching and I’d say that most of it is leading my student to holes in her language/knowledge and filling them in.

11 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil, for your comment. Again, I take no credit for ‘discovering’ problematizing: ‘down the garden path’ interventions have been around for a long time (at least, as a research tool), but they don’t seem to figure in most published materials, the general thinking being that learners should get things right before they get them wrong.

11 10 2011

Another reason for their omission is likely bc it requires teacher to be able to react and respond, generally the traits of a more experienced and trained teacher. Further reason to bring this into sharper relief on teacher education/training courses.

The question is how? A key focus on my course is to introduce a range of formats for clarifying language , but i rarely get students experimenting with task-based approaches, and am usually happy if i can get even minimal corrective fb following productive work.

But the seed has been planted, I reckon, and teachers who are focused and dedicated to their students will experiment.

11 10 2011
Willy C Cardoso

Hi Scott
This is a very good example of how to think in terms of ‘affordance’ rather than ‘input’.

I’m thinking about potential affective issues with what you proposed/described. Although we know that this should be taken slightly humorously – and by doing it a pleasant atmosphere will follow which makes this bit of learning memorable – we also know that some learners might feel ridiculed and hence, erm… well you know…

But then again, the whole point of thinking in affordances is this clear sense that whatever you do, it won’t afford the same to all learners; a notions that is rarely understood if you conceptualize teaching through the computational metaphors, such as input.

In this case, teacher training and development should be more concerned about training and developing teachers to become better observers and better at the way they respond to learners, than better “inputters” and “correctors”

11 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Willy. In fact, your comment on affordances chimes nicely with something that Anthony Gaughan said the other day on his blog (and quoted by Dale Coulter on HIS blog), to the effect that:

“it’s curious though, that no standard lesson plan pro-forma contains sections asking learners to look out for opportunities and leverage points. The closest we get is asking, “what if this is too easy? (ie PROBLEM)”

I guess what I’m suggesting is that the problem can be the opportunity (or affordance, as you put it). Anyway, a nice bit of synchronicity.

11 10 2011
David Warr

I’ve heard this described as Gap Theory – you can’t just tell someone something, you must first make them realise there’s a gap in their knowledge, and get them to want to close it. It seems your amusing example fits this description nicely.

11 10 2011
tony gurr's


LOVED the concept of “problematizing” – so many people are “scared” by calling a “shovel” a “shovel” (what the hell does it mean when we call a “problem” a “challenge” anyways – in many other languages, we can’t even “translate” the word).

Problems are what drive LEARNing – “problematizing” is what educators do best because it helps learners “reflect” on what they can do with what they know (and learn).

Long live PROBLEMS and teachers who use them to help others LEARN 😉


12 10 2011

Always good to follow your latest entry, Scott, and the ensuing thread, for a jolt of professional development. Wish I could actually read this ‘hot off the press’ one Sunday morning.

The point about affordances made by Willy C. et al is an important one, as are the posts drawing a fine line between problematizing and classroom micro-management.

Another analogy to driving (for language learning) might be how we can understand the mechanics of the internal combustion engine in depth but be woefully inept at maneuvering a vehicle powered by this engine if we’ve never been asked to get in and have a go at it. To me, good learners are not just good drivers (ie, they can ‘make the language go’) but also those who pay attention to the knocks and grinds they might hear if something’s not quite right – or at least consult an owner’s manual. Learners like these will be more self-sufficient, in my view, than those who are trained to rely on an ‘expert’ (mechanic) to set them straight.

Speaking of learner training, and still relevant to problematizing (I think) is something I did a couple of days ago with my beginner group: I asked them to have a short conversation in their L1 (Spanish), in order for me to demonstrate how they can enhance their learning through inquiry. In a nutshell, I asked for clarification every time I didn’t understand something, and I often asked for repetition and feedback on my production. It seems to help as it places learners in the role of language expert, so they’re more at ease, while it provides a model of how even a basic set of phrases like ‘What does X mean?’ and ‘Please repeat that.’ is enough to make inquiries for clarification.

My aim with this brief L1 excursion was to help students understand how effective it can be not only to comprehend or produce the main ideas of a conversation (take a drive) but also to have a look under the hood now and again, because such training seems to build their confidence and help them notice when I problematize.

Hope to catch you earlier next Sunday, but better late than never?


14 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

I love this analogy of ‘looking under the hood’, Rob! Can I use it? 😉
(In fact, I’ll be picking up on this theme in my next post).

15 10 2011

Sure thing, Scott. Look forward to that next post.


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