H is for Holistic

20 05 2012

I took delivery of two books last week, both of which make liberal use of the term holistic. One (Samuda and Bygate, 2008) is about task-based learning, and its first chapter is titled ‘Language use, holistic activity and second language learning’. The other (Goh and Burns, 2012) is called Teaching Speaking and has the strap-line: A Holistic Approach.  But now I’m wondering if the term hasn’t become a little overused, to the point of becoming meaningless. What, for example, do the following have in common: holistic approaches, holistic learners, and holistic testing – not to mention whole-language learning, and whole-person learning?

According to Wikipedia, ‘The term holism was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts, a South African statesman [and, somewhat ironically, an advocate of racial segregation], in his book, Holism and Evolution. Smuts defined holism as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”‘.

Holism seems to have been co-opted into psychology (particularly Gestalt psychology), and thence into education, where a holistic approach can mean one of two things: either “an approach to language teaching which seeks to focus on language in its entirety rather than breaking it down into separate components” (Richards and Schmidt, 1985:240), or – very differently – an approach that engages the whole learner: intellectually, emotionally, and even physically.  Thus, Legutke and Thomas (1991: 159), for instance, talk about “the holistic and multisensory nature of learning which involves head, heart and hands”.

In this latter sense, holistic learning is virtually synonymous with whole-person learning, and often used to characterize such humanistic learning methods as the Silent Way, Total Physical Response (TPR) and Community Language Learning (CLL) . Thus, according to Richards and Rodgers (1986: 117) “CLL advocates a holistic approach to language learning, since ‘true’ human learning is both cognitive and affective. This is termed whole-person learning. Such learning takes place in a communicative situation where teachers and learners are involved in ‘an interaction… in which both experience a sense of their own wholeness’ (Curran 1972:90)”.

Whole-language learning, on the other hand, is the preferred term (in the US at least) for those approaches that are holistic in the first of the senses I outlined above, i.e. that ‘learning proceeds from whole to part’ (Freeman and Freeman 1998: xvii), and that, by experiencing whole language – e.g. as whole texts or as communicative tasks – you internalize the parts. It’s a ‘deep-end’, experiential approach. Thus, you learn speaking by speaking, reading by reading, and so on. This is why Samuda and Bygate (2008: 7) align task-based learning with holism: ‘One way of engaging language use is through holistic activity. Tasks are one kind of holistic activity’.

Goh and Burns (2012: 4), too, label their approach to speaking instruction as holistic, but only in the sense, it seems, that it “addresses language learners’ cognitive, affective (or emotional), and social needs, as they work towards acquiring good speaking competence”. In terms of a methodology, however, they reject a ‘learn-to-speak-by-speaking’ approach, arguing that “both part-practice activities and whole tasks are necessary to facilitate the automatization of various components of the complex skill of speaking” (op. cit. p. 148), adding that “speaking lessons should include opportunities to focus on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation at appropriate stages of the learning sequence” (ibid.).

This is consistent with what Cazden calls ‘whole language plus’, where the primary focus is on task performance, but where there is recognition of the need for ‘temporary instructional detours’  in which the learner’s attention is directed to lower level features ‘at the point of need’.  Moreover, such a two-pronged approach is more likely to accommodate the learning style preferences of both analytic and holistic learners, where the latter are defined as learners who “like socially interactive, communicative events in which they can emphasise the main idea and avoid analysis of grammatical minutiae” (Oxford, 2001:361).

More recently, complexity theory and an ecological perspective have deepened our understanding of what ‘whole-ness’ entails.  As Ellis and Larsen-Freeman (2009: 91) put it: ‘Cognition, consciousness, experience, embodiment, brain, self, human interaction, society, culture, and history – in other words, phenomena at different levels of scale and time – are all inextricably intertwined in rich, complex, and dynamic ways in language, its use and its learning’.

Maybe this more elaborated and multi-layered view will serve to conflate the two senses of holistic as applied to approach. Could a focus both on whole-language and on the whole-learner help blur the distinction between learning and using, and between learner and language, forming one complex system, such that (to borrow Yeats’s image) we cannot ‘tell the dancer from the dance’?

I’ll let Leo van Lier (2004: 223-224) have the last word:

An ecological approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit.  It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning.  The teacher provides assistance, but only just enough and just in time (in the form of pedagogical scaffolding), taking the learners’ developing skills and interests as the true driving force of the curriculum.

(Don’t know about you, but it sounds oddly familiar to me!)

References:

Cazden, C. (1992) Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ, New York: Teachers College Press.

Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (2009) ‘Constructing a second language: analyses and computational simulations of the emergence of linguistic constructions from usage’, in Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds.) Language as a Complex Adaptive system, Special issue of Language Learning, 59.

Freeman, Y.S. and Freeman, D.E. (1998) ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goh, C, and Burns, A. (2012) Teaching Speaking. A Holistic Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legutke, M., and Thomas, H. (1991) Process and Experience in the Language Classroom, Harlow: Longman.

Oxford, R. (2001) ‘Language learning styles and strategies’, in Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd edition), Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds.) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Samuda. V. and Bygate, M. (2008) Tasks in Second Language Learning, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

van Lier, L. (2004) The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural perspective, Norwell MA: Kluwer.

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





A is for Approach

22 01 2012

A copious amount of blog ink (blink?) has been expended in the last week or so, arguing the toss as to whether – among other things – Dogme is an approach. In Neil McMahon’s blog, for example, he asks the question:

What is Dogme?  No one, even among the Dogme-gicians, seem to be able to agree on whether it’s an approach, a method, a technique, a tool, an attitude, a lesson type or an irrelevance.  And does it matter?  I think it matters if people are passing it off as something it’s not (e.g. an approach), at least to me.

At the risk of inducing another bout of blogorrhea, I thought I might try and rise to Neil’s challenge, and to do this by appealing to the literature on methods and approaches. I.e.

Approach refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning that serve as the source of practices and principles in language teaching.

(Richards and Rodgers 2001, p. 20).

In this sense, then, it seems to me that Dogme does qualify as a coherent approach, in that it is grounded in theories both of language and of learning – theories, what’s more, that have been widely broadcast and endlessly discussed.

In terms of its theory of language,  it takes the view, very simply, that language is functional, situated, and realised primarily as text, “hence, the capacity to understand and produce isolated sentences is of limited applicability to real-life language use” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p. 9).

Its theory of learning is an experiential and holistic one, viewing language learning as an emergent, jointly-constructed and socially-constituted process, motivated both by communal and communicative imperatives (op.cit p. 18). Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006, p. 17) put it:

… 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.

Of course, these theories of language and of learning are not original: they are shared by other approaches, notably task-based and whole language learning. So Dogme’s claim to be an approach in its own right is justified only if there are in fact distinguishable (and even distinctive) practices that are derived from these theories (check the Richards & Rodgers definition again). Anyone, after all, can dream up a couple of theories, but if no one actually puts them to work, they are dead in the water.

Putting the theories to work means that (Richards & Rodgers again) “it is necessary to develop a design for an instructional system” (p. 24).

It was the lack of a ‘design’ as such, and even of ‘an instructional system’, that prompted me, a few years ago, to suggest that another self-styled approach, the Lexical Approach, was an approach in name only. In this sense, Neil McMahon’s critique of Dogme (and its ‘evangelists’) echoes my own critique of Lewis (and his acolytes). You can read it here.

My argument went like this: while it is clear that Lewis does have a well elaborated theory about the nature of language (“Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar” [Lewis, 1993, p.vi]) it is less clear that he has a coherent theory of how languages are learned. Nor is it clear how the learning process, in a Lexical Approach, would be actualised, e.g. in terms of a syllabus and materials.

So, while Lewis insists that he is offering “a principled approach, much more than a random collection of ideas that work” (Lewis 1997, p. 205), it’s never been very clear to me how this would work in practice, or how it would not look like any other approach that just happens to have a few collocation activities grafted on.

Is Dogme any less squishy? Is there a Dogme praxis? I don’t know, but I do know that – in the last year or so – there has been a veritable eruption of blogs (too many to list here), workshops, YouTube videos, conference presentations – and even a dedicated conference – that claim allegiance to the founding Dogme principles. There are descriptions of single lessons, sequences of lessons, one-to-one lessons, computer-mediated lessons, and even whole courses. What’s more, these descriptions of Dogme practice emanate from a wide range of geographical contexts – Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea, Turkey, the US and the UK, to name but a few.

Of course, if you were to subject these descriptions to close scrutiny, you may find that there are as many differences between them as there are similarities. But that shouldn’t surprise you: the way that any approach is implemented –  whether task-based learning or CLIL or whole language learning   —  is likely to exhibit a similar diversity across different contexts. On the other hand, if there were no common core of praxis, then Dogme’s claim for ‘approach’ status would, I think, be seriously jeopardised.

I believe that there is a common core of Dogme practices, but I also suspect that it is still somewhat in flux. This fuzziness (that many deplore) is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it invites continuous experimentation; a weakness because it discourages widespread adoption.  But the more that Dogme praxis is described, debated, and even debunked, the more likely it is that its soft centre will coalesce, amalgamate, stablise and – however diverse its outward appearance  – solidify into an approach.

References:

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

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

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

Richards, J., &  Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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)?

References:

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.





T is for Task-based Learning

13 11 2011

I’m off to this conference next week, where I’ll be attempting to situate Dogme/ Teaching Unplugged within the wider orbit of task-based language teaching (TBLT).

To tell the truth, I find the thought of it rather daunting, given not only the calibre of the other presenters (see the programme here) but also the fact that Dogme doesn’t have a shred of hard research evidence to support it.  TBLT, on the other hand, seems to be all research and very little actual practice. Yet I’m also intrigued as to why I’ve been invited, and wonder if this isn’t a sign that either Dogme has come of age, or that it is in danger of losing its edge. Or both.

It also comes at an opportune moment, as dogmetists start to engage with the need for serious research. In my presentation I will be indicating the kinds of research questions that I hope to see addressed. This in turn will involve highlighting, in the burgeoning research into TBLT, those particular studies that might also validate a Dogme approach. It’s always been my claim that Dogme shares many core principles with TBLT, but without the more elaborate ‘architecture’ usually associated with the latter. As Luke and I say, in Teaching Unplugged, “where a Dogme approach parts company with a task-based approach is not in the philosophy but in the methodology” (p. 17). Hence, a lot of the research that underpins TBLT, especially with reference to the basic claim that ‘you learn a language by using it’,  has more than passing relevance to Dogme.

Dogme in relation to TBLT and content-based instruction

All this has led me to re-visit the entry for task-based learning in An A-Z of ELT, in which I claim that TBLT

has been influential more at the theoretical and research level than in terms of actual classroom practice. One reason for this is that a focus on tasks requires a totally different course design, not to mention the implications for testing. Also, for many teachers, a task-based approach represents a management challenge.  How do you set up and monitor tasks in large classes of unmotivated adolescents, for example? And how do you deal appropriately with language problems that emerge spontaneously from the task performance?  A grammar-based syllabus and a PPP approach offer greater security to teachers with these concerns (p. 224).

This is a little ironic – cheeky, even – given that the same criticisms have been levelled at Dogme, i.e. how do you cope with unpredictability, not to mention students’ – and other stakeholders’ – need for a syllabus?  More to the point, are these criticisms of TBLT justified?  Is it really a laboratory artefact, or does it have a life of its own?  And is it so difficult to implement?

Information gap task

The literature suggests that it is. Rod Ellis (2003, p. 322) concludes that “overall, task-based teaching, while superficially simple, is complex”. One reason that it is complex – according to Ellis – is that, if their potential to promote language acquisition is to be realised, tasks need to have a linguistic focus as well as a communicative one. That is, it’s not enough that you describe this picture to me and I draw it. Rather, the task should require that you or I, or both of us, focus on some linguistic feature of the interaction that we haven’t yet internalised.  Engineering this dual focus is no mean feat.

It’s not just a management issue (e.g. how do I draw learners’ attention to form when their primary concern is on meaning?), but a course design issue: how do I design tasks that require the use of specific linguistic items, and how do I design a syllabus of tasks that covers the items that I assume the learners will need?

This is where the Dogme takes a more relaxed attitude, perhaps. By banking on the fact that, if you use language purposefully, intensively and communicatively, you will ‘uncover’ the syllabus that you need, the requirement for ‘focused tasks’ (i.e. tasks that target a pre-selected language feature) is obviated. The learners’ linguistic needs are met (so the theory goes) if their communicative needs are met.  And their communicative needs are met if they’re given the space, and the incentive, to realise them.

Besides, it seems to me that a lot of the literature on TBLT is aimed at finding the optimal configuration of task design factors – such as rehearsal, planning time, collaboration, and so on  – that in turn impact on accuracy,  fluency and complexity. Calibrating these different factors requires an almost obsessive attention to detail. Yet, as Michael Breen (1987, 2009) pointed out:

Perhaps one of the most common experiences we have as teachers is to discover disparity between what our learners seem to derive from a task and what we intended or hoped the task would achieve. Whilst the objective of the task will have been reasonably precise, actual learner outcomes are often diverse, sometimes unexpected, and occasionally downright disappointing (p. 334).

If task-based teaching is so fundamentally unstable, why not opt, instead, for maximising those features of the classroom ecology that really do have strong and predictable effects, i.e. granting learners some control of the agenda?  Where learners have some ownership of, and investment in,  their language learning  program, the fact that it’s task-based, or text-based, or even grammar-based, is of relatively little consequence.

But do I dare say this at the conference!?

References:

Breen, M. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’. In Candlin, C., & Murphy, E. (eds.) Language Learning Tasks. London: Prentice Hall. Reprinted in van Branden, K., Bygate, M., & Norris, J. 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





R is for Repetition

5 12 2010

In her latest book, Claire Kramsch (2009) argues – among other things – for the value of repetition:

“In an effort to make language use more authentic and spontaneous, communicative language teaching has moved away from memorisation, recitation, and choral responses.  It has put a premium on the unique, individual, and repeatable utterance in unpredictable conversational situations.  And yet, there is value in repetition as an educational device: utterances repeated are also resignified” (p. 209).

That is to say, simply repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance. Walt Whitman captured this principle in this brilliant little poem:

What am I, after all, but a child, pleas’d with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.

To you, your name also;
Did you think there was nothing but two or three pronunciations in the sound of your name?

Whitman Whitman Whitman...

Kramsch goes on to argue that “we may want to put the principle of iterability to work…: the same text, reread silently or aloud, can yield new meanings.  The same utterance, repeated in various contexts, with different inflections, can index different emotions, evoke different associations.  The same poem, memorised and performed two or three times in front of the same class, yields each time new pleasures of recognition and anticipation.  The same story, told to three different interlocutors, can enable the storyteller to put different emphases on the same general theme depending on the listener…” (ibid.)

The value of repetition as a means of achieving fluency has also been acknowledged in the recent literature on task-based learning. When learners repeat a task, even a relatively long time after its first performance, gains have been shown in both fluency and linguistic complexity. Bygate (2009) suggests that this is because “previous experience of a task is available for speakers to build on in subsequent performance” (p. 269).  He makes a similar point to Kramsch’s: that the communicative approach tends to value spontaneity and creativity. “And yet to provide speaking practice only under these conditions runs the risk that learners will constantly be improvising, constantly experimenting with new forms, but also constantly doing so while having to pay some considerable attention to the content of what they want to say” (ibid.). In other words, ‘free expression’ may come at considerable cost to fluency.

Corpus linguistics has shown, too, that a large proportion of what we say and write is ‘second-hand’: we recycle our own utterances repeatedly, as well as those of the discourse community we are affiliated to (or wish to be affiliated to). As Hopper (1998) puts it, echoing the Russian scholar M. Bakhtin, “We say things that have been said before. Our speech is a vast collection of hand-me-downs that reaches back in time to the beginnings of language” (p. 159).  He adds that, from this perspective, “language is … to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised way out of ready-made elements” (op. cit. p. 166).  A good writer of academic text, for example, knows how to select formulations that are already part of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the dialect of the tribe’ in order to create “an easy commerce of the old and the new” (The Four Quartets).

The problem with repetition, from a pedagogical point of view, is that there is a tension between the need to repeat, on the one hand, and the boredom factor, on the other. It requires skilful management to balance repetitive language practice with the need for variety and a change of focus. One way is to change some element in the task for each iteration. Here are some ideas:

1. Change the amount of support: e.g. ‘Disappearing Dialogues’: learners practice a dialogue that is written on the board or projected, chunks of which are progressively hidden or erased, until they are perfroming the entire dialogue from memory.

2. Change the mode: e.g. ‘Paper conversations’: students interact passing paper and pen back and forth (like on-line chat), then repeat the exchange speaking.

3. Change the time: e.g. the 4-2-1 technique: students take turns to talk to their partner about a topic, for – at first – 4 minutes, then again for 2, and finally for 1, trying to keep the content constant.

4. Change the speakers: e.g. the ‘onion’ technique, whereby students are seated in two concentric circles, the inner circle facing the outer. Students perform a speaking task in pairs (e.g. a role play) and then the outer circle students move one seat clockwise, and the task is repeated with new partners.

References:

Bygate, M. 2009. Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., Norris, J.  (eds.) Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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.

Kramsch, C. 2009. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.





P is for “Point of Need”

14 11 2010

I wish I could remember – so I could thank – the person who recommended At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann 1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword:

The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing — and in learning (p. ix).

The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:

  1. Choose topics that interest you and your group
  2. Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
  3. Revise your freewrites.  Your group will help you […]
  4. Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication

Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, “this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning” (p. viii) whereby “the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it — that is, as the students perceived the need” (p. ix).

Despite some initial resistance (by both students and instructors alike), the results were spectacular (and carefully documented by the 40 or so tutors over the 5-year period). As Nelson describes it:

Despite the loss of drive some suffered at first without grades, motivation surged when they experienced writing’s rewards: pride of publication…, feelings of accomplishment, influence on others, better grades in other courses, competence, empathy and praise from friends, and … emotional release (p.85).

The program was based on the principle that “less is more“, and that effective writing instruction involves simply:

  • motivating students to want to practice and improve
  • giving students control of decisions about their work
  • limiting teaching to what students needed or wanted to learn

(p. 189)

Testimony to the success of the program are the many student ‘voices’ scattered throughout the text. One student, Kamal, for example, recalls:

In WTC [the Writing Tutorial Center] I’ve found that even though my writing is not very good, it’s very important to me, and I like to read it over.

Also, when I read it aloud, my friends said, “Wow, that’s good!”  So when they do, my tutors said, “Let’s publish that in Excerpts,” and I felt, “God, I am a writer!”

That feeling makes me come to WTC all the time.  I attend five semesters, twice a week.  And each time I attend WTC, I learned.  That’s why I love it.

(p.85)

Teaching “at the point of need” is, of course, a principle that underpins whole language learning, including ‘reading recovery’ programs: Courtney Cazden writes about “recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print” (1992, p. 129, emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive ‘focus on form’ promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda, 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009) write:

Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items (p. 137).

In language learning, as in life, perhaps ‘the readiness is all’.

References:

Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Samuda, V. 2001. ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’.  In Bygate, M.,  Skehan, P.  & Swain, M.  (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. London: Longman.

Long, M.  & Norris, J.  2009.  ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’.  In van den Branden, K.,  Bygate, M.  & Norris, J.  (Eds.)  Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.





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