A is for Authenticity

21 02 2010

The internet never forgets! Curious how something that you wrote years ago can come back to haunt you.  In the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (December 2009) Alan Waters, of Lancaster University, takes me to task over something I wrote on a discussion list in 2004 (!).  Talking about ways of checking learners’ comprehension, this is what I said:

“Do you understand?”  is the most direct and honest way we check understanding in real life, so — if the same conditions of authenticity and sincerity are operating in the classroom (which I argue they should be) — then it may make a lot of sense if, when in doubt, teachers simply stop and ask, hand on heart, “Do you understand?”.  The reasons such direct questions were proscribed in the past is that the classroom was never considered to be a place where communication could be authentic, hence students were not trusted to give honest answers, especially when questions were motivated by fear rather than a sincere desire to register the current state of your interlocutor’s understanding.

Waters goes on to comment: “Unfortunately, such reasoning fails to take into account the typical psychology of classroom relations.  It assumes that simply because the teacher asks a group of students to do so, they will automatically begin to operate on the basis of trust and openness.  But as Prabhu (1992), Allwright (1996), and Allwright (1998) show, lessons are made up of complex patterns of interpersonal dynamics, causing learners to frequently behave in ‘dishonest’ and distrustful ways….  From the pedagogical point of view, therefore, it will usually make greater sense to check understanding via questions which ask students to display their knowledge directly, however ‘inauthentic’ in terms of everyday language use. ”

Do I recant?  Not really.  Of course, I am well aware that there are many different ways of checking understanding and that a competent teacher should be able to deploy these as required.  At the same time, I believe that, as teachers, we should always be aiming to create a classroom dynamic where to ask the question “Do you understand?” need not — indeed, should not — elicit a dishonest and distrustful response. In short, I believe authenticity — that is to say classroom language that reflects “real-life” language use — is achievable in the language classroom, and, that, as teachers of language use, and as educators, such authenticity should be our goal.

Am I mistaken?

K is for Krashen

27 12 2009

Stephen Krashen

From the outset it was decided that there would be no entries in the A-Z that would be dedicated to specific individuals, such as Chomsky or Halliday. Instead, the relevant content associated with the great and good of ELT would be gathered under thematic entries such as universal grammar (in the case of Chomsky) or register (Halliday), and individual names would be relegated to an index at the back. The knowledge base of ELT practitioners, after all, comprises a network of ideas, not names.

Nevertheless, one in-house reviewer criticised what he or she considered an inordinate number of references in the text to the work of Stephen Krashen. It’s true – a quick count shows that Krashen is referenced in at least nine entries (such as affect, comprehension, input etc) compared to, say, Chomsky (7) and Halliday (3). Is this an accurate reflection (the reviewer asked) of Krashen’s status, relative to other influential theoreticians in the field?

This criticism led me to wonder if – like many teachers of my generation – I hadn’t been unduly influenced by the radicalism of a scholar whose major theoretical constructs – e.g. the monitor model, the input hypothesis, the affective filter etc – have subsequently been substantially revised or even discredited.

As a teacher formed in the twilight phase of audiolingualism (see D is for Drilling), I found Krashen’s outright dismissal of the value of productive practice or of error correction, and his case for bathing the learners in a sea of comprehensible input, immediately attractive – all the more so because of the feisty way in which these ideas were argued. (A much-copied Horizon video on language acquisition, which included extracts from a lecture of Krashen’s, was a staple on teacher training courses in the 80s and 90s.)

Doubts started to surface when I found that – as a second language learner who had recently moved to Spain – the silent period I was enjoying seemed indefinitely prolonged, and although my comprehension of Spanish had developed apace, this never translated into fluent production.  (Krashen, of course, would have argued that my affective filter was set too high). Hence, Merrill Swain’s case for the value of forced output prompted a reappraisal, on my part, of Krashen’s input hypothesis, although too late to kick-start my fossilised B2 Spanish.

More recently, however, the pendulum might seem to be swinging back. The advent of the so-called usage-based theories of language acquisition, argued by the likes of Michael Tomasello and Nick Ellis among others, which foreground the effect on the neural ‘stuff’ of massive exposure to patterned input, would seem to vindicate at least some aspects of Krashen’s input hypothesis – i.e. that exposure triggers acquisition.

Krashen himself seems to have distanced himself from SLA theorising (although not conceding in the least to the barrage of criticisms his views have attracted). His main preoccupation now is the development of first language literacy, where he is a vociferous advocate of whole language approaches, entirely consistent with his scepticism about the value of learning as opposed to acquisition.

The question remains, though: is the influence of Krashen overrated? Or, more specifically, have I overrated it in the A-Z?