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 Push

11 07 2010

On my MA Methods course I’ve been pushing the notion of ‘push’. ‘Being pushed’ (I argue) is a precondition for effective learning. In order to progress, learners need to be challenged to go beyond their immediate comfort zone; they need to be coerced into extending their present level of competence.  Otherwise, there is a danger that they will simply mark time as language learners, or even – to use a now fairly discredited term – fossilize.

Merrill Swain (left) along with other plenary speakers at last year's JALT Conference

The term ‘push’ is borrowed from a comment that Merrill Swain made as long ago as 1985, in proposing what became known (in contradistinction to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis) as the Output Hypothesis. If you remember, Krashen had argued that comprehensible input alone is a sufficient condition for second language acquisition to occur, with the proviso that the input should be pitched a little above the learner’s present state of competence – what Krashen dubbed “input + 1”.

Swain, on the other hand, argued that, while input is necessary, it is insufficient. Instead (or as well),  the learner needs to produce language, and not only produce,  but be “pushed towards the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently and appropriately”.  She adds that “being ‘pushed’ in output … is a concept that is parallel to that of the i + 1 of comprehensible input”.

One reason for this is – as I point out in An A-Z – “being pushed to produce language puts learners in a better position to notice the ‘gaps’ in their language knowledge”, encouraging them to ‘upgrade’ their existing interlanguage system. And, as they are pushed to produce language in real time and thereby forced to automate low-level operations by incorporating them into higher-level routines, it may also contribute to the development of fluency.

So, what can teachers do to provide this extra ‘push’? Here are a few ideas:

1. Rather than accepting one- or two-word replies to questions, insist on more elaborated utterances, in the spirit of: “Ok, that was good. Now give me a full sentence.” Or, “Ok, say that again, but include two facts, not just one”.

2. Repeat tasks: research suggests that performance generally improves when learners repeat a speaking task. The second or third time round, ‘raise the bar’, e.g. ‘This time, do it from memory, without your notes’. Or, ‘This time do it in half the time’. If doing the same task seems like a chore, add variety by changing the partner for each ‘take’.

3. Public performance: Whereas pair and group work is great for task rehearsal, it’s also easy for learners to under-perform in this setting, especially when out of ear-shot of the teacher. Performing the task to the whole class, or publicly reporting on the outcome of the task, adds an element of formality that often encourages greater attention to accuracy. And knowing that they may be called upon to report or perform has a useful washback effect on the level of engagement during the groupwork itself.

4. Encourage learners to go beyond their present competence by incorporating novel language items into their performance. For example, if a role play involves making requests, establish the request forms that the learners are already comfortable with, then top up by teaching some new ones. Ask individuals to choose at least one new form, and to write it on a piece of paper, which they hold during the role play, and which they relinquish once it’s been used.   Alternatively, a cuisenaire rod can represent the targeted form – it helps if it is something physical that serves to jog their memory when the time is right.

5. Increase memory load. For example, write targeted words, expressions or structures on the board, in preparation for a speaking task, such as a class survey. As the learners perform the task, selectively erase the material from the board, placing greater demands on their memory in an incremental fashion.

6. Change the mode: for example, learners summarise a groupwork discussion in written form. Or they perform a dialogue that they have first scripted.  Or a rehearsed dialogue is then filmed. Or a Powerpoint presentation is then performed. And so on.


Swain, M. (1985) ‘Communicative competence:some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development’. In Gass, S.and Madden, C. (Eds.) Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House