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.




F is for Fractal

29 04 2012

Medieval grammarians were obsessed with etymology because (according to a recent review in the London Review of Books[1]) the study of word origins ‘perfectly expresses the medieval conviction that language is a comprehensive, fully rational system, in which any part may be logically derived from the whole – just as “logic” itself derives from Logos, the all-creating word’.

The notion that ‘everything is in everything’ was a core precept of the Jacotot Method, also called ‘universal teaching’ (Rancière 1991 – I’ve blogged about it here), in which a single text (in Jacotot’s case it was a bilingual version of the 18th-century French novel Télémaque) served not only as the tool that revealed the secrets of the French language, but also the key that opened the intelligence of the learner. As Rancière (1991: 26) understands it: ‘That is what “everything is in everything” means: …  All the power of languages is in the totality of the book.  All knowledge of oneself as an intelligence is in the mastery of a book, a chapter, a sentence, a word’.

Thus every word, phrase, sentence, chapter is subject to intense scrutiny – but always as a microcosm of the whole. ‘This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it … The student must see everything for himself, compare and compare, and always respond to a three-part question: what do you see?  what do you think about it?  what do you make of it?  And so on, to infinity’ (ibid. 22-23).  In fact, as Rivière  (ibid. 27) points out, ‘the procedures used matter very little in themselves.  It could be Télémaque, or it could be something else.  One begins with a text and not with grammar, with entire words and not with syllables…’

Romanesco broccoli, showing fractal forms
(from Wikipedia)

Cut to the 21st-century and the notion that ‘any part may be derived from the whole’ is a fractal one: ‘A fractal is a geometric figure that is self-similar at different levels of scale’ (Larsen-Freeman 1997: 146). Language, like other complex systems, is fractal in nature: patterns at one level of delicacy are reproduced at every other level. It takes only a very short text to display many of the basic design principles built into language, such as text organisation, sentence structure, word formation, as well as vocabulary distribution and frequency.  In William Blake’s words, the text is ‘a world in a grain of sand’.

Take this one, chosen more or less at random from a joke book for children[2]:

Two elephants went on holiday and sat down on the beach. It was a very hot day and they fancied having a swim in the sea. Unfortunately they couldn’t: they only had one pair of trunks!

In just three sentences the text displays a classically generic story structure, involving actors (two elephants), circumstantial details (on the beach, a hot day), a sequence of past tense actions, and a complicating event. It also has a basic joke structure, consisting of a narrative and a punch-line, which here takes the form of a play on words.

The 37 words further divide up into function words (also called grammar words) and content words (also called lexical words). The former include such common (and typically short) words as a, on, of, the, and was. The latter are the ones that carry the main informational load of the text, such as elephants, beach, hot, and unfortunately. In the elephant text, the relative proportion of these two types of words is roughly 50:50, and this closely reflects the ratio of function words to content words in all texts.  Moreover, the proportion of common to relatively uncommon words in the text exactly reflects the proportions found in much larger collections of text: 30 of the 37words  (i.e. roughly 80%) are in the top 1000 words in English.  Not only that, but of the ten most frequent words in English, six are present in this text, some of them (a, and, the) occurring more than once.

The fact that this tiny text is a microcosm of all text is consistent with what is known as Zipf’s Law (Zipf 1935, 1965). This law states that if a word is nth in frequency in a given language it is likely to occupy the same ranking in any single text in that language. So, the most frequent words in the language are likely to be the most frequent words in any text in that language, and their order of frequency will also be roughly the same. Zipf also showed that there is a correlation between the length of a word and its frequency. Short words occur often. Again, this is evident in our short text.

Coursebook texts are generally rather long, in the belief (possibly mistaken) that learners need to be taught how to read, when what they actually need is the language knowledge (lexical, grammatical, and textual) to enable them to transfer their reading skills from their first language into their second.  Long texts have the disadvantage that they take quite a long time to process, leaving little classroom time for the kind of detailed language work that exploits the text’s linguistic properties. In fact, as I’ve attempted to demonstrate, even a very short text, such as the elephant joke, is packed with pedagogical potential. What’s more, Zipf’s Law relieves us of the worry that short texts might not be sufficiently representative.

As with the Jacotot Method, the choice of text is immaterial. ‘The problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself. Anything can be used. Télémaque. Or a prayer or song the child or the ignorant one knows by heart. There is always something that the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related’ (Rivière 1991: 28).

Everything is in everything.


Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18, 2.

Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Zipf, G.K. (1935, 1965) The Psycho-biology of Language: An Introduction to Dynamic Philology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(Parts of this article were first published in the Guardian Weekly, March 18th, 2005.)

[1] Newman, B. (2012) ‘Ailments of the Tongue’, London Review of Books, 34, 6.

[2] The Great Puffin Joke Directory, by Brough Girling, Puffin Books, 1990.

C is for Construction

5 02 2012

Here’s a little test. Read this (authentic) text, and identify the grammar. You have one minute, starting now:

A girl was taking her little brother for a walk in the park. ‘Can I go and run along the top of that wall?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ said the sister.

‘Go on,’ insisted the little boy.

‘Well, OK,’ she said, ‘but if you fall off and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.’[1]

Ask most EFL teachers what the grammar is in that text and they will probably home in on the past continuous (was taking), modal auxiliary verbs in an inverted question-form (Can I…?), the past simple (asked, insisted, said) and some kind of conditional construction: ‘if …’.  They might also pick up on the phrasal verbs (go on, fall off), although they might not be sure as to whether these are grammar or vocabulary, strictly speaking.

These are all items that are prominent in any coursebook grammar syllabus.

But if grammar is defined as something like ‘generative multi-morpheme patterns’, and if we understand ‘pattern’ to mean any sequence that recurs with more than chance frequency, a quick Google search, or, more scientifically, a nearly-as-quick corpus search, will throw up many more patterns in this text than your standard grammar syllabus accounts for.

For example:

  • take a/the [noun] for a/the [noun] – there are over 100 instances in the British National Corpus (BNC), according to StringNet, of which round 20 are some form of take the dog for a walk
  • a walk in the [noun] – 44 occurrences in the BNC
  • a [noun] in the [noun] – 10,000 occurrences
  • [verb] and [verb], as in go and run – 82,000 occurrences, of which over 5000 start with some form of go
  • [preposition] the top of [noun phrase]  as in along the top of that wall
    • [prep] the top of the [singular N] = 1665 instances in the BNC
    • [prep] the [sing N] of the [sing N] = 60,000 occurrences
  •  [personal pronoun] + [verb] +  [personal pronoun], as in he asked her –  over 220,000 occurrences, of which 3169 involve the verb ask
  • [verb] + [subject], as in said the sister, insisted the little boy – too difficult to count, but very common, especially in fiction
  • both +  [possessive pronoun] + [plural noun] (as in both your legs): 423 examples
  • come/came etc running – 174 examples
  • don’t come running to me (a Google search returned a figure of approximately 579,000 results for this complete utterance)

This doesn’t exhaust the frequently occurring patterns by any means, but it’s enough to give you an idea of how intensely and intricately patterned that text is. Moreover, many of the patterns in my list are just as frequent – if not more so – as the relatively narrow range of patterns that form traditional coursebook grammar. There are as many instances of the pattern [preposition] the [noun] of the [noun] (as in along the top of the wall) per million words of running text as there are examples of the past continuous, for example.

The range and heterogeneity of these patterns also challenges the traditional division between grammar and vocabulary, such that some grammarians have opted for the vaguer, but perhaps more accurate, term constructions. As Nick Ellis (2011, p. 656) puts it:

Adult language knowledge consists of a continuum of linguistic constructions of different levels of complexity and abstraction.  Constructions can comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions).  Consequently, no rigid separation is postulated to exist between lexis and grammar.

Note that, according to this view, the pattern go and [verb] is a construction, and so is the idiom don’t come running to me, since both have a semantic and syntactic integrity that has become routinised in the speech community and entrenched in the minds of that community’s speakers. Given the first couple of words of each construction we can make a good guess as to how it will continue.

In this sense, predictive writing tools, like Google Scribe, that draw on a vast data-base to predict the next most likely word in a string, are replicating what speakers do when they speak, and what listeners do when they listen. Rather than mapping individual words on to a pre-specified grammatical ‘architecture’ (as in a Chomskyan, generative grammar view), speakers construct utterances out of these routinised sequences – the operative word being construct. As one linguist put it, “when it comes to sentences, there are no architects, there are only carpenters” (O’Grady, 2005, p. 2).

And it is out of these constructions that a speakers ‘grammar’ is gradually assembled. Nick Ellis again: “The acquisition of grammar is the piecemeal learning of many thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them”  (2003, p. 67).

If this is true, what are the implications for the teaching of a second language, I wonder? Where do learners encounter these ‘many thousands of constructions’?  How do they ‘abstract regularities’ out of them?


Ellis, N. 2003. Constructions, Chunking, and Connectionism.  In Doughty, C J, & Long, M H (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition Oxford: Blackwell.

Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge.

O’Grady, W. 2005. Syntactic Carpentry: An Emergentist Approach to Syntax. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.

[1] Girling, B. 1990. The Great Puffin Joke Directory. London: Puffin Books.

I is for Input

8 01 2012

Question: where does the input come from in an approach like task-based learning, or Dogme, where there is no syllabus of forms as such, and in which any focus on form is incidental?

This is the gist of the question sent to me a short while back by Anthony Elloway:

My concern about Dogme … is this – is the input rich enough?… My intuition is that, though there are advantages to working with student output, bringing more language into the class seems to be very valuable. And a coursebook – if given life by a teacher – might just do this job… Having an external syllabus/ coursebook does seem to provide a great deal of (organised) input for learners, perhaps more than the learners could produce themselves.

Good question. One possible answer is that the input comes – not just from the learners’ output – but from the texts that they (or the teacher) bring to class. Texts would certainly enrich the input quotient.

But the problem still remains that the form focus is incidental, in the sense that it is not necessarily pre-determined by a structural (or lexical or functional etc) syllabus.  And not just incidental, but – with teachers whose language analysis skills are still rudimentary – it’s more likely to be accidental.

Roy Lyster, in putting the case for ‘a counterbalanced approach’ (in a book referred to in a previous post), sees a similar danger in content-based teaching (i.e. of the CLIL type), and cites  research that suggests that, in content-based teaching, ‘attention to language is too brief and likely too perfunctory to convey sufficient information about certain grammatical subsystems and thus … can be considered neither systematic nor apt to make the most of content-based instruction as a means of teaching language’ (2007, p. 27).

It’s true: as teachers we know that, when a really good conversation is up and running, the last thing we want to do is wade in and correct errors or suggest better ways of saying the same thing. Yet it is precisely at these moments that, allegedly, corrective feedback is at its most effective.

Michael Swan (2005), in a withering critique of task-based learning, makes a similar argument to Lyster’s, but even more forcefully:

I suggest that naturalistically-biased approaches are, in important respects, pedagogically impoverished, favouring the development of what is already known at the expense of the efficient teaching of new language.

That is to say, where there is no pre-selected input, the existing ‘pool’ of language just goes round and round. He adds:

It is difficult to see how, in many classrooms, interaction can reliably promote the acquisition of new material during task performance. Unless the teacher is the interlocutor, task-based interaction may more easily uncover gaps than bridge them.

Of course, there is no reason why the teacher can’t be the interlocutor, and a Dogme approach has always argued for the teacher being a co-participant in the conversation. But, clearly, the teacher’s ability to provide optimal input is a function of class size, not to mention their classroom management and language management skills.

But can’t learners provide each other with input?  Swan accepts that there is some evidence that  learners can pick up new language items from one another, but rejects this as being a sound basis for a methodology: ‘If one was seeking an efficient way of improving one’s elementary command of a foreign language, sustained conversation and linguistic speculation with other elementary learners would scarcely be one’s first choice’.

Nor, for that matter, would being subjected solely to teacher-fronted grammar explanations be one’s first choice either, especially where the grammar being explained has been selected arbitrarily from a pre-established syllabus, and bears little or no relation to one’s communicative needs.

Hence Lyster’s argument for a counterbalance: ‘Both proactive and reactive approaches need to be counterbalanced in complementary ways’ (p. 137).

How? Lyster argues for the inclusion, within a meaning-driven approach, of more form-focused options. These would include explicit attention to form, through noticing and awareness tasks, plus practice activities for production, and explicit feedback on error.

Would the inclusion of form-focused interventions such as these circumvent the need for a coursebook and, by extension, a pre-determined syllabus of grammar McNuggets?  I hope so.  But, for those teachers who opt for a more experiential methodology, such as Dogme, a counterbalanced approach may require more rigour, and more finely-honed teaching skills, than are normally required either teaching from a coursebook or simply chatting with the students.

Or is the term ‘input’ itself a non-starter? Isn’t it a relic of a mechanistic, computational metaphor of the mind that is giving way to a more ecological one?  Shouldn’t we be thinking less of input as such, and more about the learning opportunities that become available in authentic language use – in other words, the affordances (for which see the previous post)?


Lyster, R. (2007) Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26 (3): 376-401.

Illustrations from Oxenden, C., and Seligson, P. (1996). English File 1: Students’s Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

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.

F is for Focus on Form

13 03 2011

In his absurdist, mildly funny novel Nowhere Man (Picador, 2004), Aleksandar Hemon describes a scene where the protagonist, a Bosnian, has applied for a job as an English teacher (‘strictly out of despair’) in an ESL school in Chicago. He is given a tour of the school, and visits an advanced class where there is a discussion in progress about Siamese twins:

“I must say,” the man whom I recognised as Mihalka said, “that it is not perfectly pleasant when I watch them.”

“They are monsters,” said a woman in a dark, stern suit…

“They are humans,” Mihalka said, then lifted his index finger, enunciating an important statement.  “When I had been a little child, I had had a friend who had had a big head…. Every child had told him about his big head and had kicked him with a big stick on his head.  I had been very sad,” Mihalka said, nodding, as if to show the painful recoil of the big head.

“We are learning Past Perfect,” the teacher said to us, and smiled benevolently…

“I must know Past Perfect,” Mihalka said, and shrugged resignedly, as if Past Perfect were death and he were ready for it.

The scene nicely captures a number of the tensions that characterise interaction in the ESL/EFL classroom, not least the tension between, on the one hand, meaningful interaction (“Let’s talk about Siamese twins”) and, on the other, a focus on form (“Let’s use the past perfect”).

(Normally, of course, the focus on form is engineered by the teacher, not the learner. What’s interesting, in this case, is Mihalka’s dogged – if flawed – attempts to use ‘the structure of the day’. Is this because he is conscious that the teacher’s agenda is primarily form-focussed? Or is he the kind of learner who likes to try new forms out for size? Well, we’ll never know.)

Just to remind you, a focus on form “overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long 1991, quoted in Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3). Typically, this might take the form of overt correction, or of gentle nudging, e.g. by asking for clarification, or by re-casting (or reformulating) what the learner has said. This incidental approach contrasts with the more traditional and deliberate approach, where teaching is based on a syllabus of graded structures (or forms), and these are pre-taught in advance of activities designed to practise them – what Long called (somewhat confusingly) a focus on formS.

A focus on formS (plural) entails the pre-selection and pre-teaching of discrete items of language (it is thus proactive), whereas a focus on form is essentially reactive, entailing “a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features can expect to be effective” (Doughty and Williams, ibid. p. 3).   A focus on formS presumes a PPP methodology, where presentation of pre-selected and pre-graded items precedes production, and where it is assumed that fluency arises out of accuracy.  A focus on form, on the other hand, fits better with a task-based approach, where learning is driven solely by the need to communicate and where, as in first language acquisition, accuracy is late-acquired.

Focusing on the form of learner language that has emerged in classroom interaction is also a mainstay of the Dogme philosophy. As Luke Meddings and I point out (in Teaching Unplugged):

Focussing on learners’ lives means that the language that emerges in class will be relevant to them, but there is still work to be done if both you and they are to make the most of it. This is where a focus on form comes in (p. 60).

In our book, we offer some strategies as to how to exploit the language that emerges in classroom interaction so as to incorporate a focus on form, without sacrificing real communication. These include:

1.                  Retrieve what the learner has just said.  Otherwise it will just remain as linguistic “noise”. This might mean simple making an informal note during a speaking activity, or, at times, writing the learner’s utterance on the board.

2.                  Repeat it.  Repeat it yourself; have other learners repeat it – even drill it! Drilling something has the effect of making it stand out from all the other things that happen in a language lesson.

3.                  Recast it.  Reformulate the learners’ interlanguage productions into a more target-like form. This is not the same as correction. It is simply a way of indicating “I know what you’re trying to say; this is how I would say it”.

4.                  Report it.  Ask learners to report what they said and heard in group work. Apart from anything else, knowing that they may have to report on their group work encourages learners to pay attention to what is going on.

5.                  Recycle it. Encourage learners to use the emergent items in new contexts. This may be simply asking for an example of their own that contextualises a new item of vocabulary, or it may involve learners creating a dialogue that embeds several of the new expressions that have come up.

I’m now wondering: in the case of Mihalka, in the ‘Siamese Twin’ lesson quoted above, which of these – if any – might have been the most effective strategy?


Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (eds.) 1998. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.