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.




A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

V is for Variability

17 07 2011

“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

(Romeo & Juliet)

I have Shakespeare on the brain at the moment, having splashed out on tickets for three of the five shows that the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on in New York this summer.

And, just by chance, I came across a fascinating book on Shakespeare’s grammar, first published in 1870, which details not only the differences between Elizabethan and modern grammar, but also documents – even celebrates – the enormous variability in the former. As the author, E.A. Abbott notes, in Elizabethan English, at least on a superficial view, “any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, are allowable” (Abbott,  1870, 1966, p. 5).

He proceeds to itemise some of the inconsistencies of Shakespeare’s grammar: “Every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us. He for him, him for he; spoke and took, for spoken and taken; plural nominatives with singular verbs;  relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; … double negatives; double comparatives (‘more better,’ &c.) and superlatives; … and lastly, some verbs apparently with two nominatives, and others without any nominative at all” (p. 6).

As examples of how this variability manifests itself even within the same sentence, consider the following:

None are so surely caught when they are catch’d  (Love‘s Labour Lost)

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers? Where are thy children? (Richard III)

If thou beest not immortal, look about you (Julius Caesar)

I never loved you much; but I ha’ prais’d ye (Anthony and Cleopatra)

Makes both my body pine and soul to languish (Pericles)

Is there not wars? Is there not employment? (2 Henry IV)

Part of the RSC's summer season in NYC

Of course, we can attribute a lot of Shakespeare’s ‘errors’ to the requirements of prosody or to the negligence of typesetters. But many more may be due to what Abbott calls “the unfixed nature of the language”: “It must be remembered that the Elizabethan was a transitional period in the history of the English language” (p. 6). Hence the seemingly free variation between is and be, between thou forms and you forms, and between ye and you.  Likewise,  do-questions freeely alternate with verb inversion:

Countess. Do you love my son?
Helena. Your pardon, noble mistress!
Countess. Love you my son?
Helena. Do not you love him, madam?

(All’s Well That Ends Well)

Elizabethan English was clearly in a state of flux, but is English any less variable now than it was in Shakespeare’s time, I wonder?  Think of the way adjective + -er comparatives are yielding to more + adjective  forms (see this comment on a previous post), or of the way past conditionals are mutating (which I wrote about here), or of the way I’m loving it is just the tip of an iceberg whereby stative verbs are becoming dynamic (mentioned in passing here). Think of the way the present perfect/past simple distinction has  become elided in some registers of American English (Did you have breakfast yet?) or how like has become an all-purpose quotative (He’s like ‘Who, me?’) or how going forward has become a marker of futurity.

That variation is a fact of linguistic life has long been recognised by sociolinguists. As William Labov wrote, as long ago as 1969:

“One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking” (1969, 2003, p. 234).

More recently, as seen through the lens of complex systems theory, all language use – whether the language of a social group or the language of an individual – is subject to constant variation. “A language is not a fixed system. It varies in usage over speakers, places, and time” (Ellis, 2009, p. 139).  Shakespeare’s language was probably no more nor less variable than that of an English speaker today. As Diane Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53)  puts it: “From a Complexity Theory perspective, flux is an integral part of any system. It is not as though there was some uniform norm from which individuals deviate. Variability stems from the ongoing self-organization of systems of activity”. In other words, variability, both at the level of the social group or at the level of the individual, is not ‘noise’ or ‘error’, but is in integral part of the system as it evolves and adapts.

If language is in a constant state of flux, and if there is no such thing as ‘deviation from the norm’ – that is to say, if there is no error, as traditionally conceived – where does that leave us,  as course designers, language teachers, and language testers? Put another way, how do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? If language is like “the inconstant moon/that monthly changes in her circled orb”, how do we get the measure of it?

In attempting to provide a direction, Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53) is instructive:

“We need to take into account learners’ histories, orientations and intentions, thoughts and feelings. We need to consider the tasks that learners perform and to consider each performance anew — stable and predictable in part, but at the same time, variable, flexible, and dynamically adapted to fit the changing situation. Learners actively transform their linguistic world; they do not just conform to it”.


Abbot, E.A. 1870. A Shakespearean Grammar: An attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Modern English. London: Macmillan, re-published in 1966 by Dover Publications, New York.

Ellis, N. 2009. ‘Optimizing the input: frequency and sampling in usage-based and form-focused learning.’ In Long, M. & Doughty, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2010. ‘The dynamic co-adaptation of cognitive and social views: A Complexity Theory perspective’. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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?