P is for Problematizing (2)

11 06 2017

Neil portrait.jpgNeil Forrest, teacher trainer at IH Barcelona for over 30 years, retired this week.  I worked with Neil for at least 10 of those years, mainly on the DTEFLA, now DELTA, courses. Working so closely with someone for so long, not to mention sharing a house in the country, had a profound effect on my ‘practical theory’ of language teaching. We were also lucky in that we were pretty much free to design and administer our courses the way we wanted.

One insight I gained from Neil was his comment that, if he observed a lesson in which there were no problems – where everything went smoothly and according to the plan, then there was probably no learning. By problems, he meant those moments when the unexpected happens – when, for example, a teacher’s question elicits a response that is not the intended one, or when a student asks a random grammar question, or when a student utterance contains an inexplicable error, or when a student misinterprets a sentence in a text. Arguably, it’s by engaging with – and attempting to resolve – these unforeseen problems that opportunities for learning are optimized. By contrast, a lesson that runs along its tracks smoothly and effortlessly, with the punctuality of a Swiss train, is probably a lesson in which the learners are under-challenged. And without challenge – or ‘push’, to use Merrill Swain’s term (see P is for Push) – there is no momentum, no learning. Just stasis.

The notion of ‘problematizing’ learning has antecedents in the ‘down the garden path’ treatment which is designed to purposefully induce – and then correct – errors of overgeneralization. For example, Tomasello and Herron (1988) conducted an experiment in which learners were taught – among other things – past tense verb endings for a set of regular verbs, and then were given an exercise that asked them to make sentences about the past with a new set of verbs, some of which were irregular. Having been led ‘down the garden path’, the learners inevitably made overgeneralization errors (e.g. she taked…I runned…) and were then corrected. Compared to a control group, where errors were not forced in this way, learning was found to be more effective.


Neil and me cropped

Problematizing at International House, Barcelona – late 80s?

I adapted this principle to produce what VanPatten (2015) calls ‘sentence interpretation tasks’, designed to induce learners to make subtle choices and thereby notice grammar features that might otherwise fly below their radar. An example might be having to choose the pictures  – without any prior instruction – that match each sentence of such pairs as The ship sank/The ship was sunk; The door opened/The door was opened, etc.


It is the feedback that learners get on their errors – whether forced or not – that drives learning, argues John Hattie, summarizing the results of literally thousands of research studies, and concluding: ‘We need classes that develop the courage to err’ (Hattie 2009, p. 178).

It may also be the case that the most effective type of feedback on error is the feedback that learners get when their message is not understood or when it is misinterpreted. Thus, the learner who says I am leaving here, meaning I am living here, and gets the response Bye, then! may pay greater attention to avoiding this pronunciation error when it next comes up. This is a case for sometimes ‘acting dumb’ when learners make errors, in order to demonstrate the potential effect of such errors outside the classroom.

If not being understood acts as an incentive to pay closer attention to form, so too might not understanding. In contradistinction to Krashen’s argument that comprehension is a necessary, and even sufficient, condition for learning, Lydia White (1987) has argued that it may be the failure to understand that leads to learning, in that it may force the learner to pay closer attention to grammatical form. As she puts it, ‘the driving force for grammar change is that input is incomprehensible, rather than comprehensible’ (p. 95, emphasis added). Similarly, Lynch (1996, p. 86) argues:

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

Coping with problems is basic to John Hattie’s view of good teaching as being cycles of trial, error and feedback. But, in a follow-up to his 2009 book, he makes the point that ‘if there is no challenge, the feedback is probably of little or any value: if students already know the material or find it too easy, then seeking or providing feedback will have little effect’ (Hattie 2012, p.131). Of course, providing challenge is not without its risks: ‘When we experience challenge, we often encounter dissonance, disequilibrium, and doubt’ (op. cit. p. 58). But Hattie argues that these tensions can be productive: ‘This positive creation of tension underlines the importance of teachers in encouraging and welcoming error, and then helping the students to see the value of this error to move forward; this is the essence of great teaching’ (ibid.).

Sant Cebrià.jpg

Can Ferran, Sant Cebrià


My initial training as a language teacher encouraged me to pre-empt errors at all costs, and to ensure that any texts that learners were exposed to were well within their level of comprehension. It wasn’t until I started working with Neil that I realized the value of forced errors and of only partly comprehensible texts – the value, in other words, of problems.


Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Lynch, T. (1996) Communication in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.85.

Tomasello, M., & Herron, C. (1989). ‘Feedback for language transfer errors: The garden path technique’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 11, 385-395.

VanPatten, B. (2015) ‘Input processing in adult SLA’ in VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds) Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (2nd edition). London: Routledge.

White, L. (1987) ‘Against comprehensible input: the input hypothesis and the development of second language competence’. Applied Linguistics, 8, 95-110.




G is for Guided Discovery

5 06 2011

A colleague in the Czech Republic emailed me this week, asking about guided discovery – a term he felt was being used rather too freely by his graduate students:

“I’ve had a bit of a hunt round looking for some empirical work on guided discovery. Know you of anything? For I have found a big fat nothing”.

I emailed back:

“Can I clarify – is it the ‘guided’ or the ‘discovery’ that concerns you? That is, do you accept that discovery learning (aka induction) is valid, but your question is about the (degree of) guidance? Or are you questioning the whole notion of discovery learning , whether guided or not?”

My friend responded:

“In answer to your question, I guess it’s the whole notion of discovery learning – where’s the evidence?”

First of all: What is discovery learning – and guided discovery, in particular?

Discovery learning, according to Richards & Schmidt (2002) is where “learners develop processes associated with discovery and inquiry by observing, inferring, formulating hypotheses, predicting and communicating” (p. 162).  Unlike pure, deep-end induction, however, guided discovery implies a degree of external intervention, typically engineered by the teacher, in the form of graduated exposure to data and carefully placed questions. This function could also be assumed by a task-sheet, or sequence of computer commands, each contingent on an assessment of the current state of the learner’s evolving understanding.

The actual degree of guidance can vary a lot. It might simply take the form of such attention-grabbing devices as a conspicuously frequent number of occurences of the targeted item in a text (also known as input flood), or the use of design features, such as enlarged font, to highlight the item in question (input enhancement). These will usually be accompanied by some instruction to search for, extract, and label a grammatical pattern. Corpus concordances, where instances of a word in its context are organised so that the target word (the node) is aligned, are an example of both input flood and input enhancement.

Guidance is typically mediated by questions, each question challenging learners to advance their understanding one further step. Clearly, the notion of asking questions as a means of co-constructing learning  maps neatly onto a sociocultural model of learning, where the teacher is working within the learners’ zone of proximal development in order to scaffold their emergent learning.

In conjunction with the question sequence, or as an alternative to it, new data may be progressively made available to the learners, challenging them to review and restructure their current state of knowledge.  Indeed, Pit Corder went so far as to argue that “teaching is a matter of providing the learner with the right data at the right time” (1988, p. 33).

In recent years, the concept of (guided) discovery learning has tended to merge with the notion of consciousness-raising (CR) – the common ground being that activities are structured in such a way as to invite learners to develop their own hypotheses about the targeted feature of the language. As an example of a CR approach, learners might be given limited information about a grammatical form (e.g. that the past is formed by the addition of the -ed suffix), and are then invited to apply the rule in a communicative context – whereupon they come up against the rule’s limitations. This in turn requires them to restructure their existing knowledge. This technique, known as ‘up-the-garden-path’ teaching, views the testing of hypotheses, and the inevitable error making that results, as an integral part of the learning process.

Does guided discovery work? To answer this question, we need first to know whether inductive (or data-driven) learning has an advantage over deductive (or rule-driven) learning. Reviewing the research Ellis (2008), concludes that “a tentative general conclusion might be that deductive FFI [form-focused instruction] is more effective than inductive FFI (when both involve practice activities) but it is possible that this may in part depend on the learner’s preferred learning style” (p. 882).  Later in the same work, though, he is more equivocal:  “Both inductive and deductive explicit instruction appear to work with no clear evidence in favour of either” (p. 903).

On discovery learning itself, Ellis is less cautious.  In Ellis (2002) he states that “a discovery-based approach to teaching explicit knowledge has much to recommend it” (p. 164). One reason is that, arguably, a rule that has been ‘discovered’ is more memorable than one that has simply been presented. Moreover, practice in identifying patterns in naturally-occurring data, and hypothesising rules from these patterns, is undoubtedly useful preparation for self-directed and autonomous learning.

And finally, as Ellis points out, the exercise of working collaboratively with other students in hypothesising rules is useful communicative practice in its own right: “Talking about grammar might be more meaningful than talking about the kinds of general topics often found in communicative language courses” (p. 165). At the same time, as he points out in the first edition of his 2008 tome, “Not all learners will be interested in or capable of inducing explicit representations of grammatical rules” (Ellis 1994, p. 645).

Indeed, Ellis’s own research in this area has produced contradictory results. In one study this may have been due  to the failure of the teacher in question to execute discovery learning properly, which leads Ellis to warn that “this may reflect an inherent limitation of such tasks – namely, that they require considerable expertise and care on the part of the instructor to ensure they work” (p. 165).

On the same note, Scrivener (2005) advises teachers that “guided discovery is demanding on both you and the learner, and although it may look artless to a casual observer, it isn’t enough to throw a task at the learners, let them do it and then move on. Guided discovery requires imagination and flexibility” (p. 268).

As either a learner or a teacher, has guided discovery worked for you?


Corder, S.P. (1988) Pedagogic Grammars. In Rutherford, W., & Sharwood Smith, M. (eds.) Grammar and Second Language Teaching: A Book of Readings. Boston, MA.: Heinle & Heinle.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (2002) Methodological options in grammar teaching materials. In Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrenece Erlbaum.

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

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.) Harlow: Longman.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan.

Illustrations from F.T.D. (1923) Método de Inglés: Segundo Libro. Mexico, D.F.: Mexico.