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?