T is for Turning point

28 04 2013
natalies journal

from ‘Some Writings: December 1946 – December 1947’ by Natalie Luethi Peterson (click to enlarge)

This was written by a young American woman, visiting Europe for the first time, and speaking the German she had learned at school. It describes an experience many second language speakers will attest to: the turning point – that moment when suddenly the language that had been so long a struggle, suddenly grows wings and takes flight.

For the writer Alice Kaplan (1993: 55), the turning point in her learning of French was triggered by her mastering of the elusive French ‘r’ sound:

It happened over months but it felt like it happened in one class. I opened my mouth and I opened up; it slid out, smooth and plush, a French ‘r.’ It was the sound my cat makes when she wants to go out: between a purr and a meouw, a gurgling deep in the throat. It wasn’t loud, it didn’t interrupt the other sounds. It was smooth, and suave. It felt — relaxed. It felt normal! I had it. With this ‘r’ I could speak French, I wouldn’t be screaming my Americanness every time I spoke. ‘R’ was my passport…. The ‘r’ was the biggest hurdle; my system was now in place.

For other learners, the process is less dramatic, but there is often the sense that a qualitative change has occurred. Dick Schmidt (in Schmidt and Frota 1986: 247) records this moment in his learning of Brazilian Portuguese:

Journal entry, week 18

Last night I was really up, self-confident, feeling fluent…. At one point, M said to F that she should speak more slowly for me, but I said no, please don’t, I don’t need it any more.

Natalie Lüthi Peterson 1946

Natalie Luethi Peterson in 1946

In information-processing models of language acquisition, these ‘great leaps forward’ were explained in terms of restructuring, i.e. the qualitative changes that result when information is reorganized into new categories.  As McLaughlin (1987: 138) explains it: ”Whereas some learning is seen to occur continuously by accretion … other learning is thought to occur in a discontinuous fashion, by restructuring. This discontinuity would account for second-language learners’ perceptions of sudden moments of insight or “clicks of comprehension”.  … Often learners report that this experience is followed by rapid progress, as old linguistic information and skills are fitted into this new way of understanding’ .

More recently, and according to complex systems theory, these turning points represent what are called phase shifts in the system.  Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 45) use the example of a horse changing gait from walking to trotting, or from trotting to cantering, and so on: ‘Dramatic and sudden changes of this kind are called phase shifts…. The states of the system before and after a phase shift are very different.’  And they add (2008: 59), ‘what emerges as a result of a phase shift is something different from before: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts and that cannot be explained reductively through the activity of the component parts.’

Unlike the concept of restructuring, where the system ‘yields’ to external inputs and accommodates them accordingly, a phase shift is the result of self-organization: ‘it is the dynamic properties of the system that lead it to happen, not some external organizing force’ (p. 58). Nevertheless, certain conditions seem to be conducive to phase shifts, notably a period of instability, when the system is ‘teetering on the brink of chaos’ (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008: 148) – what’s otherwise known as ‘the tipping point.’

Phase shifts would seem to account for the fact that, in first language acquisition, lexical ‘spurts’ typically precede the onset of grammatical development: it seems that a critical mass of vocabulary is necessary before the grammar ‘coalesces’, as it were. Likewise, the acquisition of literacy is often experienced as a breakthrough or turning point, nicely captured in this quote from the writer Penelope Fitzgerald: ‘I began to read just after I was four. The letters on the page suddenly gave in and admitted what they stood for. They obliged me completely and all at once’ (quoted in Wolf 2010: 96).

Eadweard-Muybridge-horse-gallopingApart from these anecdotal accounts, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of literature on turning points. Under what circumstances do they tend to occur, for example, and what triggers them?  The answer to this question must be of key interest to teachers, often frustrated at learners’ lack of progress, yet aware of the possibility that a well-timed intervention on their part might be sufficient to tip the balance.

The lack of research into turning points must owe, in part, to their capricious nature: they are, almost by definition, spontaneous, swift, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, as Ke and Holland (2006: 712) observe:

Nonlinearity has two significant implications: (i) in order to understand how learning progresses, we have to pay special attention to capturing such abrupt transitions, and find out if there are particular conditions or prompts that trigger such transitions; (ii) we will expect plateau periods, and provide continuing support to learners even though at times there seems to be no significant progress.

And they quote Larsen-Freeman (2003: 112) to this effect: ‘Of course, since the language development process is non-linear, interaction may be followed by more interaction with little obvious lasting change in learners’ interlanguage. Then, one day, for any given learner, the penny will drop. All we can say for sure is that it is a very lucky teacher who is there to witness its happening.’

Have you experienced or witnessed a turning point?

References:

Kaplan, A. (1993). French lessons: A memoir, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ke, J. & Holland, J.H. (2006) ‘Language origin from an emergentist perspective,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching Language: From grammar to grammaring, Boston, Thomson Heinle.

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

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-Language Learning, London: Arnold.

Schmidt. R., and Frota, S. (1986) ‘Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner,’ in Day, R. (ed.). Talking to Learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Wolf, M. (2010) Proust and the squid: the story of the reading brain, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Thanks to the Luethi family for permission to quote from Natalie’s archive.





W is for Wondering

21 04 2013

Liverpool programme coverThree excellent presentations at IATEFL this year, each of which referenced Dogme, got me wondering.

The first, Conversation-driven or dialogic methodology? ELT Classroom talk, was given by Dr Phil Chappell, from Macquarie University in NSW. Phil started out by asking the question: ‘If Dogme ELT is driven by conversation, yet natural conversation is not usually possible in the classroom, what kind of talk could best support its aims?’

Based on an extensive database of classroom interaction that he has amassed over time, Phil has identified five kinds of instructional classroom talk, two of which seem to approximate closely to the notion of conversation: discussion (defined as ‘the exchange of ideas with a view to sharing information and solving problems’), and inquiry dialogue. Inquiry dialogue is less about the exchange of ideas than the joint construction of ideas. It shares features with what Barnes (1976) called ‘exploratory talk’, which Mercer (1995: 104) describes as talk ‘in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas… In exploratory talk knowledge is made more accountable and reasoning is more visible in the talk‘ (emphasis in original).

In comparing the two conversational modes, discussion and inquiry dialogue, Phil found that the former tends to be transmissive in style, involving the mere exchange of tokens of information or experience, with little in the way of follow-up, and which, in the interests of task completion, inclines towards early closure.  As Phil put it: ‘The students are seated in groups, but they are not always working in groups.’

Inquiry dialogue, on the other hand, tends to be more open-ended, more tentative, and displays greater contingency, successive turns building on each other in a process of jointly-constructed ‘thinking aloud’. Because this talk revolves around playing with, and exploring, possibilities, it has been labelled wondering by some researchers (e.g. Lindfors 1999).  Due to its collaborative and contingent nature, and because of the ongoing struggle to fit words to meanings in which the learners are heavily invested, this joint ‘wondering’ is, arguably, a prime site for language learning affordances, and hence a fertile source of ‘raw material’ in the Dogme classroom.

ken lackman

Ken in action

The second presentation that had me wondering was by Ken Lackman: CAT: A framework for Dogme. CAT stands for Conversation Activated Teaching and hence is consistent with the Dogme precept that teaching should be conversation-driven.

What Ken has devised (and what he engagingly demonstrated using his audience as pretend students) is a framework for constructing lessons that meet Dogme principles, but that at the same time provides novice (or nervous) teachers with a tight structure on which to map emergent language processing.

The demo lesson consisted of cycles of pairwork conversations (on a topic that had been selected by a class brainstorm and vote) alternating with similar conversations between the teacher and a selected student. As the teacher reformulated the guinea-pig student’s responses, and the observing students took notes, these ‘public’ conversations provided the ‘input’ for the subsequent closed pairwork stage. Key expressions were written on the board and their mechanics highlighted, in a way that replicates the language focus stage of Counselling Language Learning (CLL). The cycle of performed conversations, language focus and pairs practice can be repeated as often as time permits, allowing for optimal practice at ‘output + 1’.

In the light of Phil Chappell’s earlier presentation, however, my wondering took the form: ‘Could the same procedure be adapted for less transactional, and more exploratory talk? That is to say, could the goal of the conversations be less about exchanging travel experiences, say, and more about trying to explain why travel matters?’ My feeling is that it can, but I’d like to see this demonstrated.

Finally, Andrew Walkley’s talk, Language-focused teacher development, challenged the assumption (again, central to Dogme) that good teachers are well-equipped to deal with emergent language issues in ways that are non-trivial and challenging.

Andrew neatly demonstrated that many of our intuitions regarding the frequency of a word, or its most typical collocations, are flawed, to say the least. More importantly, he argued that teachers are ‘primed’ by traditional coursebook grammar syllabuses to see only (verb phrase) trees and no (lexical) wood. Hence, when it comes to reformulating learner utterances, we/they seldom provide the kind of productive co-textual data that a corpus search or even a well-written coursebook (like one of Andrew’s, presumably) might deliver. Using the example of the word ‘efficient’, he showed that a Google search for ‘efficient’ throws up many texts of the type ‘X [service, product etc] was very efficient. I had a problem but X sorted it out’. Andrew argued that the reactive teacher would be unlikely to link ‘efficient’ with the phrase ‘sorted it out’ in an off-the-cuff reformulation in the context of, say, one of Ken Lackman’s performed conversations.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

I have to agree, although I think that the ability to think ‘outside the grammar box’ can be trained, by, for example, repeatedly unpacking texts for the constructions that they house (see C is for Construction for an example). The deft use of reference tools, such as learner dictionaries or online corpora, can also be developed. And, of course, teachers who (luckily?) have never used a coursebook are perhaps less prone to see everything through the prism of pedagogical grammar anyway. In the end, though, teachers will get better at reformulating effectively only if they realise that the success of their teaching depends on it. (And this, surely, is a skill that should be developed in all teachers-in-training, whether Dogme-inclined or not).

So, in the light of these three presentations, what (I wonder) might a more rigorous model of Dogme look like? Perhaps it would have the tight, reiterative methodology of Lackman’s CAT framework, but adapted to the wondering conversations favoured by Chappell, while – following Walkley’s example – the reformulation stage would gather in, not just sentence grammar features, but lexical, co-textual and generic ones as well.

Why not just use a coursebook? There are so many ways I could answer that question, but space doesn’t allow. Suffice it to quote the very quotable John Holt (1967: 124):

It can’t be said too often: we get better at using words, whether hearing, speaking, reading, or writing, under one condition and only one—when we use those words to say something we want to say, to people we want to say it to, for purposes that are our own.

References:

Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, London: Penguin.

Holt, J. (1967) How Children Learn, London: Penguin.

Lindfors, J.W. (1999) Children’s Inquiry: Using language to make sense of the world, New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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





R is for Representation

14 04 2013
debate

ELT Journal debate: IATEFL Conference 2013 (photo courtesy Jessica Mackay)

In the debate sponsored by the ELT Journal at this week’s IATEFL Conference in Liverpool, I proposed the motion that published course materials do not reflect the lives nor the needs of the learners.

To challenge some of the assumptions inherent in much published teaching material, I used this mock-up of a coursebook page (see below). It wouldn’t have been ethical, or even legal, to have shown, and then criticized, pages from current coursebooks, but I think you’ll agree that the replica is a plausible one.  I used this to argue that the choices, both of images (more often than not taken from the same kinds of photo archives as the images used in advertising) and of the text accompanying the images, serve to ‘position’ the user to assume a certain kind of identity with respect to the language that they are learning.page1

The physically-attractive, ethnically-mixed, well-dressed and youthful characters are surrounded by iconic consumer items that reflect their upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations: they exemplify the observation made in a recent survey of general English courses by Tomlinson and Masuhara (2013: 248) that ‘there seems to be an assumption that all learners are aspirational, urban, middle-class, well-educated, westernized computer uses.’

Moreover, the questions they are asking – and the language choices available to answer them with – make certain assumptions about their (and, by extension, the student’s) economic status, sexuality, and agency. As I pointed out, somewhat facetiously, the questions Are you married? What’s your job? and Where do you live? do not invite, and may even preclude, a response along the lines of: Actually I’m gay and unemployed, and I’ve been sleeping on the sofa at my folks’ place ever since the bank re-possessed my apartment.  And you?

As it happens, a search through a number of intermediate-level coursebooks widely used in Spain finds little or no reference to an economic situation in which 50% of under-30s are out of work. The words unemployed, on the dole, out of work simply do not appear. Struggle, inequality, deprivation, etc have been air-brushed out of the picture.  As the authors of a survey of general education textbooks in the US note: ‘The vision of social relations that the textbooks we analysed for the most part project is one of harmony and equal opportunity — anyone can do or become whatever he or she wants; problems among people are mainly individual in nature and in the end are resolved’ (Sleeter & Grant, 2011: 205).

The cheery, sanitized, even anodyne, world of the coursebook has, of course, been endlessly targeted for criticism. In fairness, it is not the fault of the coursebook writers themselves (who generally would love to include more ‘edgy’ content), but more an effect of the constraints that they have to work within. These include the authors’ guidelines that many publishers impose, including the famous ‘PARSNIP’ proscriptions (no Pork, Alcohol, Religion… etc). As Diane Ravitch (2004: 46) points out (with regard to textbook production in the US) , ‘the world may not be depicted as it is and as it was, but only as the guideline writers would like it to be’.

The ‘erasure’ of particular, potentially problematic representations – such as those of minority ethnic groups in Russian language textbooks (as reported in Azimova & Johnston 2012) or of Canadians in US-published French language textbooks (Chappelle 2009) – is seen as a deliberate, ideologically-motivated attempt to ‘rewrite’ history and demography. Hand in hand with this erasure of difficulty is found what Gray (2010: 727) describes as ‘the new salience of celebrity in textbooks’, indexing a neoliberal agenda that associates the use of English with success, individualism, glamour, and wealth.page2

However we view it, the way that the learner is represented (or not represented) in the materials they use, has strong ideological ramifications. As Asimova and Johnston (2012: 338-9) put it:

Representation is a highly political business. By this statement we mean that, consciously or unconsciously, those who create and distribute representations play a central part in power relations, challenging or, more usually, reinforcing existing hegemonic relations. Another way of looking at this issue is that representations are never neutral. Though they often seem “normal” and, in the case of visual images especially, can be hard to challenge (Postman, 1993), representations are highly ideological and are a crucial component in forming, maintaining, and changing our view of the world, of groups of individuals, and of the relationships between them. Relations of class, gender, race and sexual orientation are among the most important relations that are centrally mediated by representation.

This, then, was the gist of the case I made: arguing that the way that learners are represented in published materials is both ideologically motivated and out of synch with reality .

In defense of these representations, what arguments were offered by my opponent and in the open discussion during the debate?  Here are four:

1. Students don’t want to be reminded of their less than perfect lives: the view through rose-tinted spectacles offers some respite from the general grimness in which they live;

2. The aspirational culture instantiated in coursebook images and texts has a strong motivational charge, and represents the sort of ‘ideal self’ that some scholars (e.g. Dörnyei 2009) argue is the prerequisite for success in second language learning;

3. All learning involves first identifying (proto-)typical examples of a behaviour, and only later accommodating more marginal phenomena. Hence the need to start with exemplars of the ‘norm’: e.g. white, middle-class, heterosexual family structures, before engaging with the ‘exceptions’;

4. It is not for the textbooks to reflect the reality of the learners’ lives (an impossible task anyway), but for the teacher to mediate – and exploit – the ‘reality gap’, by, for example, having the learners interrogate the texts and even subvert them.

Which way would you have voted?

References:

Azimova, N., & Johnston, B. (2012) ‘Invisibility and ownership of language: problems of representation in Russian language textbooks,’ Modern Language Journal, 96/3.

Chappelle, C. (2009) ‘A hidden curriculum in language textbooks: Are beginning learners of French at U.S. universities taught about Canada?’ Modern Language Journal, 93/2.

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) ‘The L2 motivational self system’, in Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (eds) Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Gray, J. (2010) ‘The branding of English and the culture of the New Capitalism: Representations of the world of work in English language textbooks,’ Applied Linguistics, 31/5.

Ravitch, D.  (2004) The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn, New York: Vintage Books.

Sleeter, C. E., & Grant, G. A. (2011) ‘Race, class, gender, and disability in current textbooks,’ in Provenzo, E., Shaver, A. & Bello, M. (eds.) The textbook as discourse: sociocultural dimensions of American schoolbooks, New York: Routledge.

Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2013) ‘Survey Review: Adult Coursebooks’, ELT Journal, 67/2.

Thanks to Piet Luthi for the mock-up.

You can watch a  recording of the debate here:

http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2013/sessions/2013-04-11/elt-journal-signature-event-published-course-materials-don%E2%80%99t-reflect-lives-or-ne





G is for Grammar lesson

7 04 2013

I recently received a request for an article for a teachers’ journal in Denmark. The editor wrote:

The teaching of grammar in Danish secondary schools seems to be moving back towards a rather traditional view on grammar (for example,  an A-level examination in English testing whether students can correct wrong sentences and explain the rules of grammar).  I was hoping that an article by you may offer a new perspective on the teaching of grammar and authentic language.

I haven’t written the article, but I did write this piece of doggerel:woman teacher 1950

The Grammar Lesson

The teacher enters briskly, taps the board:
‘Now pay attention, class, and not a word.’
Her steely gaze subdues the general clamour.
‘I’m going to teach the rules of English grammar.’

‘I’ll start by explicating all the tenses,
Their forms, a few examples, and their senses.
We’ll finish, as is usual with a test.
A prize for which of you can answer best.’

He always takes the bus (she writes). ‘The present.
(Though present, as we speak, it clearly isn’t).
We call this timeless present “present simple”.
My tailor’s very rich is an example.’

‘Now look at me,’ she orders, as she paces
Between the rows of startled little faces.
‘I’m walking to the door. Now I am turning.
I’m teaching you the grammar. You are learning.’

Intending that her actions be the stimulus,
She demonstrates the present tense (continuous).
‘For acts that are in progress, it’s expressive,
And so it’s sometimes classified “progressive”.’

‘Now, who is this?’ She shows a pic of Caesar.
‘An ancient Roman?’ someone says, to please her.
She draws a Roman galley, oars and mast.
He came, he saw, he conquered: simple past’.

‘And when he came, the weather – it was pouring’,
She adds this detail to her simple drawing,
And with a gesture eloquently sinuous
She illustrates what means the past continuous.

I’ve been to China. In my life. Just once.
Time not important. Use the perfect tense.
He lost the race since he had started last:
Had started represents the perfect past.’

‘Although it seems a little bit excessive,
We also use the perfect with progressive.
Have you been playing badminton? is how
We ask if something’s happening to now.’

‘The future forms we’ll save until … the future.
I think by now you have the general picture.
So pen and paper out – yes, you have guessed it:
I’ve taught you stuff and now it’s time to test it.’

And this is how, as any learner knows,
The English language grammar lesson goes.
And this is why (the moral of my verse)
The English language learner can’t converse.in class 1950

Illustrations from Jan, J.M. & Ollúa, R. (1950) El Inglés Práctico; Comercio, Exámenes y Viajes, Buenos Aires: Academias Pitman.