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.




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.