G is for Grammar syllabus

15 04 2012

A hobby-horse of mine, I know, but I thought I’d make a video this time, rather than write about it all over again.

Some relevant quotes and references (the numbers don’t correlate with my ‘8 issues’ but the order more or less does):

1. “Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those item”.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998) ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’, in Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 16.

2. “In helping learners manage their insights into the target language we should be conscious that our starting point is the learner’s grammar of the language.  It is the learner who has to make sense of the insights derived from input, and learners can only do this by  considering new evidence about the language in the light of their current model of the language. This argues against presenting them with pre-packaged structures and implies that they should be encouraged to process text for themselves so as to reach conclusions which make sense in terms of their own systems”.

Willis, D. (1994)  ‘A Lexical Approach’, in Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn, and E. Williams, (eds.) Grammar and the Language Teacher, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, p. 56.

3. “Materials used in the teaching of grammar have commonly been based on intuition… In fact, corpus-based research shows that the actual patterns of function and use in English often differ radically from prior expectations…  Some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked in pedagogic grammars, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention.”

Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, (1994) ‘Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics’,  Applied Linguistics 15, 2, p. 171.

4. “Language learning is exemplar based…. the knowledge underlying fluent use of language is not grammar in the sense of abstract rules or structure but a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances”.

Ellis, N. (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing. A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, p. 166.

5. “Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences.”

Ellis, N. (1997) ‘Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class’, in Schmitt, N., and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.

6. “Grammar is … simply the name for certain categories of observed repetitions in discourse…. Its forms are not fixed templates but emerge out of face-to-face interaction in ways that reflect the individual speakers’ past experience of these forms… Grammar, in this view, is not the source of understanding and communication but a by-product of it”.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’, in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure, Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 156.

7. “From the perspective of emergent grammar … learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.”

Lantolf, J. and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 7.

8. “We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom In Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12.





I is for Imitation

25 03 2012

Listen!  Repeat! Understand! The sequence below comes from an advert for a self-study language course – an advert that I have used countless times on training sessions to (gently) mock the folk theory that language acquisition (both first and second) is primarily a process of imitation – and imitation in advance of understanding, no less. The text of the advert spells it out: ‘You probably can’t remember, but at that time [i.e. when you were a child]  you first reproduced sounds, then words, and then entire phrases without really understanding anything. Very quickly you were able to speak, understand and make yourself understood’.  And of course they add, ‘This is the best way to learn any language’.

It’s amazing how this notion has resisted the hatchet-job that Chomsky and his followers inflicted upon it so long ago. Mindless reproduction of the type described cannot of course account for the almost limitless creativity that even quite young children allegedly exhibit. Summing up the evidence, Lightbown and Spada (2006: 14) confidently declare that ‘imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children’, citing a figure of less than 10 per cent of children’s output as being directly imitative.

So, if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model. The learning sequence might better be summed up as Listen! Understand! Figure it out! Create!

It’s something of a shock, therefore, to come up against this sentence in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language ([1934], 1986: 188, emphasis added): ‘In learning to speak, as in learning school subjects, imitation is indispensable’. Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 166) gloss it, ‘Imitation is the process through which socioculturally constructed forms of mediation are internalised’. That is to say, the transition from skills (including linguistic ones) that are initially other-regulated to those that are self-regulated is engineered by – hold your breath – imitation.

In fairness, and as Swain et al (2011: 58) point out, Vygotsky’s notion of imitation was a far cry from mindless parroting: ‘Vygotsky differentiated imitation from automatic copying.  In Vygotsky’s view, imitation is a potentially transformative mechanism that is applied consciously and is goal-directed. Intentionality of the imitation, the reflection and examination of the results, and the subsequent revisions differentiates the action from simple mimicry’. This is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1981: 428) claim that, to make an utterance is to ‘appropriate the words of others and populate them with one’s own intentions’.

Imitation, then, is like a benign form of plagiarism, in which the child cobbles utterances together, in a kind of cut-and-paste fashion, using whatever linguistic affordances are available in order to achieve their immediate communicative purposes.  These linguistic affordances include, not only words, but multi-word chunks, such as lemme-see, I-wanna-do-it, etc, that, initially at least, are unanalysed into their component parts (Tomasello 2003). In this sense, they constitute what one scholar (Clark 1974: 1) has called performance without competence: ‘The important question is no longer whether imitation can help children to acquire syntax, but precisely how a child gradually extracts grammatical information from the repertoire of imitated sequences at his [or her] disposal’.

So, to tweak our learning sequence yet again, maybe what’s happening is more like Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it out! – not a million miles from the Listen! Repeat! Understand! formula that I habitually mock.

The question then is (as ever): how does this apply to the learning of a second language? How does one ‘populate the words of others with one’s own intentions’?  Eva Hoffman (1998: 220), a Polish teenager learning English in the United States, describes the process of appropriation:  ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me… By assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’.  In a similar, patchwork fashion, a student of academic writing will selectively imitate (or copy) features, both micro- and macro-, of a model text as a first step in discovering her own academic ‘voice’.

If imitation is fundamental to first language acquisition, should we be integrating more imitation-type activities into our second language classrooms? And how can we ensure that, in order to be ‘transformative’, imitation meets the criteria that Swain et al. establish (2011: 59), i.e. that it is ‘deliberate, reflective, and accompanied by some kind of instruction’?

References:

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, R. (1974) ‘Performing without competence’, Journal of Child Language, 1, 1.

Hoffman, E. (1998) Lost in Translation: A Life in a  New Language, London: Vintage.

Lantolf, J.P., and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned (3rd edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Kinnear, P., and Steinman, L. (2011) Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition, London: Continuum.

Vygotsky, L. ([1934] 1986), Thought and Language, edited by Kozulin, A., Cambridge, Mass: The MIT 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

etc.

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.

References

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.





M is for Memorization

8 04 2011

What lessons can psychology teach us about second language instruction?

In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009) draws six practical implications from current research findings, one being that instruction “should be meaning focused and personally engaging” (p.302). Nothing surprising about that, perhaps, but what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning?

Reviewing this book in the latest ELT Journal, Steven McDonough asks “Surely he is not suggesting that learners should learn grammar rules by heart?” (McDonough, 2011, p. 195). Since I don’t yet have the book, I have no way of checking. But in an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is “rote learning ability”. This is “the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations” (Carroll, 1981, p.105). Accordingly, the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), which Carroll had a hand in, includes a rote learning component: “Students have a total of four minutes to memorize 24 Kurdish/English word pairs. Retention is tested by means of a multiple choice test…” (cited in Dörnyei, 2005, p. 37). (Easy if you’re Kurdish, of course!)

Subsequently, Skehan (1998), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that “memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance” (p.204). It’s not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: “To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with a rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use” (p.221).

If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results?

In a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote-learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, “The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them.” What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, were entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: “Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent “. As one of the subjects reported, “through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points”.

Now I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. I have to say that the book has exceeded my expectations, and triumphantly fulfils its back-cover promise: “Memory Activities for Language Learning explores the cognitive processes of memory and provides a bank of activities to facilitate their development”.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.

References:

Carroll, J.B. 1981. Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude. In K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Ding, Y. 2007. Text memorisation and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System 35: 271-80.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough, S. 2011. Review of Dörnyei (2009) in ELT Journal, 65/2, pp. 194-6.

Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Hamilton, J. 1946. Método de Inglés (Tercer Libro) Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Progreso.





R is for Rules

20 02 2011

On the bus the other day I overheard three Spanish-speaking schoolgirls discussing their English homework, coursebooks open on their laps. The conversation went something like this:

A: ¿El ‘present simple’, qué es el ‘present simple’? (The present simple – what’s the present simple?)

B: Es para las cosas que siempre vas a hacer. (It’s for the things that you’re always going to do).

A: Pues, el ‘present continuous’ – ¿de qué se trata? (Well, the present continuous – what’s that all about?)

C: Es para las cosas que tu haces una sola vez. Por ejemplo, ‘Yesterday I going shopping’. (It’s for the things you do only once. For example [in English], ‘Yesterday I going shopping’).

B: Y ¿’will’? (And ‘will’?)

A: Es para hablar del futuro, como ‘yo voy a ayudar a mis amigos’. (It’s to talk about the future, as in [in Spanish] ‘I’m going to help my friends’).

These girls were in ther mid-teens, I guessed, and had probably been doing three or four years of English already – three or four years learning, and attempting to apply (but with such conspicuous lack of success) some of the most basic rules of English grammar. Which led me to wonder, what earthly good had these rules done them? And, more radically, what earthly good are rules at all?

I’m not, of course, disputing the fact that language consists of certain patterns and regularities. I’m simply sceptical of the value of teaching these regularities in the form of explicit rules. Especially when the rules have so little obvious utility. As Chris Brumfit (2001) wrote, “it is common to believe that teaching the descriptive rules is to teach the means of generating the behaviour itself” ( p 29.) Clearly, this was not happening to the girls on the bus.

And it’s not just schoolgirls who find grammar rules hard to get their heads around. Some of the best minds in the business are ‘grammatically challenged’. Take, for instance,  the eminent linguist Dick Schmidt, who recorded this classroom experience when learning Portuguese in Brazil:

The class started off with a discussion of the imperfect vs. perfect, with C [the teacher] eliciting rules from the class. She ended up with more than a dozen rules on the board — which I am never going to remember when I need them. I’m just going to think of it as background and foreground and hope that I can get a feel for the rest of it (Schmidt & Frota, 1986, p. 258).

Which he did – by heading out into the street and trying it on with the locals. The fact that some learners, at least, dispense with rules should give us pause. After all, if we take the view that, as Ellis (2007) puts it, “language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes ” (p. 23), then surely communication is the name of the game.

But what about accuracy? The argument that – without knowledge of rules – accuracy will suffer doesn’t hold much water either. As J. Hulstijn (1995) remarks, “It is perfectly well possible to focus learners’ attention on grammatical correctness without explicitly teaching grammar” (p.383). That is, after all, the function of feedback and correction.

And yet part of me can’t entirely dismiss the value of rules – or of some rules, at least – if for no other reason than for their mnemonic value, like the mantra-like spelling rules we learn as children and still invoke as adults: “i before e, except after c“. In support of this view, cognitive scientists have studied the role that such memorised rules play in ‘self-scaffolding’ learned routines, the frequent practice of which “enables the agent to develop genuine expertise and to dispense with the rehearsal of the helpful mantra” (Clark, 2011, p. 48).

Moreover, taking a socio-cultural perspective, might not grammar rules serve as a kind of symbolic tool, providing learners the means to regulate their own performance – a form of ‘private speech’, as it were?

Indeed, Lantolf & Thorne (2006), acknowledging the importance that Vygotsky himself credited “to well-articulated explict knowledge as the object of instruction and learning” (p. 291),  describe a number of studies of second language learners for whom self-verbalization of quite sophisticated grammatical concepts seemed to assist in their subsequent internalization.

If this is the case, my three schoolgirl companions – immersed in the process of jointly constructing knowledge out of explicit rules of grammar: were they on the right track, even if a long way from their desired destination?

References:

Brumfit, C. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.

Hulstijn, J. (1995). Not all grammar rules are equal: Giving grammar instruction its proper place in foreign language teaching. In Schmidt, R. (ed.) Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt. R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.). Talking to learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Illustrations from Carpentier-Fialip, P. & Carpentier-Fialip, M. (1931). L’Anglais Vivant: Classe de sixième. Paris: Hachette.





B is for Body

12 12 2010

“English is on the up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a long time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now.” (Interview with Nicholas Ostler, Guardian Weekly, 12.11.2010).

This post is not about the dominance of English – I just happen to have chosen that quote because it includes at least two examples of what Mark Johnson calls “the experiential embodied nature of human rationality” (1987, p.100): 1. English is on the up and 2. history is full of languages.

The use of the word up to connote increase, in the sense that MORE IS UP, emerges – according to Johnson – “from a tendency to employ an UP-DOWN orientation in picking out meaningful structures of our experience.  We grasp the structure of verticality repeatedly in thousands of perceptions and activities we experience every day, such as perceiving a tree, our felt sense of standing upright, the activity of climbing stairs…” (p. xiv). Likewise, the idea that history is a container, and hence can be full of languages, is an extension of our own embodied sense of physical containment.  According to Johsnon, “our encounter with containment and boundedness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience” (p.21).

Johnson argues that such experientially-based ‘image schemata’ are integral to meaning and rationality — and, of course, language.  The way that language is, the way we use language, and the way that language is learned, are all structured and shaped by the fact that, as Johnson puts it, “the body is in the mind” (p. xxxviii).

One fairly obvious manifestation of this is the way we choose particles for phrasal verbs.  We fill up the tank, the future is looking up, and children both grow up, and are brought up.  Likewise, notions of boundedness and containment are intrinsic, not only to the semantics of the noun phrase in many languages (think of countable and uncountable nouns), but also to verb aspect (a point I will take up in a future post).

In an article in the latest Applied Linguistics, Dwight Atkinson (2010) explores the way an extended, embodied view of cognition might affect second language acquisition. He suggests that language learning, rather than being an intellectual process of internalization, is a socially-situated, adaptive behaviour, a process “of continuously and progressively fitting oneself to one’s environment, often with the help of guides” (p. 611). Atkinson proposes what he calls ‘the alignment principle’: “Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it” (p.610). To this end, interaction and engagement are key: these are the processes by which we externalise language. “Instead of isolating language in cognitive space, we wear it on our sleeve, so to speak, because it helps us live in the world” (p.617).

from Applied Linguistics, 31/5, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 609

To demonstrate how this might be realised in practice, he traces, in minute detail, the interaction a Japanese schoolgirl has with her aunt, an English teacher, as they work through a homework exercise together: an intricate meshing of language, gesture, gaze, and laughter, inseparable from the experience of learning itself, and bringing to mind these lines of Yeats:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In another recent article that reports the same data, the researchers summarise their point of view:

If  language is intrinsically embodied and embedded, then what does that mean for its acquisition?  Obviously, if language is learned for worldly use, the learning process itself must be use-based.  In this view, language learning is not primarily about squirreling away abstract linguistic competence in an isolated cognitive space,… Rather, language learning is a process of building meaningful ways of participating in socio-material worlds — of constructing flexible, reliable, and therefore survival-enhancing repertoires of ecosocial participation. (Churchill. et al. 2010, p.249).

So, learning is using, and using is learning. That much we know. But what are the implications of a more ’embodied’ view of learning? Is there a case for incorporating more kinaesthetic practices? For reviving Total Physical Response, even? And to what extent, as teachers, are we conscious of the way that ‘body language’ helps in the co-construction of learning?

References:

Atkinson, D. 2010. Extended, embodied cognition and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 31/5, 599-622.

Churchill, E.,  Okada, H.,  Nishino, T., & Atkinson, D.  2010. Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition.  The Modern Language Journal, 94/2.

Johnson, M. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press.





R is for Research

24 10 2010

“Where’s your evidence?!”  Given the vehemence with which some methodological matters are argued (especially on blogs), it’s surprising that this question doesn’t come up more often. Well, a good place to start looking for evidence might be The British Council Directory of UK ELT Research, compiled by Shelagh Rixon and Richard Smith,  the primary aim of which is “to disseminate and share information generally in the area of UK-based ELT research”. (You can access it via the TeachingEnglish website here).

It makes a fascinating read. I was particularly interested to find out what people have been researching at doctoral level. (Where else can you find this information, after all?)  These are just some of the topics that have recently been investigated, and whose findings I’d love to get my hands on:

  • The lexis and grammar of English as a Lingua Franca
  • The use of interactive whiteboard technology
  • ‘Nativespeakerism’ and the status of non-native teachers
  • Formulaic language and SLL
  • A systemic view of emergent course design
  • Collaborative learning via e-mail discussion
  • Group influences on individual learner’s motivation

And this one, not least because it is research about the effects of research:

Andon, N. 2008. What roles do theory and research play in language teaching? A case study on the task-based approach in language teaching.

The researcher’s aim was “to examine the ways that language teachers make use of theory and research presented to them in the professional literature and on training courses”.

As both a writer of ‘professional literature’ and a teacher educator, this goes to the heart of what I do. I’m often accused (and probably guilty) of selecting research evidence to support my own point of view, and ignoring that which doesn’t;  or, worse, of not having any evidence at all. This is particularly the case with the Dogme ELT philosophy:  it’s not enough to wheel out a supportive bibliography in order to situate Dogme on a  firm theoretical base (as I did on Jeremy Harmer’s blog recently). Nor will anecdotal evidence do: the Dogme discussion list is strewn with feel-good accounts of  ‘successful’ materials-light, talk-driven classes. But people want concrete proof. They want research evidence.

Fair enough. But what kind of evidence would that be, and what’s the guarantee, anyway, that this evidence would satisfy the sceptics?

Let’s take Dogme: how could you provide convincing evidence that it works? Here are some possible lines of attack:

1. Measure the outcomes of teaching two matched groups, one taught with coursebooks, one taught without. Problems: too many variables (teacher, students, context factors…); what outcomes do you meaure (fluency? accuracy?) and how do you ensure your assessment criteria don’t automatically favour one approach over another? Also, it would probably need to be done over an extended period to produce significant findings.

2. Record and transcribe a sequences of ‘Dogme-style’ lessons, and track ’emergent language’, i.e. language that learners have seemingly appropriated and then re-used subsequently, thereby showing that learning can take place without a pre-selected syllabus and solely through interaction. Problems: an enormous amount of work (all that transcription); you would also need to pre-test – but what would you be pre-testing for if the learnt language is not pre-selected? Also, without a control group, there’s no way of knowing if that same language would also have emerged in a more orthodox setting.

3. Ethnographic case study of a Dogme class over an extended period, using observations, interviews, questionnaires, etc, to gather a ‘thick description’ from the point of view of the participants. Problems: nothing to compare it with; too context specific, hence ungeneralisable; ‘Hawthorne effect’, i.e. subjects out-perform when they know they are being experimented on; attitudinal questionnaires are unreliable – subjects say what they think you want to hear.

4. Fine-grained, micro-analysis of classroom interactions in a Dogme class compared to a ‘traditional’ class, to demonstrate, for example, a greater quantity of and/or better quality of communicative, scaffolded, authentic, creative, etc language use in the former. Problems: again, assuming you could control the variables, the specificity of the findings is unlikely to satisfy the sceptics; also, because the findings are evaluated through the lens of a specific theoretical model – e.g. sociocultural learning theory – your conclusions depend on this theory being generally accepted – which it isn’t.

Have I missed anything out?

In the end, though, there’s probably nothing you can do to convince the doubters (let alone the cynics). Which makes one wonder: why do research at all?  One way of answering this question might be to re-assess what research is capable of achieving. Nunan (1992) distinguishes between two alternative conceptions of research: “The first view is that external truths exist ‘out there’ somewhere.  According to this view, the function of research is to uncover these truths.  The second view is that truth is a negotiable commodity contingent upon the historical context within which phenomena are observed and interpreted”  (p. xi-xii).   Researchers in the second tradition are interested less in proving a theory than in deepening their understanding of their own situated practices. This understanding may, in turn, influence the way these practices evolve.

But isn’t this a cop-out? Is there no way my research can be generalised to your context?

Reference:

Nunan, D. (1992). Research Methods in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





V is for Vocabulary size

3 10 2010

Paul Meara, of Swansea University, in Barcelona

How many words do you know? How many words do your students know? How do you count them? Is it important?

These and similar questions came up during a fascinating series of lectures given this week by Paul Meara (“the world’s leading researcher in modelling vocabulary knowledge” according to Paul Nation), at the Pompeu Fabra University here in Barcelona.

Paul Nation at the MASH Equinox Event in Tokyo, last month (Photo: David Chapman)

Traditionally, estimates of vocabulary size have been based on the number of words that subjects could define on a list taken at random from a dictionary: if the list represented 10% of the total words in the dictionary, the number of known words would then be multiplied by ten to give the total. But the method is fraught with problems, not least ‘the big dictionary’ effect: “The bigger the dictionary used, the more words people are found to know” (Aitchison 1987, p.6).

More sophisticated, and more sensitive, tests have since been designed, including Paul Nation’s widely used and very reliable Vocabulary Levels Test (described in Nation 1990), which targets five levels of word frequency (including a university word list) and involves matching words with simple definitions.

Meara himself has devised a number of vocabulary size tests, including the EVST (originally commissioned as a placement test by Eurocentres). Elegantly simple and very easy to administer, this checklist-type test requires takers simply to say which words they recognise in a sequence of frequency-based lists. But, as a way of controlling for wild guessing – or shameless lying! – the lists also include ‘pseudo words’, such as obsolation and mudge.

All the above tests are tests of receptive vocabulary knowledge. Testing a user’s productive vocabulary is more problematic. One approach is the aptly-named ‘spew test’, where test-takers are asked to produce as many words they can that share a common feature, e.g. that start with the letter B. Taking a somewhat different tack, Meara reported on some intriguing research he has done, matching frequency profiles of learner texts with statistical models of different vocabulary sizes. A student writes a text and a profile is generated in terms of the relative frequency of its words; the program then searches for a best match (a bit like the way that fingerprints are matched up), which in turn yields a fairly exact estimate of the learner’s vocabulary size. Magic! (You can check the program out for yourself at Paul’s _lognostics website. It’s called V-size).

But what does vocabulary size mean? And does size matter? Certainly, it seems that having a big vocabulary is a prerequisite for reading (and presumably listening) ability. As Bhatia Laufer (1997) puts it, “By far the greatest lexical obstacle to good reading is insufficient number of words in the learner’s lexicon. [In research studies] lexis was found to be the best predictor of success in reading, better than syntax or general reading ability” (p. 31).

Paul Meara in action

More than that, vocabulary size may be a reliable predictor, not just of reading success, but of overall linguistic competence. Certainly, in first language acquisition, the processes of vocabulary development and grammar development are closely intertwined, with the former possibly driving the latter. Tomasello (2003), for example, cites research that shows that “only after children have vocabularies of several hundred words [do] they begin to produce in earnest grammatical speech”, which suggests to Tomasello “that learning words and learning grammatical constructions are both part of the same overall process” (p. 93).

If this is the case in first language acquisition, does it not also suggest that – for second language learning – the learner needs to assemble as big a lexicon as possible, and as soon as possible – even if this means putting other areas of language learning ‘on hold’?

References:
Aitchison, J. 1987. Words in the Mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Oxfrod: Blackwell.
Laufer, B. 1997. ‘The lexical plight in second language reading” in Coady, J. and Huckin, T. (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I.S.P. 1990. Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.
Tomasello, M. 2003. Constructing a Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.





Z is for ZPD

12 09 2010

Vygotsky

There’s no entry for Z in the A-Z of ELT (which means perhaps it should be called the A to Y of ELT!) but if there were, the strongest candidate would have to be ZPD as in the zone of proximal development. This is the concept most closely identified with the work of the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, but also, arguably, the concept of his that has been subject to the greatest number of interpretations.

Vygotsky himself defined it as:

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving and adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (1978, p. 86).

That is to say, it’s that point where learning is still other-regulated, but where the potential for self-regulation is imminent – the moment that the child, teetering on her bike, still needs the steadying touch of her mother’s hand. Teaching is optimally effective, the theory goes, when it “awakens and rouses into life those functions which are in the stage of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1934, quoted in Wertsch 1985, p. 71).

It’s important to note that the ZPD is not the learner’s ‘level’ in the traditional sense in which we grade students, nor even the level just above, but that, as Gordon Wells puts it, it is “created in the interaction between the student and the co-participants in an activity… and depends on the nature and quality of the interaction as much as on upper limit of the learner’s capability” (Wells, 1999, p. 318). Because the ZPD cannot be gauged in advance, and is a property neither of the learner nor of the interaction alone, “from the teacher’s perspective, … one is always aiming at a moving target” (op.cit., p. 319).

These elusive, emergent, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic properties of the ZPD raise the question as to whether it has any pedagogical applications at all. If it’s not the student’s level (or level + 1), what is it? And how can it be manipulated for optimal learning?

Scholars in the sociocultural tradition have suggested that the way classroom talk is scaffolded (see S is for scaffolding), with the teacher providing only the minimal assistance necessary to enable the learner’s performance, can help orient the activity towards the learner’s ZPD and thereby influence its potential for learning. Optimal experience theorists (see F is for Flow) would also argue that the ZDP is situated at the point where challenge and skill are counter-balanced. Advocates of task-based learning likewise suggest that the judicious calibration of task conditions, such as preparation time and rehearsal, can provide the optimal balance between safety and risk-taking that is associated with the concept of the ZPD, and thereby lead to learning.

Jim Lantolf's workshop: JALT 2009

Others have tried to map the ZPD onto Krashen’s concept of input + 1 and Swain’s analogous concept of output + 1 (see P is for Push). When, during an engaging question-and-answer session at last year’s JALT conference, I asked Jim Lantolf (who, more than anyone, has championed Vygotsky’s relevance to SLA: see Lantolf, 2000, for example) if there were any grounds for making this connection, he was dismissive. “For a start, input + 1 and output + 1 describe qualities of language, not of cognition. Nor do they situate this language within the context of collaborative, interactive activity”. (In fact, Krashen’s Input Hypothesis rejects the need for interaction altogether). Kinginger (2002) is even more scathing, and argues that Vygotsky’s original concept – fuzzy as it was – has been shamelessly co-opted for ideological purposes, as a way of prettifying activities “that have always been done in classrooms where speaking activity takes place as a pretext for grammar practice, only now we are calling it the ‘ZPD’” (p. 255).

Despite all this fuzziness, the notion of the ZPD permeates current rhetoric on teaching. Is it just a fairly meaningless buzz word, or does it still have some currency?

References:

Kinginger, C. 2002. ‘Defining the zone of proximal development in US foreign language education’. Applied Linguistics, 23/2. 240-261.
Lantolf, J. (ed.) 2000. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wells, G. 1999. Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. 1985. Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA.; Harvard University Press





A is for Attention

22 08 2010

High alert! Classroom in Palestine

Three news stories last week –  all of which dealt with the pervasive role of technology in our lives –  touched on the issue of attention and its role in learning. A front page story in The New York Times reported on a trip into the wilderness undertaken by five academics, the purpose of which, according to psychologist David Strayer, was to study “what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory, and learning are affected”. Strayer added: “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

Then there was the publicity associated with a new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, documenting one family’s retreat from an over-reliance on information technology. The book’s blurb reads:

Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth.

Finally (and more directly relevant to education), The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a move on the part of a handful of teachers to “unplug” their classrooms. One of the teachers was quoted as saying, “Banishing the gear improved the course.  …The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online… They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth.”

Attention…attention…attentive…

While it might be premature to talk about a backlash against so-called ‘ed tech’, there does seem to be a growing awareness as to its limitations, even its risks, especially with regard to its impact on attention.  This is not to deny the enormous benefits that accrue from the use of technological aids outside the classroom – indeed, the capacity of video games, for example, to focus attention, often over a considerable period of time, is well documented, and it’s not impossible to imagine learners (of the right disposition) making exponential gains solely through gaming (assuming the games themselves have been designed to incorporate second language learning opportunities).

Nevertheless, in terms of the quality of classroom life, the proliferation of digitial gadgetry may be having negative consequences on learning, specifically in the way that multiple information channels conspire to divert, disperse or otherwise interfere with, focal attention. We’ve known this ever since the first mobile phone rang in one of our classes.  Nowadays the presence of technology may be less obtrusive, but is no less distracting. As long ago (relatively speaking) as 1998, Linda Stone, formerly of Apple, coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA)  to characterise the kind of restless digital flitting that results from the need to stay constantly informed and in touch. Translated to a classroom context, CPA would hardly seem conducive to learning.

Why not? Because – as the psychologist above said – everything that you remember and forget depends on attention. The more dispersed the attention, the less likelihood of remembering, while the more heightened the attention, the better the remembering, and hence the better the learning.  This is as true for language learning as for any other kind of learning.  As psycholinguists Nick Ellis and Peter Robinson put it: “What is attended is learned, and so attention controls the acquisition of language itself” (2008, p. 3). Likewise, Dick Schmidt (2001) argues that only through the exercise of attention is input converted to intake: “Unattended stimuli persist in immediate short-term memory for only a few seconds at best, and attention is the necesary and sufficient condition for long-term memory storage to occur” (p. 16).  The rest is noise.

Indeed, from a cognitivist perspective, teaching might well be defined as the ‘management of attention for pedagogical purposes’. Managing attention means both drawing attention to the subject at hand, and drawing attention away from whatever might be a distraction.  In the case of the latter, this might mean eliminating competing stimuli by shutting down peripheral channels.  In other words, by unplugging the classroom.

Whether or not you’re prepared to go that far, here are some tips for maximising learners’ attention:

  • make sure all heads are up before transitioning to a new stage or activity
  • ensure your own attention is well distributed, and embraces all students equally, including those on the fringes
  • use ‘theatrical’ techniques (e.g. eye-contact, gesture, changes in voice pitch and voice quality) to highlight key lesson content
  • make the learning objectives explicit
  • draw connections across stages, and from one lesson to another
  • use examples from the learners’ own lives, using their names (Juana always takes the bus to school)
  • use the board sparingly and judiciously – too much boardwork obscures the key lesson content
  • drill key items in the lesson – not because this promotes accuracy, or forms good habits, but because it serves to make important lesson content more salient
  • eliminate distractions: ensure books are closed and technological aids are switched off during teacher-focused presentation stages, or when learners are supposed to be interacting face-to-face in pairs/groups
  • negotiate the use of aids and technology, such as dictionaries, laptops, etc, so that learners must ask permission to use them, or use them only at designated stages
  • reduce interference from stimulus overload. e.g. unnecessary visual effects in Powerpoints, background ‘muzak’ during silent reading, etc.
  • encourage (younger) learners to show understanding by nodding affirmatively during teacher-fronted presentation/explanation stages. (This idea comes from the ‘SLANT’ technique developed in a group of US charter schools – kids have to Sit up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with their eyes).

Notice that I’ve not said anything about maintaining a high activity turnover (so as not to over-tax attention spans, for example) nor about activities having to be fun. This is because an emphasis on activity for activity’s sake may be counterproductive, in that it serves to divert attention onto the activity itself, and not onto the language that mediates the activity.

References:

Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. 2008. An introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Language Instruction. In Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. 2001. Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.