Lessons in demotivation – forty years of uninspiring modern foreign languages curriculum design

images.jpg

Please note: This post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden Internationa School

Last week I had one of those weird out-of-the-body experiences whereby you watch and listen to yourself teach. To my dismay, during my quiz-starter I was uttering to my very keen year 7 French students – armed with MWBs- the sentence: “j’aime les lapins car ils sont mignons, poilus et joueurs” (= I like rabbits because they are cute, furry and playful”). My heart sank. Mon Dieu ! What was I teaching them?

Truth is, I was following the Expo-One- based schemes of work – Unit 3 animals, etc. And, fortunately, our students are intrinsically motivated third-culture kids who love learning languages! Still, why would 21st century teen-agers want to spend six weeks of their French learning talking about pets? How relevant is that to their daily life, personal interests, academic goals? Do not get me wrong, I am an animal lover and I do believe that the topic lends itself to the teaching of some useful linguistic content; however, emotional response to and relevance of the to-be-learnt information to one’s personal interests and goals being important components of motivation in any learning, I wondered: what’s in it for them? Why should they be interested in this?

The same applies to many other topics included in current MFL course-books based on the England and Wales curriculum. Take for example the topic ‘house-chores’ notoriously one of the things teenagers hate the most about their daily life – how inspiring is such a topic going to be for year 8 students of French, Spanish or German? Even the topic ‘Jobs and future career’. Yes, I see the value of reflecting on their future life in year 9 as this is the time in which they usually choose their GCSE options and a lot of career orientation goes on. But really? Does anyone in their right mind think that teen-agers would enjoy talking about future careers – in French! – at the age of 13?

The list of uninspiring topics and sub-topics that books and teachers teach in foreign language lessons is endless and is partly influenced by the GCSE examinations topics. However, in my opinions, the main culprits are textbook writers and, to a less degree, teachers who are often not in touch with teen-agers’ lifestyle, interests and aspirations. Yet teachers often complain about students not being engaged and motivated. Would you be, if you were in their shoes? Having to talk in your early teens about pets, house-chores, pencil case objects, part-time jobs or future careers, a fictitious boy or girl’s trip to Normandy (to see the Bayeux tapestry of all things!) and other topics which are kind of useful but do receive, in my view, too much emphasis when one considers the relevance and the surrender value that they hold for pubescent language learners.

Teachers and curriculum designer, especially when they are not blessed with intrinsically motivated children, should ask themselves the following questions, when creating schemes of work: what topics and/or sub-topics are my students REALLY interested in? What words do they really need to learn and which ones would they enjoy learning? How may meeting their needs and preferences impact their preparation for GCSE or whatever examinations they will sit later on?

Of course, no curriculum should be entirely based on students’ preferences; adults do have the ethical responsibility to ensure that the teaching imparts knowledge, values and skills that student may not necessarily see as relevant or interesting. However, I wonder to what extent, as adults, curriculum designers and teachers are truly aware of what their teen-age students actually do outside school, what they watch on television or on Youtube; what books they read; what music they listen to; what they share on their favourite social media; what their main concerns and anxieties are; what they truly enjoy about life. And if they are mindful of this in their short-, medium- and long-term planning.

After all, although the new 21st centuries technologies and societal changes have exacerbated the already big generational gap that has always existed between parents and their children, the textbooks topics and vocabulary content has not massively changed. Take the Tricolore series – apart from some cosmetic changes, it is basically the same book I used to teach from 25 years ago…

For some teachers the answer would be to adopt a PBL approach. I do not agree, however, as I have strong reservations about it that I have already expressed in previous posts. The main ones: (1) students do not get enough aural and oral practice; (2) they spend too much time producing artefacts; (3) the focus is often on developing the final product rather than on language skills.

As far as I am concerned, in an ideal world the solution would be for curriculum designers, textbook creators and teachers to find out what students are really interested in; what they see as relevant to their personal needs, goals and aspirations; what they enjoy talking about; and use this information to create more motivating and inspiring linguistic content and learning activities.

Nine research facts about L2 phonology teaching and learning that every teacher should know

10369865_10153232628176744_6265467044143184835_n

1. Introduction

In the last three weeks I have been researching L2 phonology acquisition as the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills is one of my performance management targets for this year. This post, written in collaboration with Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net and Dylan Viñales of Garden International School, is a ‘prequel’ to a longer and more exhaustive article I will publish in a few days in which I will lay out the approach to phonology instruction I undertake in my lessons. Here I will concern myself with nine research facts about the acquisition and teaching of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills that every modern language teacher should know and that should constitute the starting point for any teaching approach to L2-phonology instruction. Here they are:

2. Pronunciation and decoding are the most neglected skills in Modern Language classrooms

As Elliott (1995) points out, Foreign Language Instruction does not concern itself with pronunciation and decoding skills as much as it does with listening, speaking, reading, writing and grammar. Whereas there is some focus on the L2 sound system during the first stages of instruction, especially when the L2 alphabet is introduced, teachers rarely continue to duly emphasize pronunciation for the rest of the course. It has to be added that often teachers think they are teaching pronunciation whilst they are actually mostly focusing on teaching decoding skills. Not the same thing.

Decoding-skill instruction is about teaching students how to convert the written form of the L2 into sound, that is to say how letters, when combined together, should sound in the target language; Pronunciation, on the other hand, is about learning how to accurately master the L2 Phonological system in any oral production. Whereas teachers do occasionally provide some instruction and practice in decoding skills, they rarely give their students information about subtleties in L2 pronunciation, e.g. the differences between the plosive English /t:/ and the non-plosive Spanish /t/ allophones of the letter ‘t’ (i.e. two different phonemes associated with the same letter). When they do, it is usually on a sporadic, ad-hoc and a-systematic basis; recycling of that information is rare Elliott (1995).

As Forman (1993) pointed out, one of the reasons for this neglect is that teachers do not receive sufficient training in pronunciation teaching. We may add that most modern language teachers in the UK were not formally taught the L2 phonology system in their undergraduates years and, although they often do have near-native or even native pronunciation they do not have explicit knowledge of how different sounds are produced and of the relevant metalanguage (e.g. what kind of sounds the labels ‘affricate’, ‘fricative’, ‘occlusive’, ‘plosive’ refer to).

Implications for teaching – (1) If teachers do not emphasize pronunciation from the very early stages of instruction and sustain this emphasis throughout the course, students will not see it as important and consequently may not develop intentionality (the desire to learn) vis-à-vis this aspect of their L2 learning. This is important in view of findings by Suter (1976), Elliott (1995) and other studies that found that if students are more concerned about their pronunciation they tend to have better pronunciation of the target allophones. In particular, Elliott (1995) found that university students’ attitude towards acquiring near-native or near-native pronunciation was the principal variable in relation to target language pronunciation. (2) Pre-service UK teachers should be trained in the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills and should be provided with a good understanding of the differences between their L1 and L2/L3’s sound systems.

3. L2 learner levels of Integrative motivation can affect the acquisition of pronunciation

As a university lecturer at Reading University – many years ago – I was always surprised by the huge differences in terms of pronunciation between L2-Italian students who came back to England after spending a whole year abroad, in Italy. Some had near-native pronunciation whilst others still retained a strong British accent. After investigating this phenomenon, I found that those who had the best pronunciation had fully embraced the Italian culture and tried hard to integrate both psychologically and socially with the natives – they displayed, in other words, what Gardner and Lambert (1959) call integrative motivation. The less Italian-sounding students, on the other hand, had made much less effort; yes they had enjoyed Italy and liked the language but had been less open and proactive in terms of integration. My ‘findings’ echo those of many theorists and research studies (e.g. Schumann’s,1986, Sparks and Glachow,1991) who posit that a positive orientation towards the target language/culture is an important factor in developing native-like pronunciation

Implications for teaching – getting the students to develop a positive orientation towards the target language and culture is paramount. It is obvious that a student with a dislike for the French civilization will not want to sound French. This is a further reason to aim at heightening cultural empathy for and appreciation of the target language culture(s) in the L2 classroom. Moreover, ways must be found to get students to practise the language orally with target language native speakers outside the classroom. Considering that social media is our teenage students’ most common past time these days this should not be an impossible task.

4. Age as a catalyst or inhibitor of acquisition of pronunciation

It has been posited by some researchers that there is a critical age beyond which it is impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation. A study of Korean children aged between 5 and 10 adopted by French families (Pallier et al., 2003) indicates that at least until the age of ten humans can still acquire 100 % native pronunciation. However, studies by Bialystock (1997), Bongaert et al (1997) and others have demonstrated that this can be achieved with adult L2 learners, too.

It should be pointed out that the commonly held assumption that simply learning a language as a child will lead to the acquisition of perfect L2 pronunciation is only true of naturalistic acquisition, i.e. of acquisition in a second language context in which the child has masses of exposure to the target language (e.g. a child of immigrants/expatriates acquiring the host country’s language or a non-English native speaker in an English medium international school). However, a five-year-old attending two L2-Mandarin lessons a week will not necessarily develop native-like Mandarin pronunciation just because of their age – in fact, in my experience more than often they do not. Frequency of exposure and other factors (e.g. motivation and aptitude) will play an important role, too.

Implications for teaching – language teachers should not be put off by the misconception that beyond puberty L2 learners cannot acquire native-like pronunciation.

5. L2 sounds are interpreted by the brain using the L1 phonological system

For several decades, language instructors were told by theorists working in the Nativist paradigm (e.g. Stephen Krashen) that there was no need to explicitly teach the target language phonology as students would acquire it naturally by simply being exposed to aural input, very much as children learn the mother tongue by listening to caregivers. The proponents of Communicative Language Teaching have a slightly more positive attitude to the teaching of pronunciation. However, because CLT’s main aim is intelligibility of student oral output, not accurate L2 pronunciation, CLT instruction does not greatly emphasize the teaching of pronunciation either. This is why on your teacher training course you were probably not taught how to teach pronunciation and decoding skills.

The assumption that L2 students will ‘pick up’ accurate L2 pronunciation through frequent aural exposure to the language – like children do in the first language – is very intuitively appealing: if you listen to L2 speakers over and over again, day-in day-out you will eventually get a perfect or at least very good pronunciation.  Yet – as much research has shown – this assumption is flawed. Why?

The reason is that the average human brain, unlike what happens in first language acquisition, automatically uses the existing L1 phonological system to interpret any L2 input it hears. In other words, we match any foreign language sound we hear to the most similar L1 sound stored in our Long-term memory. So, for example, an Italian student of English will automatically hear [t] or [f] instead of [θ] whenever s/he hears the first two letters in the word ‘thirsty’; a French native speaker, on the other hand, will hear [s].

What is interesting is that this perceptual mismatch influenced by the native language occurs even though the sound the student hears does actually exist in their mother tongue but is marked by another more frequent similar sound. For instance, the way the ‘n’ in ‘canyon’ is pronounced in English is marked by the more frequent way ‘n’ is pronounced in the same language (e.g. in the word ‘name’). This means that when an English native is taught to pronounce the Italian ‘gn’ sound – very similar to the way the ‘n’ sounds in ‘canyon’ – they will inevitably pronounce it as ‘n’.

Implications for teaching – This automatic response of the brain to foreign language aural input has huge implications:

(1) if we do not raise students’ awareness of the perceptual mismatch which occurs in the Working Memory from the very early days of instruction, they might – as it often happens – end up automatizing a highly L1-influenced L2-pronunciation.

(2) Whether by using a deductive or an inductive approach, it is paramount to raise L2 learner awareness of the differences between the L1 and L2 phonemes the students perceive as identical. I found visual aids very useful in this regard. In teaching the difference between the way ‘T’s are pronounced in French and in English for instance showing through a diagram where the tongue hits the tooth has helped many cohorts of my students to greatly improve their pronunciation of those sounds.

(3) If teachers do know the sound system of their students’ native language, they will be able to anticipate the barriers to accurate L2 pronunciation that L1 transfer erects and plan their teaching accordingly. A perfectly bilingual teacher with native/near-native pronunciation in both their students’ L1 and the target language will have a greater advantage, in this respect, over a teacher with monolingual mastery.

(4) Frequency of exposure and practice in L2 pronunciation and decoding is pivotal. Better a few minutes every day than one or two pronunciation lessons a month.

6. Accurate acquisition of L2 phonology leads not only to more effective listening skills but also to better vocabulary and grammar acquisition

A number of studies have systematically evidenced the fact that L2 learners who have successfully acquired L2 phonology usually have a better mastery of L2 vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Why? Because they are more likely to pick up from aural comprehensible input grammatical features that L2 learners with a less developed grasp of the L2 phonology may not be able to notice. An example: imagine an L2 learner of French who knows that ‘ts’ at the end of French words is usually silent wherear ‘-tes’ is pronounced ‘t’. On hearing the sentence ‘les grenouilles sont marrantes’ (frogs are funny) this learner will understand from the pronunciation that frog is a feminine noun. On the other hand, a student who pronounces ‘marrants (masculine plural) and ‘marrantes’ (feminine plural) the same way, as many L1 English learners of L2 French do, will never pick up on that.

Implications for teaching – In teaching pronunciation and decoding skills teachers ought to prioritize those sounds that may enhance or hinder students’ noticing and understanding of key grammar features (e.g. ‘e’ versus ‘é’ or verb/noun/adjectival endings in French).

7.L2 graphemes automatically activate L1 phonemes in the L2-learner working memory

Whenever a beginner L2 learner who has not as yet mastered the L2 phonological system is asked to pronounce a new L2 word, they will tend to automatically decode it (i.e. transform the letters into sounds) using their native language decoding system – unless other mechanisms (e.g. overcompensation) set in. For instance, an Italian beginner learner of English is very likely to wrongly pronounce the consonant cluster ‘gn’ as an English native speaker would pronounce ‘n’ in the word ‘canyon’.

What is interesting is that many L1 learners, when reading silently, report often repeating the words in their phonemic form ‘in their heads’ (sub-vocalizing), especially when they struggle with the meaning of a text. This entails the risk of L1 learners learning the wrong pronunciation even as they read silently.

Implications for teaching

The above has important implications for teaching. Firstly, this is another important argument in favour of teaching pronunciation and decoding skills explicitly from day one. Secondly, exposure to L2 words in their written form ought to be avoided as much as possible with beginner learners. When new lexical items are indeed presented, they should first be presented through visual aids or gestures; their written form should be provided only after much exposure / practice with their phonemic form.

Another important implication of this phenomenon refers to the frequent use of word-lists and writing mats by many modern language teachers. Unless the students have mastered the L2 decoding system this practice is likely to be very detrimental to their learning as the chance of them mispronouncing the words on those lists/mats will be high. This is particularly the case when the target words have not been selected according to easy-decodability criteria – as it is often the case in textbooks. Hence, teachers should endeavour to use wordlists – with beginners – that are pitched to the right level in terms of ease of pronunciation. When selecting or creating word lists for use, they should model extensively the pronunciation of the words the mats contain through lots of aural activities aimed at raising learner awareness of the pronunciation of the more difficult items.

8. U-shaped developmental curve of phonology acquisition

As it is obvious, frequency of exposure is more likely to result in better acquisition. What several studies have shown, however, is that a U-shaped developmental curve can be observed when students are being taught pronunciation across a range of L2 phonemes. During the first four weeks of instruction there is usually a marked improvement. In the three or four weeks thereafter the L2 learner seems to make more pronunciation errors due to cognitive overload; after this phase, which lasts three or four weeks, accuracy in production appears to be on the rise again.

Implications for teaching – when imparting pronunciation instruction, teachers must be mindful of the transitional phase observed by research. It is a necessary step the human brain takes in which through trial and error the learner refines their grasp of the target language phonology. Hence, teachers should not feel discouraged and give up on pronunciation instruction; instead, they should double their cognitive and affective support to the students and provide masses of constructive feedback through critical listening (whether by themselves or peers) and remedial strategies (e.g. metacognitive listening) which help restructuring.

9. Effective decoding skills and pronunciation play an important role in L2 reading comprehension

A substantial body of research evidence (e.g. Walter, 2008) has demonstrated that poor L2 readers do not often comprehend L2 texts not simply due to lack of grammar or vocabulary knowledge but because of poor decoding skills and issues with the phonological representation of what they read in their Working Memory (in the Articulatory/Phonological Loop to be more precise). The reasons for this are too complicated and beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say that they refer to the obstacles to Working Memory processing efficiency that bad decoding skills pose and which, in turn, hinder comprehension. If you do want to know more about this, read Catherine Walter’s fascinating article ‘ Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra’ (at https://www.academia.edu/1125848/Phonology_in_second_language_reading_not_an_optional_extra ).

Implications for teaching – When confronted with poor L2-reader students teachers often provide them with extra reading practice or focus on widening their vocabulary repertoire. This may not be sufficient; they may want to also focus on enhancing their decoding skills and, in particular on their ability to discriminate between L2 sounds that they confuse – due most often to L1 transfer. For instance, Walter (2008) reports findings from Flege and Mckay (2004) that many Italian immigrants who had been residing in Canada for many years still had problems discriminating aurally between the English sounds /ɑ / and /ʌ/ and between /æ/ and /e / (a very common problems amongst L1 Italian learners of English). This hindered their reading comprehension.

10. The temporariness of phonological storage in Working Memory

A fairly recent acquisition of neuroscience is that Working Memory’s phonological storage does not last more than a few seconds (some say two!) unless, that is, we make a conscious effort through rehearsal (repetition) to keep items in there. This limited storage time has important implications given that memory is phonologically mediated (i.e. when we retrieve L2 words from Long-Term memory we do so through their sound); it means that when we hear the words ‘cats’ and ‘cuts’ and we are not clear as to the difference between /ɑ / and /ʌ/ we do not have much time to decide which one we are actually hearing, unless we have automatized the ability to discriminate between those two sounds. Imagine this kind of scenario happening to one of our students during a high stake listening examination… it would cause confusion, slow down the whole process and, should the ambiguous word be crucial to the understanding of the text, it may seriously undermine their performance.

Implications for teaching: Same as per point 9.

11. There is no link between musical ability and pronunciation ability – Researchers have often attempted to evidence a link between the two and have systematically failed to find one. In fact, they have identified a lot of people who have one of these ‘talents’ but not the other.

Implications for teaching – Do not presume that the musical prodigies in your language classes are being failed by you if they do not exhibit excellent pronunciation. In the past, teachers I have worked with were so baffled by the fact that musically-talented students in their classes were not pronouncing words correctly because of this commonly held misconception. No need to be baffled – the two skills are not necessarily related.

12. Concluding remarks

Pronunciation and decoding skills are the most neglected aspect of L2 instruction in secondary school settings nowadays. This is because the trending language teaching methodologies either posit that L2 phonology is acquired subconsciously exactly as happens in L1 acquisition or concern themselves with intelligible communication – hence, accent does not matter as far as a sympathetic native speaker would understand what the student is trying to convey. However, the level of mastery of L2 phonology can seriously impact the acquisition of L2 grammar, syntax and vocabulary and can affect L2 reading and listening comprehension. In particular, the inability to clearly discriminate between similar-sounding L2 phonemes can slow down the processing of aural and written L2 input with potentially disastrous consequences for L2 learning and performance. Hence, it is imperative that Modern Language curricula lay more emphasis on the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills. At Garden International School, Dylan Vinales and myself are currently experimenting with pronunciation and decoding-skill instruction through various approaches and techniques which I will describe in the sequel to this post (to be published over the next few days).

You can find more on this topic in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com

Forging ethical and entrepreneurial agents of change – An experiment in socially-orientated school-wide enquiry at Garden International School Kuala Lumpur

Please note: this post is not about modern language pedagogy.

images (3).jpg

A few months ago I asked my teen-age students : “Have you ever asked yourselves : How can I change the world for the better?’and thought long and hard about how you could do it?” The unanimous answer I got was a dispiriting ‘No’. My heart sank. Somewhere along the line someone had failed them; and I, as one of their teachers, had my fair share of responsibility, too. Yet our school has a highly developed, wide-ranging and proactive community service programme – one of the best in South-east Asia – and we regularly stage social- and environmental-awareness campaigns!

Not inspiring young men and women to ask themselves that question means failing to fulfil one’s most important mandate as a 21st century teacher: to forge the next generation of effective ethical world-changers, the most fulfilling of missions, the reason why I still choose to stay a teacher.

‘World-changers’ NOT ‘global citizens’ – as the trendy label ‘global citizen’ does not capture the full scope and urgency of the role that the current generation of teenagers will have to take on as they come of age. Today’s world rampant terrorism; racial and sectarian hatred; reckless planet exploitation and abuse; ecological disasters; institutionalised corruption; pathological levels of social injustice and myopic individualism… all of these call for a generation of visionary, entrepreneurial, ethical, empathetic, innovative, globally aware and, whether we like it or not, technology savvy world-changers bent on making our planet a better place for everyone, with no ethnocentrism of sort.

Visionary. Entrepreneurial. Ethical. Empathetic. Globally aware. Technology savvy. Designing a 21st century curriculum which lays emphasis on these six attributes calls for an approach to education which goes beyond the typical awareness-raising sessions provided in the traditional European (global) citizenship or PSHE (personal social health education) lessons – as they call it in England –  staged at tutor time or on a one-off monthly basis. An approach that currently every single Educational system around the world falls short of providing.  Why?

Because, as cognitive psychology clearly posits, awareness-raising alone does not lead to skill acquisition and habit formation. Extensive practice and deep cognitive and emotional arousal and investment do. Lessons, assemblies and trips that raise student-awareness of socio-economical, educational, health-related or environmental issues do help no doubt in shaping attitudes and beliefs. But, ultimately, in order to acquire the skills that refer to those key attributes, the next generation of world—changers need more than awareness-raising and community service trips where they feed the homeless or donate to orphanages.They must receive extensive practice in solving problems – real or simulated – which refer to today’s societal (local and large-scale) issues.

Hence, unlike the typical current school curricula, a world-changing curriculum should not simply aim at giving rise to a ‘Need to know’, but also, and more importantly, to a ‘Need to act’ and become innovative agents of social change. This entails an important mind-shift on the part of education providers and classroom teachers, as their role – in this paradigm – becomes one of inspirers and mentors of ethical global change. A role which requires knowledge and skills (e.g. social cognition and entrepreneurship) that not all classroom practitioners possess.

The biggest challenge for curriculum designers and school administrators is to find ways to integrate and implement a strong component of ethical world-changing education in the traditional curriculum. A tough challenge as some of the key stake-holders may not feel the same sense of urgency vis-à-vis the social and environmental plagues that afflict our planet. Not to mention examinations…

A group of visionary and socially engaged educators at the school I work at – James Wellings (the school’s director of innovative learning), Colter Watt (the Principal), Andrew Rankin (Drama Teacher), Alex Turner (Integration Coach leader), James Abela (Head of ICT), the school administrators and others – do share this sense of urgency and have had a go at implementing this pedagogy of ethical, visionary, technologically-supported, socially-engaged entrepreneurship in a whole-middle-school experiment.

They did so last week by staging a three-day large-scale socially-oriented enquiry event in our school called ‘Be the change‘ . The main goal: for students (aged 9-13) to address, working in teams of three or four, one of the 17 UN global goals (no poverty; zero hunger; quality education; affordable and clean energy; etc.) by creating an entrepreneurial solution which would be actionable by children of their age. The solution was going to be presented to (adult) judges who would assess the final product and the process that led to that product.

The process, obviously more important than the final product – as it is the process that shapes the six key attributes referred to above – was framed as follows:

Feel – During this stage, after being given access to a vast array of digital and hard-copy resources, the students chose the UN global goal(s) they were most interested in; the ones that aroused the strongest emotions.

Imagine – They then, in teams, had a go at brainstorming solutions whilst searching the Web  high and low for information and ideas to draw inspiration from. At the end of this stage they compiled a solution proposal.

Do – It was time then to come up with an actionable solution. In teams, often having to work through the perils and challenges of team work and having to find mature and productive compromises, they were to come up with a business plan through and through which would translate their idea into reality.

Share – Finally, the students – helped by their mentors –  set up and expo in which they presented their project to adult judges who focused on the process as much as they did on the product. The questions they asked referred to the feel stage (e.g. why did you choose this issue?); to the imagine stage (e.g. how did you come out with the proposal?; how did you deal with disagreement in the group?); To the do stage (e.g. How will you do it? What are the obstacles? Have you thought about problem ‘X’ and ‘Y’?).

At the end of each stage of the process, the mentor leaders and myself (one of four mentor executives) received live data on our iPads painting a picture of each and every student’s cognition vis-a-vis the task-at-hand. A clever program devised by our colleague James Abela – last year’s winner of the 21st century learning teacher award – made this possible. The most technologically innovative feature of this event. These data enabled us to have a clear idea as to which child was not coping well and needed further mentor assistance.

As you can imagine, the children were exhausted at the end of the process. And so were the teachers who facilitated the Feel (the free flow team) and the Imagine and Do stages (the mentor team). As one of the four mentor executives I had the privilege to oversee about 40 groups of students and their respective mentors, the adults (teachers and business people) who coached them. This gave me an insightful overview of the whole mentoring process – an educational researcher’s dream!

The mentors were obviously pivotal to the success of the event – as we know from scores of research studies how decisive the influence of a charismatic  and inquisitive adult can be in shaping an adolescent’s beliefs, inspiring them and modelling metacognitive processes.

Those three days have been an eye-opener for me. As an educational researcher with Metacognitive strategies as the main area of interest, the first thing that jumped to my eyes was the amount of self-regulation that the tasks elicited. As a teacher, it was the passion for the world problem they chose to address and the creative solutions they came up with – some quite naïve, as one may expect at this age – that moved me.

I had seen and taken part in Product Based Learning / Inquiry Based Learning initiatives before; but it was the marriage of visionary entrepreneurship with social and ethical concerns at such an early age and the high levels of metacognition, creativity and collaboration it fostered that blew me away. The planting of the seeds of positive and ethical world-changing attitudes and skills in my favourite Garden.

Creative ways must be found by international governments and education providers to embed activities of this kind in every school’s curriculum. The 21st century world needs an ethical revolution in order to survive its deep socio-political, economic and environmental crisis and chaos. A new generation of highly creative, adaptive and technologically adept humans  is needed, bent on saving mankind from self- and earth-destruction. Not angry eco-warriors with a grudge against the Establishment; but highly informed, passionate,  innovative and entrepreneurial peace-mongers who want and know how to fix it.

Do ask your students: “Have you ever asked yourself  How can I change the world for the better?”. And if the answer is ‘No’  try and do something about it.

Grammar translation and Communicative Language Teaching Compared

Please note: this paper has been written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net and my G.I.S.K.L. colleague Dylan Vinales.

download 

In this paper I shall compare two different language teaching methodologies, the Grammar-Translation methodology, still used in quite a lot of institutions worldwide ( e.g. some UK and Malaysian universities) and the Communicative Language Teaching approach, possibly today’s most popular instructional method worldwide . It should be pointed out that the labels ‘Grammar Translation’ (GT) and ‘Communicative Language Teaching’ (CLT) do not refer to two fixed sets of instructional frameworks whose principles have been formally and permanently codified by their founders or proponents. On the contrary, GT is a term used by specialized authors in their reviews of the history of Applied Linguistics (e.g Brown, 1994) to describe the oldest documented form of L2 teaching in man’s history.

The label CLT, on the other hand, does indeed designate meaning-based methodologies described in great detail by its many proponents and supporters in numerous manuals, papers and conferences. However, it has been applied very flexibly over the last 30 years or so to losely describe teaching methods that share a common core of pedagogic principles but can in fact differ greatly from one other in a number of ways. Some approaches, for instance, ban grammar teaching and correction altogether and employ communicative tasks with little or no structure which aim at fostering spontaneous interaction (Littlewood’s, 1984, ‘strong’ CLT approaches); others are less radical and do include some grammar teaching and correction and employ more structured activities in order to exercise some control over learner output (Littlewood’s, 1984, ‘weak’ CLT appraoches).

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all the many shapes and forms that GT and CLT over the decades. Thus, in discussing both approaches I shall limit my focus to the main pedagogic principles both methodologies rest upon and the basic teaching activities they employ, evaluating their merits in the light of current theories of L2 –acquisition and cognitive psychology. After discussing each methodology I shall proceed to compare them drawing my conclusions as to which one of them I consider as the more conducive to effective language learning providing the rationale for my choice. In my conclusions I shall also discuss my views on how elements of each methods could be combined in order to produce an integrated teaching methodology which, I believe, has greater potential for learning than either one of the two approaches.

Grammar Translation (GT)

This approach is based on the Classical Humanistic educational philosophy which views teaching as the passing-on of a body of knowledge from one generation to the next; not as the passing of skills necessary to function effectively and independently in the real world in a way which is beneficial for society. In this educational paradigm, language is therefore taught as something to know, as a set of rules and words to memorize rather than an instrument to use in a real-life communicative context.

As the name suggests, this instructional methodology focuses mainly on the explicit teaching of grammar in the belief that the mastery of the morphology, syntax and the other mechanics of the target language (TL) is the key to effective L2-acquisition. In its purest form this methodology will follow a Structural Syllabus (White, 1998) that is a syllabus in which each unit of work centres around a core grammatical structure. The teaching of lexis usually co-occurs, but holds a peripheral role and receive less emphasis and recycling within a typical lesson.

Although instruction rarely concerns itself explicitly with the teaching of translation skills and dictionary use, the learners are often engaged in translation activities from the L1 to the L2 and vice versa, aimed at reinforcing the target grammatical structures. Such activities typically follow the explanation of a morpheme / grammar rule which is usually taught deductively rather than inductively. Other activities of election are grammar exercises which train the learners in the manipulation of the morphology of the various parts of speech with model phrases which are usually learnt out of context. Such model phrases are usually void of communicative value and rather than being selected for their surrender value usually serve a purely demonstrative purpose. Aural/ oral skills are rarely if ever practised. The only oral work the students are likely to engage in is usually when the teacher addresses one of the students to ask them to demonstrate their grasp of a grammar structure through a translation task.

The elective form of correction is explicit error correction, possibly supplemented with rule explanation; in other words, the/a correct TL alternative is provided. The teacher usually practises all-out correction and would prioritize accuracy over fluency, form over communication, product over process. Hence, in the assessment of learner output the teacher would particularly penalize grammar mistakes.

The typical GT classroom sees the teacher as the ‘dictator’ of learning and the students as the passive recipients of his/her input. The learners usually commit lexical items to memory by rehearsing wordlists and are tested on their ability to recall them totally out of contexts. Pronunciation is taught through parroting and the learners usually are taught phonetics and practice reading the phonetic transcriptions of words found in the dictionaries and textbooks. L2-Writing tasks consist of: (a) translating words with the dctionary or (b) writing model sentences over and over again manipulating their morphology or syntax to obtain formally corrected (but not necessarily meaningful) output.

It should also be pointed out that in this instructional methodology the L2 taught is normally the standard variety in its purest and prescriptive form and in its highest register. Thus, the syntax the students will learn is more than often the language of literature or academia. Occasionally, both the lexis and the syntax taught is anachronistic and may occasionally sound flawed to a non-scholarly native ‘ear’.

In evaluating the merits of this methodology one needs to consider that the epistemological foundations of Grammar Translation approaches are not rooted in any systematic theory or model of L2-acquisition. Rather, they are based on the pre-cognitivist overly simplistic assumption that a grammatical rule can be acquired by simple explanation and rote learning. The main shortcomings of this approach stem from these epistemological premise: that by understanding and/or memorizing a grammar rule students ‘acquire’ it.

Today, cognitive research in the way humans acquire and process languages rules out that L2-grammar can be acquired by simply accruing (declarative) knowledge about it. Although cognitive theory does allow for declarative knowledge (conscious knowledge about the L2 grammar) to become proceduralised (i.e. automatic), the proceduralization process is very long and requires extensive practice (Anderson, 2000). Also, Cognitivist theory postulates that unless a learner is developmentally ready to acquire a given structure, teaching it to him/her is likely to be a sheer waste of time (just as you would not ask a beginner driver to drive a Ferrari on a busy highway). GT is not usually mindful of this.

Moreover, current psycholinguistic research has clearly demonstrated that language is a complex cognitive skill involving a series of psycho-motor sub-skills (de Bot, 1992) and that performing these sub-skills effectively is a function of the power law of practice (Anderson, 2000). Since a language is processed through four different modalities (speaking, hearing, reading and writing) each of them governed by different processes, it is flawed to presume that what is learnt by writing or reading can be effectively used by the other two modalities. Information processing theory clearly indicates that processing language effectively in each of the above modalities requires more than knowing words by heart. The brain’s working memory’s ability to process language in each modality requires a lot of modality-specific practice (Anderson, 2000).

It should also be pointed out that apart from very few studies (e.g. Lighbown and Spada, 1992), most experimental research in the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching has yielded little evidence that it actually works (Brown, 1994; Ellis, 1994, Macaro, 2003). The same applies to error correction research (Truscott, 1994).

Finally, in GT students are usually assessed based on the number of errors in their output. The teacher/assessor has a pre-conceived target language model and the learners’ translation, utterance or composition are evaluated on the basis of how deviant they are from that model. This encourages the learners to prioritize the development of accuracy over fluency and may inhibit risk-taking (a valuable learning strategy – Brown, 1994). Moreover, teacher feedback which is product\-based does not help the students improve the skills (i.e. the process) involved in the execution of the target task. Teacher feedback, to be helpful, needs to identify the issues relative to the various processes involved in task performance, identify the flaws and advice the learners on how to address those issues.

In conclusion the main features of GT are:

1. It is teacher centred and does not aim to cater for every learner’s individual needs

2. The emphasis is on grammar learning through verb drills, the translation of written texts and the memorization of wordlists

3. The focus is on the product rather than the process of learning

4. Language is viewed as a body of knowledge rather than an instrument for communicating and functioning effectively in the real world

5. Linguistic practice is confined to the memorization of words and rules

6. Instruction aims at the mastery of the written medium rather than oral communication

7. Accuracy rules over fluency

8. Correction is all-out and punitive

9. The L2-model adopted is elitist and so is the educational philosophy

10. Feedback on learner performance is not likely to be helpful as it is solely accuracy-based

Its main shortcomings are that (1) it does not train learners in using the language to communicate; (2) it does not provide enough practice in oral and aural skills; (3) the emphasis on grammar may alienate students who are not analytical learners; (4) the emphasis on accuracy and correction may demotivate less able learners more prone to inaccuracies ; (5) it does not develop independent learners. Its main strength is that it develops grammar and lexical accuracy. However, by not promoting oral/aural skills, the students’ are likely to be very slow at producing spoken output and seriously impaired when confronted with the task of understanding L2-native speakers .

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

CLT has altogether different objectives to GT as it rests on diametrically opposite educational philosophy and epistemological assumptions. In fact, unlike GT, it prioritizes teaching skills rather than knowledge (Littlewood, 1994). Moreover, this approach is based on Social Constructivism, a pedagogical philosophy which aims at empowering the learners with the tools which allow one to function effectively in society (White, 1998). Consequently, in CLT L2- grammar knowledge becomes a secondary concern; language use across the four core skills of Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing takes priority because conveying and understanding messages is what makes one get by in the real world. Thus, the teaching of Functions (e.g. expressing an opinion, apologizing, giving directions, ordering), Notions (e.g. Time, Size, Space) and of the vocabulary (words and lexical phrases) needed to express those functions and notions is the primary instructional focus. Also, since the learners will one day have to cope with the challenges that the real world will pose to them, the target functions, notions and language items are usually contextualized in situations and tasks which replicate real-life.

CLT’s epistemological premises rest on the Skill-theory postulate that language is a complex goal-orientated cognitive skill, made up of sub-skills which are acquired after extended practice (Anderson, 2000). CLT translates this postulate into its instructional practice as follows: (a) since ‘goal-orientated’ implies that language has to be used for a purpose, learning activities must have a clear and tangible communicative goal; (b) since each skill involved in language reception and production has to be automatized in order to be acquired, the CLT teacher must give learners plenty of opportunities for practicing all four skills.

CLT is also based on cognitive models of L2 acquisition which posit that declarative knowledge about the L2 and procedural knowledge (the ability to use it) are two different abilities. Thus, acquiring declarative knowledge does not automatically lead to being able to use the L2.

The emphasis on empowering the individual with skills that will render him self-reliant and the skill-theory assumption that skills must be practised frequently and meaningfully in order to be acquired are at the root of CLT’s pupil-centred orientation. Unlike GT, in fact, CLT aims at obtaining productive learning outcomes from all the students in the classroom (Littlewood, 1994). They all have to take part in the tasks-in-hand. This entails that the teacher, in order to practise speaking, must set group-work tasks which involve interpersonal negotiation of meaning; thus, the students talk to each other rather than to the teacher (as happens in the traditional L2 classroom).

Consequently, unlike the GT teacher, the CLT teacher does not spend most of the lesson at the front of the classroom. S/he sets the students communicative tasks designed to practise the target lexis, morpheme, function, phoneme, etc. and then goes around the classroom HELPING the students, FACILITATING their learning. In fact, the proponents of the CLT approach (e.g Littlewoods, 1984) reiterate – often ad nauseam –  the concept that the CLT teacher is a facilitator not a dictator of learning. In this capacity, s/he abdicates part of the responsibility for the learning to the students as they have to manage the group-work activities set.

This ‘facilitator’ role also entails a different approach to error correction. The proponents of the CLT approach criticized the GT and Audio-lingual approaches for being too intolerant of error (Edge, 1992). ‘Facilitating’ the development of oral and written fluency calls for a different attitude to error, one which recognizes that correcting every single error a student makes can be harmful to their self-esteem and to the development of fluency (especially if the teacher’s correction interrupts their speaking). Thus, the CLT teacher corrects the learners selectively, prioritizing certain errors over others. Since CLT concerns itself with functioning effectively in real life, it gives priority to errors which impede meaning (Walz, 1982). Frequency and Irritability of errors, (respectively how often and how irritating they can be to the interlocutor/reader) are the next most important criteria adopted in selecting which errors to correct (Brown, 1984). Moreover, the correction must not disrupt the flow of conversation. Thus, the CLT teacher tends to delay the correction, making notes as s/he goes around the classroom from group to group ‘coaching’, advising, listening in. S/he will only interrupt the conversation when there are serious breakdowns in communication (Edge, 1992).

The ‘facilitator’ role has also implications for the CLT teacher’s general attitude towards the students. The CLT class being about collaboration and helping the learner to grow, the relationship between the teacher and the learners is different; the teacher is ‘closer’ to the students, sits with them, helps them by giving feedback on the process of their learning rather than simply on the product (Littlewood, 1984). S/he is less judgmental on the quality of their output because the CLT approach acknowledges an important principle of language acquisition: as they acquire the L2 learners build a system, called Interlanguage (Selinker, 2000) which is bound to contain mistakes as it is based on hypotheses and guesses based on their L1 and of their approximate knowledge of the L2 (Brown, 1984). Thus, CLT recognizes that learners need a nurturing, motivational, tolerant environment rather than the academic environment of the humanistic GT classroom. In such an environment, the learners will not feel intimidated by bad marks and lots of red ink and will take risks as they speak or write. Krashen (1981) expressed in his affective-filter theory his belief that such an environment is a categorical imperative for L2-learning to happen. An overly intolerant, critical environment would, on the contrary, ‘raise’ the learner’s ‘affective filter’ serious hindering learning.

Krashen (1981) and other educators have stressed the importance of avoiding correcting learners‘ output altogether in the belief that in order to motivate learners one has to let them talk and write at length and without any interruption. This stance is accepted by strong CLT approaches (Prabhu, 1987). Most CLT instruction still supports the use of correction but emphasizes giving the learners fluency-orientated instruction where the learner’s recourse to survival communication strategies such as Coinage (coining new words), Approximation (using words close in meaning to the target word), Paraphrase, Foreignization (adapting an L1 word to make it sound L2-like) is not only tolerated but even encouraged as they often allow an individual to put the intended message across effectively (Macaro, 2003).

The oral/written activities adopted by CLT usually include all of the following features:

1. They involve an information gap that the learners have to fill through interaction in the L2. For example, two learners need each other’s information to complete a table. Their task is to elicit the needed information by means of asking each other questions in the L2;

2. They have a communicative purpose . Language is an instrument to complete them not the main outcome ( as in a grammar exercise or translation task)

3. They are inspired by real-life tasks (e.g. asking for directions., describing a criminal to a policeman, ordering food, etc.)

The aural/reading comprehension tasks often involve authentic or pseudo-authentic materials in order to better prepare the learners to cope with the challenges posed by the target language environment.

The CLT assessment of learner performance is usually criterion based. The learners are usually graded based on multi score proficiency scales (e.g. Polio, 1997) which identify the skills/proficiency areas (e.g. grammatical accuracy, range of vocabulary, fluency, style) involved in the performance. The learners are awarded marks on each trait which are finally added up. Each mark refers to a level which is described in detail to make the grading process more accountable to the learner. For example, a top mark on the accuracy scale could be described as follows: accurate use of complex structures; very few mistakes, mostly involving mistakes not impeding intelligibility. An average of the scores is calculated. The learners are usually given both the total and the trait-specific scores thereby obtaining an insight in the area of their performance they should pay more attention to in the future. This type of evaluation has a greater potential learning outcome for the students than GT’s.

In conclusion, the main pedagogical principles advocated by CLT are:

1. It is pupil-centred rather than teacher-centred

2 The emphasis is on communication and effective interactional skills

3. The focus is on the process rather than the product of learning;

4. Language is viewed as a skill to learn rather than a body of language

to pass on to the pupil

5. Linguistic practice occurs through communicative activities

6. Instruction aims at the mastery of all of the four core language skills

7. Fluency rules over accuracy

8. Correction is selective and non-judgmental

9. The L2-model adopted is flexible and can deviate from the L2-standard

Form

Its main weakness relates to the fact that by prioritizing communication and fluency development it does not emphasize grammar sufficiently. Thus, learners often develop a pidgin ridden with grammatical flaws at morphological and at grammatical level. Because the teacher corrective intervention is selective and focuses mainly on errors that impede understanding, learner’s mistakes often become automatized and consequently difficult to eradicate. Also, the scarce focus on grammatical knowledge does not help the learners develop the metalinguistic and analytical skills necessary for L2-students to learn grammar independently and to produce and comprehend texts that contain sophisticated syntax. In other words, whereas it may train students to successfully cope at survival and basic conversational level, it may fail to prepare the learners for communication in professional or academic contexts where accuracy and sophisticated language and register are required.

Conclusions and Implications for L2-pedagogy

In conclusion, the two methodologies are very different in their philosophy, goals, and in the way they conceptualize language acquisition. CLT appears, at least in theory, as a more effective approach because it aims at preparing the learners for effective interaction in the real world. Moreover, being based on current models of language acquisition it advocates methods and procedures that are more likely to lead to successful acquisition because they are consistent with the way humans learn and process information and language. However, in my opinion it does not focus learners on accuracy as much as it should. This is particularly counterproductive in acquisition-poor learning environments, that is environments where the learners’ exposure to the target language is minimal (e.g. the two hours a week of a typical secondary school course).

Unlike students learning the L2 in an L2-speaking country, learners receiving instruction in acquisition-poor environments (i.e. with little contact with the L2) do not have many opportunities to internalize grammar subconsciously through frequent exposure; for the latter type of learners error correction and focus on L2 morphemes are crucial in order to learn accurate syntax.

Moreover, current theories of second language acquisition posit that Noticing is often crucial to L2 learning (Schmidt, 1990). Noticing refers to the process whereby the learners realize that a structure works differently in the L2 system compared to its L1 equivalent. This realization, which often marks the beginning of L2 acquisition, is not fostered by strong meaning-based methods like CLT. Explicit grammar instruction on the other hands promotes Noticing, especially when it presents students with bilingual input illustrating the usage of the target L2 structures.

Thus, I believe that CLT and GT should be integrated within an eclectic syllabus with a variable focus  where functions and notions are still prioritised over form. In a seminal article that every language teacher should read, Lighbown and Spada (2008) provide very interesting suggestions as to how this can be done through both inductive and deductive approaches (http://www.ub.edu/GRAL/Naves/Courses/ELTM/Miscelaneous/Spada-Lightbown2008Form-Focused-Instruction.pdf). One approach involves addressing grammar instruction as of when it arises from the context the class is operating in; so, for example, the teacher would not teach a given grammar structure because the books or the schemes of work say so, but simply because the specific topic or text one is dealing with require the students to understand and/or being able to use it. This approach is referred to as ‘Focus on form’ as opposed to ‘Focus on forms’ (the more traditional grammar teaching approach).

The bias should still be on communication, though, and teachers should find creative ways to teach grammar through communicative activities. There should be, however, space for drills and other behaviouristic (habit-forming) activities which serve the purpose of paving the way for less structured information-gap based activities involving negotiation of meaning in the  context of learner-to-learner oral or written activities. Translations also should be used, if sparingly, in order to focus learners on grammatical, lexical and stylistic accuracy. Also, as Conti (2001,2004) maintains, instruction should include an emphasis on modelling self-monitoring skills to ensure that learners become more effective editors and auditors of their output.

REFERENCES

Anderson, J.R. 2000. Cognitive psychology and its implications (5th edition). New York: Worth Publishing.

Brown, H.D. 1994. Principles of language learning and teaching (3rd edition). Englewood Cliffs,

NJ: Prentice Hall.

de Bot, K. 1992. A bilingual production model: Levelt’s ‘Speaking’ model adapted. Applied Linguistics. 13(1): 1-24.

Edge, J. 1989. Mistakes and correction. London: Longman.

Ellis, R. 1994. The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eysenck, M.W. and Keane, M.T. 1995. Cognitive psychology: A Student’s Handbook (4th edition). Hove: Psychology Press.

Ferris, D.R. 1999. The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing. 8(1): 1-11.

Krashen, S.D. 1981. Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon press.

Lightbown, P. M. and Spada N. 1992. How Languages are Learned. (2nd Ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Littlewood, W. 1984. Foreign and second language learning, language acquisition research and its implications for the classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macaro, E. (2003) Teaching and Learning a Second Language: a guide to current research and its applications. London: Continuum

Pienemann, M. 1984. Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 6(3): 186-214.

Polio, C. 1997. Measures of linguistic accuracy in second language writing. Language Learning. 47(1): 101-143.

Prabhu, N.S. 1987. Second language pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walz, Joel. 1982. Error correction techniques for the foreign language classroom. Washington: Centre for Applied Linguistics

White, Ronald V. 1998: The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management. London: Blackwell. Applied Language Studies. Editors: Crystal & Johnson

How verb conjugation drills can enhance oral and written fluency. A skill-building perspective

TES3

It sounds like a paradox, right? It goes against everything you have been taught on your teacher training course, doesn’t it? How can grammar drills ever improve fluency? It’s learning grammar by rote! It’s what language teachers used to do in the 50’s!

In actual fact, as I shall argue below, verb conjugation drills can indeed enhance the ease and speed at which L2 learners produce spoken and written output. To understand why, let us look at how L2 output is produced.

How L2 output is produced

Every time an individual produces linguistic output, they will have to translate the idea / message they are trying to convey (or proposition, as cognitive psychologist call it) into language. This process happens at very high speed with native speakers (Anderson, 2000). However, with novice target language speakers the process is much slower, especially when they are producing complex sentences which pose a heavy cognitive load on Working Memory. Imagine an intermediate student of average ability wanted to convey the following, in French:

Yesterday we went to the cinema with them (feminine). The film was great but the cinema was packed.

First, the student will have to retrieve all the vocabulary they need from Long-Term Memory. At this point Working Memory, that can only contain 5 to 9 digits at any one time for around 15-to-30 seconds (without rehearsal), will be already stretched in terms of storage capacity. Whilst holding the words in Working Memory, the brain has to ensure that each lexical item is arranged in the correct syntactic order and that the rules of tense and agreement are applied correctly. This requires a number of cognitive operations some of which involve sub-operations (e.g. ‘they arrived’ in French require the perfect tense; however it is a verb requiring the verb ‘to be’ as an auxiliary; also ‘they’ being plural I will have to add ‘-s’ to the ending of the verb).

If a student has not automatized verb formation and the application of the various rules of tense and agreement involved, the process will be extremely cumbersome and may lead to error. For instance, a typical intermediate student of average ability will master most of the vocabulary in the sentence above. However, they may struggle with the translation of ‘we went’ (being a verb requiring the auxiliary Etre in the Perfect tense); they may be undecided as to whether to use eux, ils or se for ‘them’; moreover, they may have problems deciding if ‘Was’ should be translated using the imperfect or the perfect tense; etc. Each and every decision has to be taken whilst simultaneously the brain has to rehearse every single vocabulary item in Working Memory. This is an ominous task for an intermediate learner and the slightest interference can cause Working Memory loss, leading to processing inefficiency errors.

It is easy to see how, in this and other linguistic contexts, the automatization of verb formation would contribute to speed up the process of output production; one less cognitive operation to worry about. And when the conjugation drills involve oral production, they have the added benefit of automatizing the pronunciation of verb forms; this will further ease up the cognitive load of the pre-intermediate to intermediate learner as pronunciation will require less conscious attention, freeing up more Working Memory space.

The best verb drills are those which train students to retrieve the target verb forms quickly. My favourite ones involve the use of online conjugation trainers such as the one I created at www.language-gym.com – which, incidentally, is free. Why? Because they offer support (‘cheat sheets’ with the solution); they are self-marking; they provide stats (numerical and visual) which give you a clear idea of how the students are doing and – in the case of the Language Gym conjugator – they have images and English translation which help memorize the meaning of the verbs.

The objection often made by the critics of verb drills is that the students do not learn the target verbs in context. However, such criticism stems from a misunderstanding of the role of these activities. Verb conjugation drills do not aim at the acquisition of verbs; their goal is the automatization of one aspect of verb acquisition: verb formation. Hence, they are only a small but very important cog in a very complex mechanism. Unlike in behaviourist L2 pedagogy models, verb conjugation drills should not dominate our lessons. Not at all. They only make sense as a means to support the development of communicative competence. Their merit lies in focusing Working Memory’s attentional systems solely on verb morphology in a ‘stress-free’ environment, where there is no communicative pressure nor high levels of cognitive challenge. Hence, they should be used with discernment.

I usually flip verb-conjugation practice at home using the www.language-gym.com verb-conjugation trainer (I ask the students to send to my school e-mail account the screenshots of the score obtained at the end of each session). In class, I use verb drills (whether through MWB, or the online verb trainer) only as a pre-task activity before a communicative oral or written task, in order to:

  • Activate the verb forms relative to the tense(s) the to-be-staged communicative activity is likely to elicit;
  • Focus the students on the issue of agreement and verb accuracy in general, verb-endings being one of the first things that the students neglect when working under communicative pressure;
  • Get a good overview of each student’s level of verb-formation automatization before the activity; this information will be useful when the teacher walks around the classroom monitoring the students as they carry out the oral tasks in that it will cue him/her to whom will require more support.

Another important merit of verb conjugation drills is that, as a spin-off, students often acquire the meaning of a wide repertoire of verbs. Macaro (2007) makes the very important point that L2 learners need a wide repertoire of verbs – wider than the average UK GCSE learner currently gets –  to become effective autonomous speakers of the target language.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, verb conjugation drills have been written off by the advocates of strong CLT and Nativist approaches (e.g. TPRS) as legacy methods which are of no use in L2 pedagogy. However, as I argued above, they can play a crucial role in enhancing fluency by bringing about the automatization of verb formation thereby facilitating speech production by reducing the cognitive load on L2-learner working memory.

Online verb-conjugation trainers are particularly effective in this regard, in that they force the learner to be accurate (the program only accept 100% accurate input); they foster independent learning (as they are self-marking); they train students to retrieve the target verb forms quickly (as the students usually perform against the clock) and, finally, they offer support in the way of conjugation lists, which make the process less threatening for them. Add the fact that ways can be easily found to add a competition element to the tasks. Moreover, when using online verb trainers the children are usually quiet and concentrated- at least in my experience. I recommend getting the student to carry out verb drills (whether flipped or in class) in small doses several times a week.

Language learning Strategies and Learning-to-learn. Insights from research

 

download

  1. Introduction- Why a post on Learner Training (aka Learning-to-learn)

The rationale for this post is that although the hype about Learner Training (henceforth LT) has somewhat died down many educators advocate the importance of equipping learners with subject specific and non-subject-specific learning strategies and skills which cut across various dimension of human cognition and experience (e.g. organization, independent enquiry, resilience, self-regulation, collaboration, empathy).

Although many theorists and education providers concur on the importance of including the teaching of strategies and skills in the curriculum many schools struggle to find a principled framework for the teaching of such skills. This is because a lot of the research relative to strategies-based instruction has largely gone unnoticed by the international teaching community, with the exception of a few areas of the world (e.g. Canada).

In this very long post I review the literature on LT outlining the research framework that the advocates and proponents of Learning-to-learn have implemented and tested in several studies. This framework could be adapted by schools in their effort to integrate both language learning strategies and generic skills in their curricula.

  1. What are Learning Strategies?

O’Malley and Chamot (1990) view Learning Strategies (LSs) as complex procedural skills whose functioning occurs as follows: in the presence of a learning problem, the brain (working memory) matches the data pattern relative to that problem with a suitable strategy in LTM (long-term memory) which is then activated and retrieved. The following is an example of how the production systems conceptualised by O’Malley and Chamot would operate in the application of one of the learning strategies I taught as part of my PhD study (segmenting)

IF a sentence is long and contains a lot of complex structures

THEN check it more carefully by breaking it up into smaller units

O’Malley and Chamot conceptualise the following categories of LSs, based on the way they affect the learning process: Cognitive, Metacognitive, Affective and Social strategies.

Cognitive strategies refer to operations in learning or problem-solving which involve analysis, interpretation, manipulation, or synthesis of learning materials (Palincsar and Brown, 1984). Examples of these strategies in the area of Editing are: repeating an L2-item aloud to check if it sounds right; translating a sentence in an essay into the mother tongue in order to check that it conveys the intended meaning correctly; taking notes of a correction and seeking the help of the textbook to find out more about the grammar rule broken, etc.

Metacognitive strategies refer to the regulation of cognition: through them learners coordinate their own language learning process. Thus, they play a major role in learning and the frequency and effectiveness of their deployment have been seen to often make a difference between successful and unsuccessful L2-learning/performance (Oxford and Leaver, 1996). Examples of Metacognitive strategies are Directed Attention, i.e. consciously directing one’s own attention to the learning task; Self-evaluation, or appraising the successes and difficulties in one’s own learning efforts; Devising an action plan in order to eradicate a specific error.

Social strategies refer to the social interactions L2-learners use to assist in the comprehension, learning, or retention of information. For instance, seeking someone’s help when one is ‘stuck’.

Finally, Affective strategies are deployed to exercise mental control over personal affect that interferes with learning. For instance, calming oneself before an exam by watching a comedy or taking a walk; reading an inspirational quote to motivate yourself to study.

In what follows, I shall adopt the following working definition of LSs:

Learner (Learning) strategies are approaches, techniques, operations or actions that learners engage in, both consciously and subconsciously, in order to: (1) understand and learn the L2-system; (2) organize and direct their learning; (3) facilitate the analysis, recall, comprehension, production, organization and storage of L2-material; (4) alter their affective state in a way which may enhance their learning or task performance; (5) relate to and interact with the learning environment (including people) in a way that is conducive to learning.

  1. What is Learning-to-learn?

Ellis and Sinclair (1989:45) observed that Learner Training (LT) ‘means different things to different people’. This has led to a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding’ (Ellis and Sinclair, 1989: 44). In an attempt to clarify the issue, they defined LT according to its goals, stating:

LT aims to help learners consider the factors which may affect their learning and discover the learning strategies which suit them best so that they may become more effective learners and take on more responsibility for their learning’ (Ellis and Sinclair, 1989: 45).

Thus, LT aims at preparing students for Self-Direction by providing them with the LSs which give them the potential to become more effective and autonomous learners. It sets out to trigger a process of self-discovery, whereby the learner, helped by the instructor, becomes aware of the way s/he learns best and is able to make an informed choice as to which strategy (or strategies) may work more effectively for him/her in given contexts. This concept implies a radical departure from traditional instructional models where the L2-learner is viewed as a ‘passive’ recipient of knowledge and a teacher a dictator of learning, imposing his/her views and values on the students (Holec, 1981). Writers have defined this role change in various ways: learners should be prepared to share the burden of learning (Little, 1991); to take an active role in the learning process (Eriksson, 1993); to make the most of the time and resources available for learning (Cohen, 1998); to make decisions about their learning goals and become self-reliant (Benson, 1996).

  1. The Rationale for LT

I shall now discuss the rationale for LT. More specifically, I shall focus on the following arguments put forward by LT theorists:

  1. LT promotes self-direction in the L2-classroom
  2. It enhances L2-learning /proficiency/performance
  3. It enhances learner self-esteem and motivation
  1. Learner Training promotes Metacognition (Self-direction)

Self-direction has been defined by Holec (1981) as the ability to: (1) fix objectives; (2) define the content and progression of one’s learning; (3) select the methods and techniques to be used; (4) monitor the acquisition procedure; (5) evaluate what has been acquired. The importance of fostering Self-direction in L2-learning has been emphasized by many writers in the belief that L2-instruction should equip the learners with the linguistic and learning skills which will enable them to function effectively in the real world:

…it is essential for students to be able to control their own learning process so that they can learn outside the classroom once they are on their own. If students are dependent on teachers to shape language to suit them and to provide them with proper input, they cannot begin to take charge of their own learning when the teacher is not there. (Wenden, 1987: 17)

Another reason for fostering autonomous learning relates to the mounting research evidence indicating that more successful learners generally exhibit higher levels of Self-direction (Wenden, 1987). If there is a causal relationship between the latter and success in L2-learning, as it has been suggested, then developing learners’ self-regulatory skills (metacognitive strategies) through LT, may impact positively on their L2-performance.

The development of Self-direction has important implications for the notion, central to most current pedagogical theories (see Rogers, 1969; Littlewood, 1984; Oxford, 1990), that teachers should cater for learner individual needs. The implementation of this principle entails: (a) being able to identify every learner’s needs, and (b) having the time and resources to address them. Both tasks are difficult to carry out effectively in teacher-centred classes, since the teacher cannot hope to match his/her teaching to the learning styles, interests, strengths and weaknesses of all the class at the same time. This issue can be addressed by rendering learners more self-directed.

  1. Teaching learners more effective strategic behaviour will improve their learning

This claim is based on the finding that ‘good language learners’ have a wider repertoire of strategies than less effective learners and deploy them more frequently and more skilfully – that is: in the right contexts and, most importantly, by ‘orchestrating’ the strategies more effectively (Nykos, 1996). In fact, ineffective strategic behaviour has been identified as the main cause of the failure to develop language proficiency by learners with high language aptitude scores (Oxford and Leaver, 1996). Based on these findings, LT theorists assert that there is a causal relationship between strategy use and effective learning and that, consequently, if less effective learners are taught more effective strategic behaviour their language performance and/or proficiency will improve.

The validity of this argument is controversial, as efforts to improve L2-learner linguistic proficiency and performance through LT have met with mixed success. McDonough (1995) concluded his review of LT studies by asserting that improvements in language proficiency caused by LT were relatively weak and only showed up on certain measures. In his review of LT studies Gu (1996:2) described empirical work in the field as ‘fragmentary, unsystematic and narrow in scope’. Cohen (1998) was more optimistic observing that more interventionist studies have appeared in the literature since those cited in McDonough (1995) and Gu (1996), which have tended to be more fine-tuned than the preceding ones. McDonough (1999) concurred with Cohen (1998) that the results of the more recent interventionist studies are more encouraging and reliable.

  1. Strategy Instruction can enhance learner self-esteem and motivation

It has been asserted that giving L2-students access to strategies may enhance their motivation if they perceive those strategies to be effective in facilitating their learning performance. Chamot et al. (1996) noted that L2-students’ metacognitive awareness of the link between strategy use and positive learning outcomes plays a particularly important role in this regard, since self-control over strategy use is an important factor in perceiving oneself as a successful learner. If by noticing this link learners believe that they have acquired an effective approach to the performance of a given L2-task, they may develop positive beliefs about their capability to engage in similar tasks in the future. In this sense, strategy instruction may lead to expectancy of success, a phenomenon which appears to significantly influence learners’ academic attainment (Pajares, 1997, 2002) and is viewed as a crucial component of the structure of internal motivation (Crookes and Schmidt, 1989).

The relationship between expectancy of success and motivational and academic practices has been investigated in the context of educational research on self-efficacy beliefs (e.g. Zimmermann, 1994; Bandura, 1997; Pajares, 1997). These beliefs relate to a learner’s ‘level of confidence in successfully completing a task’ (Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary and Robbins, 1996: 178) and appear to influence the use of self-regulatory learning strategies. In fact, as Pajares (2002) observed, learners with high self-efficacy have been found to make greater and more effective use of metacognitive strategies such as Goal-setting, Self-monitoring and Self-evaluation (Pajares, 2002). Furthermore, they exhibit greater commitment to learning and to the pursuit of their learning goals; select more challenging goals; deploy more cognitive strategies; display lower levels of academic anxiety (Schunk and Ertmer, 2000).

As O’Malley and Chamot (1990) warn, although there is some empirical evidence that LT can significantly enhance learners’ level of self-efficacy and motivation (Nyikos, 1996; Nunan, 1996), it would be simplistic to assume that LT is the ultimate panacea to motivational deficits in the L2-classroom; several complex factors are at play in determining low learner motivation and lack of strategic competence is only one of them.

  1. Approaches to LT

Learner Training can be carried out implicitly or explicitly. In Implicit LT the learners are involved in activities designed to elicit the use of the target strategies without knowing what the rationale and aims of the activities actually are. So, for example, in the context of an Implicit LT programme in editing strategies, the learners may be asked to translate a given L2-composition back into the L1 (my ‘Backtranslating’ strategy) in order to check if it makes sense, but they are not presented this technique as an editing strategy that may help them in the future, nor are they explicitly encouraged to incorporate it in their L2-writing strategies repertoire.

The Explicit approach, on the other hand, is based on the Skill-theory axiom that the initial phases of any skill instruction must involve the learner in the conscious application of problem solving and other interpretive strategies. Thus, Explicit Learner Training, as Oxford and Leaver (1996) pointed out, addresses at least one of the following levels of consciousness identified by Schmidt (1994): Awareness of strategy use; Attention to the issues involved in strategy use; Intentionality to deploy strategies in L2-learning or production; Control over strategy use. The latter component is deemed to be the most crucial determinant of effective strategy use since it refers to the ability to evaluate the success of using a certain strategy and also having the ability to transfer that strategy to other relevant situations and tasks (Oxford and Leaver, 1996).

Assessment, Awareness-Raising and Planning

The first step in an explicit LT programme usually involves the assessment of learner needs through one or more of the following means: observation, questionnaires/surveys, interviews, diaries, note-taking, concurrent/retrospective think-aloud. Since the techniques deployed in strategy assessment (usually the verbal reports mentioned above) are likely to bring the issue of strategy use into learner focal attention, this diagnostic phase usually marks the beginning of the Awareness-Raising component of LT. This phase is viewed as crucial in the development of Self-direction since, it is believed, in order to learn how to learn, one need to know how one operates as a learner and what one’s needs, strengths and learning styles are (Dickinson, 1987; Eriksson, 1993; Cotteral, 1990). It is also recommended that in this phase learners are helped to become aware of their beliefs about learning and of their schemata, since these factors have been shown to interfere with LT success (Wenden, 1991; Gremmo and Riley, 1995;Victori and Lockhart, 1995).

Other factors to consider at this stage are the learners’ individual agenda and expectations about learning (Victory and Lockhart, 1995). It has been found that learners’ participation in LT is based on the learners’ perception of its relevance to their own goals (Wenden, 1991, 1995). Reporting on the outcome of one of the CRAPELS’ first experiments in self-directed learning, Stanchina (1976) noted that learners who remained motivated had clear and immediate goals, which were being served by the experiment. Therefore, it becomes important to understand the nature of the learners’ goal structure.

Other learner characteristics normally assessed in this phase include: their academic background, levels of proficiency, levels of motivation and any other biographical information that might have any bearing on their learning – surveys like Oxford’s (1990) SILL can be used to elicit information about all the above personal characteristics. In addition, in designing the training, a number of curricular and extracurricular constraints must be taken into consideration. These include: amount of time available; resources available; syllabus structure; culture of the target educational setting. These factors need to be examined in tackling the following issues which, as Oxford (1990) and Cohen (1998) point out, are crucial in planning the training:

1.Which strategies will learner trainers select?

2.Will the LT involve a short-term intervention or extensive training?

  1. Will the training have a broad or narrow focus?

As far as strategies selection is concerned, Oxford (1990) provides the following guidelines, based more on common sense or intuition than on research findings:

  1. select strategies related to learner needs and characteristics;
  2. choose more than one kind of strategy to teach
  3. choose strategies that are generally useful for most learners and transferable

to a variety of language situations and tasks;

  1. choose easily learnable strategies, and strategies that are very valuable but

might require a bit more effort.

(adapted from Oxford,1990: 205)

Theorists also recommend that LT include an effective motivational component in order to develop will as well as skill for learning (Paris, 1988: O’Malley and Chamot, 1990; Oxford 1990; Cohen, 1998). In L2-strategy instruction, the importance of attitude and motivation is illustrated in Wenden’s (1987) account of her LT experience at Columbia University where she gave students an intensive ESL course instruction and practice in metacognitive strategies. The feedback she received from the students via questionnaire indicated that the students did not perceive any value in LT. Wenden (1987) attributed these results to the fact that her programme was not closely linked to the language learning objectives of the course. Thus, students did not clearly understand why and how the training could improve their language learning. The importance of socio-affective factors in determining the success of strategy instruction is the reason why, in this preparatory phase, it is paramount to address learner beliefs about L2-learning, strategies and about their self-esteem (Wenden, 1987; Flaitz and Feyten, 1996; Oxford and Leaver, 1996).

Oxford and Shearin (1994) recommend that the following factors should be taken into consideration in drafting action plans for belief and attitudinal change:

(1) learners see the target strategy as helpful in a specific task

(2) learners see the strategy as transferable to other tasks

(3) learners perceive the potential gains as greater than the effort

(4) learners see themselves as self-efficacious and capable

of working independently

(5) learners are interested in the materials and activities adopted in the LT

(6) learners see the connection between the target strategy and success

In addition, Paris (1988) identified the following four instructional techniques as the most commonly used in strategic instruction to provide cognitive/affective support. Trainers need to plan carefully for them taking into account the information gathered during the assessment phase.

1.Modeling, in which the trainer shows the learners how to effectively use the

strategy, usually by thinking aloud about the goals and mental processes involved;

2.Direct Explanation, in which the teacher explains to the students the potential

benefits of the target strategies so that they become convinced of their usefulness;

3.Scaffolding Instruction, in which the teacher provides cognitive and affective

support to students as they practise the new strategies; the support is then phased out;

4.Cooperative Learning, in which students work in groups to solve a problem or execute a task.

Presentation and modeling

In this phase the trainer usually explains the strategy by naming it, showing how to use it, providing a rationale for strategy-use and finally demonstrating (modelling) it (as in, for instance, Jones et al., 1987; O’Malley and Chamot, 1988). Jones et al. (1987) suggest as a modelling technique that trainers verbalise their own thought processes while doing the task, thinking aloud as they encounter problems and work out solutions.

Practice with scaffolding

In order for the learners to proceduralise (automatise) the use of the target strategies, extensive practice is needed. The failure of a number of interventionist studies has indeed been blamed by some authors (e.g. (O’Malley and Chamot 1990; Oxford, 1992) on the insufficient amount of practice given to learners). In most studies, this stage usually consists of a first phase in which the trainer provides support while student practice; this phase is usually referred to as ‘Scaffolding’ (Jones et al, 1987; Paris, 1988). The importance of ‘scaffolding’ instruction relates to affective issues (motivation) but also to the cognitive and metacognitive domain: while trying out new strategies, learners receive cognitive and affective support in the development of problem-solving but also self-directing, self- monitoring and self-evaluative skills.

As illustrated in O’Malley and Chamot (1988; 1990) the development of student skills in using strategies can be developed through cooperative learning tasks; think-alouds while problem solving; peer tutoring in academic tasks; group discussion. Also, checklists are often used so as to view at a glance the possible range of strategies to select from; learners are encouraged to use such checklists as reminders throughout the scaffolding phase (Rubin, 1997). In most courses the scaffolding materials are designed to encourage this kind of activity. Several strategic instructional frameworks also include embedded training tasks which aim at eliciting the use of the target strategies without any metacognitive component (i.e. no explicit reference to the target strategies is made in the instructions the learners receive about the task).

As far as the affective domain of the scaffolding is concerned, Jones et al (1987) have suggested that learner trainers may develop learners’ motivation during this phase by attempting to provide the learners with as many successful experiences as possible (especially at the beginning of their experimentation with the target strategies) and by relating strategy use to improved performance (i.e. emphasizing in their feedback to students the causal link between the improvements in their linguistic output and their deployment of the target strategies). Grenfell and Harris (1999) emphasize the importance of cooperative learning/group-work in providing affective support, especially when dealing with younger learners. Finally, in some instructional frameworks (e.g. Harris, 1997; Grenfell and Harris, 1999) during the scaffolding phase the learners are required to draw up an action plan. In devising this action plan learners may need some help in identifying which strategies are most appropriate to their goals (Grenfell and Harris, 1992, 1999)

The Autonomous phase

In the second part of the Practice phase, the strategy use reminders and any other scaffolding are removed and the learners decide autonomously whether to use the target strategies or not. This is a necessary step since it is only if learners keep using the strategies independently over a relatively long period of time that one can truly say that the training has been successful.

Evaluation

Wenden (1987: 62) provides a useful framework for evaluating learner strategy training which is representative of the approaches taken by most researchers/educators in the field:

1.Has learners’ appreciation of LT changed?

2.Has the learning strategy being learned?

3.Does the skill facilitate performance of the task?

4.Does the skill continue to be utilized?

5.Is the skill utilised in different contexts?

The above questions relate to the following issues: (1) learner attitudes towards strategic instruction, and particularly the issue of willingness/reluctance to take responsibility for one’s own learning; (2) strategy acquisition: how often and how effectively the strategies are deployed; (3) task improvement: not just better linguistic performance but also more autonomy in the performance and greater ease in terms of cognitive and affective load; (4) durability, that is, whether the strategies are used spontaneously without any reminders from the teacher, and (5) transfer of strategy use or expansion, i.e. the strategies are applied by the learner spontaneously to other contexts, again without any prompts from the teacher.

In single group pre-test/post-test designs (e.g. Carrell, Pharis and Liberto. 1989), the evaluation is usually carried out by comparing the outcome of pre-treatment and post-treatment assessments performed on the experimental group using the same instrument(s) and measure(s). In multiple group pre-test/post-test designs (e.g. Macaro, 2001), the same operation is carried out for both groups in an attempt to verify if the treatment group(s) was more successful than the non-treatment one(s). In multiple measurement single group designs, the treatment group is assessed at several points throughout the duration of the training in an attempt to identify trends overtime. In multiple group designs the trend(s) identified for the experimental group(s) are compared with those observed for the control group(s). The merits of these evaluative approaches will be discussed in 6.3 below in much greater detail.

  1. Insights from research as to the effectiveness of Learning-to learn

The issues / findings I shall discuss here emerged from an examination of twenty-one Explicit LT studies I located in the core literature: Cohen and Aphek (1980), Hosenfeld et al. (1981), O’Malley et al. (1985), Carrell (1989), Carrell et al. (1989), O’Malley and Chamot (1990), Fujiwara (1990), Wenden (1991), Oxford, (1992), Aziz (1995), Cohen, Weaver and Li (1995), Ferris (1995a), Klohs (1995), Chamot et al. (1996), Oxford (1996), Dörnyei (1995), Cohen et al. (1996), Dadour and Robbins (1996), Nunan (1996), Thompson and Rubin (1996), Macaro (2001).

9.1 Relatively few LT studies have been carried out to-date,

The most important issue emerging from my literature review is that a relatively small number of LT studies have been carried out. Notably, only five focused on writing strategies (O’Malley et al. 1990; Aziz, 1995; Klohs, 1995; Ferris, 1995a; Macaro, 2001). Furthermore, the result of these studies does not prove that LT is effective. The necessity for further research has thus been invoked by the advocates of LT (e.g. Cohen, 1998, Macaro, 2001) in order to validate the notion that this instructional approach can significantly benefit L2-learners. The need for further research is particularly great in editing strategies research since only one study was conducted in this area (Ferris, 1995)

9.2 Many of the successful LT studies were quasi-experimental

Few of the more successful LT studies were purely experimental in design with subjects randomly assigned to a treatment and non-treatment group. Most studies carried out opportunistic sampling and adopted one of the following quasi-experimental designs: (1) single group pre-test / post-test (e.g. Carrell et al. 1989);(2) single group multiple measurement (e.g. Ferris, 1995); (3) multiple group pre-test/post-test (e.g. Macaro, 2001); (4) multiple group with multiple measurement (e.g. Flaitz and Fleyten, 1996). As I shall discuss in greater detail in Chapter 6, the above research-design types have a number of intrinsic flaws which pose significant threats to their validity.

The obvious implication for future research is that true experimental designs (i.e. with random assignment to experimental and control group) should be adopted. However, this is often difficult in the context of LT interventionist studies since they have to adapt to constraints determined by the curriculum, enrolment procedures, course-structure and logistics of the target educational institution. When such constraints pre-empt the possibility of a purely experimental design, as in the case of my study, the researcher can attempt to enhance the validity of quasi-experimentation through a number of measures aimed at minimizing the effects of any interfering/confounding variables.

9.3 Test/Practice effect (task-familiarity) may significantly contribute to treatment-groups’ gains at post-test

Some of the studies adopting a pre-test/post-test design evaluated target strategy uptake and effectiveness testing their treatment groups through tasks which the training had made them more familiar with than the control group(s) (e.g. Carrell, 1989; Macaro, 2001). For instance, Carrell et al. (1989) tested one of their target reading comprehension strategies, ‘Semantic Mapping’, through the same type of activity (‘cloze-semantic-map’) used in the modelling and (extensive) practice of that strategy. The experimental group outperformed the control group; interestingly, though, no gains were observed on two other independent evaluative measures. In cases like this, it is difficult to discern whether task-familiarity rather than effective strategy use determined any positive results. It should be noted that this issue of task familiarity is related to the recurrent criticism of LT that it is problematic, in assessing the validity of the more successful studies, to discern whether the improvements were caused by the target strategies themselves or by the greater and more focused practice the subjects received by virtue of the training (Rees-Miller, 1993).

The main implication for future research is that, in order to avoid threats to validity from this task-familiarity factor, more than one procedure should be used to evaluate the impact of the training on the dependent variable(s). The results from the different procedures can then be triangulated so as to verify their validity. Furthermore, multiple measurements of the effects of the independent variable may be taken between pre-test and post-test through procedures other than the assessment/training task.

9.4 LT studies have often relied heavily on questionnaire and interview data to evaluate their impact

Many studies claimed to have been successful based mainly or exclusively on data obtained through questionnaires, interviews and/or journals (e.g. Fujiwara, 1990; Nunan, 1996; Chamot et al. 1996). This is problematic since, as I shall discuss below, pre-test/post-test designs using this kind of self-reports as evaluative instruments are particular vulnerable to the risk of validity threats arising from researcher bias/expectancy and subject expectancy issues (defined in 6.2 below). The obvious implication for future studies is that more objective data collection instruments should be adopted (essays and documents in my study). When the logistics of the experiment do not permit the use of such instruments, researchers should at least use two or more forms of self-reports administered at different moments in time in order to provide some sort of data triangulation.

9.5 Most of the successful studies have failed to identify the single aspect of the training which determined their success

Many ‘succesful’ LT studies have taught combination of strategies; this is not useful to teachers as it is extremely difficult to establish which aspect of its design or execution was crucial to their success.

9.6 There is no evidence that the effects of LT are long-lasting

This is particularly the case for those studies which did not include an autonomous phase (e.g. Ferris, 1995; Cohen and Aphek, 1980; Carrell et al. 1989) or included only a relatively short one (e.g. Macaro, 2001). Unless a significant amount of time elapses between the removal of any strategy use reminders and post-test it is difficult to claim that the learners incorporated the target LSs in their strategic repertoire. The obvious implication for future studies is that a sufficiently long autonomous phase should be included.

9.7 Some learners may resist LT

Learner resistance to LT has been identified by some researchers as a major problem (Wenden, 1987; Oxford, 1990). Its causes have been related to the following issues: (a) the learners’ perception that LT was not relevant to their goals and/or needs (Wenden, 1987); (b) learners had a negative attitude towards the concept of autonomy and LT determined by their belief systems and previous learning experience (e.g. O’Malley, 1985); (c) learners preferred continuing using their strategies as they perceived them as effective or more effective than the target strategies (O’Malley, 1985). Not enough is known about the interaction of LT with individual characteristics, such as learning styles, age, cultural background, gender, L2-proficiency, personality types (Oxford, 1996). As mentioned above, LT professionals usually tackle this issue by identifying learner attitudes, history, beliefs, levels of motivation, task-related self-esteem and other individual factors. They then devise an action plan in order to tackle any possible source of resistance to training. In my study I try to tackle this issue by finding out through a questionnaire and an interview as much as I can about my learners. On the basis of the information gathered I shall present and implement the training in a way which will suit their personal characteristics and academic goals.

9.8. Many LT studies may have been too short to impact significantly learner performance

It has been suggested that some LT studies have been too short to be successful. Future studies need to be longitudinal and covering a longer period of time than the past ones.

  1. Concluding remarks

Most LT theorists and researchers recommend the following framework for the implementation of strategy training:

  • An awareness / needs ‘analysis phase which assesses the target students’ strategies repertoire
  • A presentational phase in which a rationale for the training is given and the strategies are named and presented
  • A modelling phase in which the trainer shows the students how the strategies can be used effectively to enhance task performance or learning in general
  • An extensive scaffolded practice base in which the students receive reminders to use the target strategies and cognitive and affective support by the trainer and peers
  • An autonomous phase in which support and reminders are phased out and the students are left to their own devices (to see if they are going to use the strategy independently)
  • An evaluative phase which assesses whether the target strategies have been internalized

My review of the literature has identified a number of important issues in interventionist strategy research. The most important and most relevant to the present study were:

(1) Test/Practice effect (task-familiarity) may significantly contribute to treatment-groups’ gains at post-test

(2) LT studies have often relied heavily on questionnaire and interview data to evaluate their impact

(3) There is no evidence that the effects of LT are long-lasting

(4) It is problematic to identify which strategies bring about performance/learning

enhancement

(5) Many LT studies may have been too short to impact significantly on learner performance

(6) Students may resist training

LT studies have met with mixed success. The learning gains and the barriers discussed above may prompt teachers to wonder whether strategy-based instruction is actually worth the time and effort they involve. In my view, the answer is ‘no’. As an LT researcher myself, having implemented a fairly successful nine-month LT program as part of my Ph.D, I have experienced first-hand how much work and time it requires; much more than busy practitioners in secondary schools can afford to spare.

Language teachers and research – Of growth seekers and I-know-best autocrats

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Dylan Vinales of GIS Kuala Lumpur

download (1)

In my teaching career I have come across four main categories of teachers (please note that some teachers may be a combination of more than one type):

  • The growth-seeking inquirers – These are teachers who actively seek ways to improve their students’ learning by keeping their mind open to and by experimenting with ideas, approaches and techniques. They do so in the belief that there is pedagogic knowledge out there worth tapping into which has the potential to enhance their teaching. These teachers value training, sharing, collaborating with peers and reading educational research. The best classroom practitioners I have met fall into this category and so does the majority of my regular readers. Yes, this attitude is kind of reminiscent of Dweck’s Growth mindset…;
  • The ‘I-know-best’ autocrats – These are highly autonomous teachers who believe that they do not need to look elsewhere for enlightenment, inspiration and knowledge. They think they do not need educational research as they believe no educational research is conclusive enough to justify change. They may be ambitious and are convinced they are accomplished teachers; hence they do not feel they need workshops, insets, research or their peers in order to improve. They justify their closed-mindedness and reluctance to embrace pedagogic innovations which would entail changes in their practice dismissing innovations as useless ‘fads’, unnecessary top-down coercion. Some of these revel in adopting rebellious and iconoclastic stances against the Establishment (the government; SLT, etc.) and are quite vocal in their criticism of the growth-seeking inquirers. Carol Dwecks would possibly label these specimens as Fixed mindset champions but I wouldn’t as I know several of them who are indeed self-reflective practitioners who strive for excellence. They simply do not feel the need for others to help them improve as they perceive other-advice as ‘patronizing’, ‘telling them what to do’ and often not as good as their own judgement;
  • The nine-to-fivers – These are the teachers who see teaching as a job like any other which they do with varying degrees of conscientiousness and professionalism. They are not particularly passionate about it although they may enjoy it. Many of them are ‘good’ or ‘solid’ teachers but they are not often prepared to go the extra mile for their students or colleagues. They do not mind collaborating and sharing but they are not highly proactive in this department;
  • The downers – fortunately, these are a minority, but you find them in every school. Teachers in this category are often drawn to the autocratic I-know-best type. Like the latter they criticize every single imposed theory and methodology and dismiss innovation as useless, especially if it comes from the powers-to-be. I have met many gifted ‘downers’ with the potential to become excellent practitioners. Sadly, though, they lack ambition and professional stamina and very rarely fulfill their potential, often lingering in this state of rebellious inertia until retirement.

Both as a Head of Department and more simply, as a colleague, I have always preferred to work alongside the growth-seeking-inquirer type – , I have also enjoyed the challenge, though, of attempting to inspire the other three types to adopt a more inquisitive and reflective attitude in their teaching.  Sadly, I cannot say I have always succeeded. One of the barriers – not the biggest, though – has always been their lack of interest for research.

Many teachers in the (b), (c) and (d) categories reject research or are only very  marginally interested in it, even when it is not presented to them as a rationale for any envisaged change in policy or practice, but purely as part of the normal process of sharing ideas and resources (e.g. in a department meeting). Whatever the rationale they provide to justify their lack of interest in research, the truth is that many perceive it as a threat. If they are autocratic ‘I-know-bests’ it is a threat to their ego (you mean, there are methods out there that are better than mine?). If they are ‘nine-to-fivers’ it is a threat to their balanced work-load eco-system. Finally, if they are ‘downers’, reading research epitomizes exactly all they they stand against.

What the type (b), (c) and (d) will always assert is that research must be clearly and irrefutably evidenced; that it must be conclusive or it is worthless. But in so doing they miss the whole point. As I wrote in a blog not too long ago, hardly any educational research is conclusive and irrefutable. In that blog I even gave ten powerful reasons why one should not trust it. However, research in language acquisition and pedagogy is valuable not for its truths, but for how it ‘cues’ us – so to speak – to the truth; the avenues it opens and seeks to explore; the questions it asks.

If I read that journal writing improved the written fluency of thirty students in a study in Colombia, twelve in an experiment in California and twenty in an investigation in Italy, I can choose to react negatively by looking at the flaws in the design; the small size of the groups; the statistical limitations : etc. and conclude that the evidence is weak; hence, no point trying journal writing out. Or, I can decide to take a closer look at the approaches, techniques and resources the researchers/teachers used in those studies, examine their recommendations, adapt them to my teaching context, discuss any ideas with my collleagues and try them out in my classroom to see if they work. My colleagues and I do this a lot in my school. It is interesting and I have personally learnt a lot in the process.

The problem is that in education teachers often associate research with the top-down imposition of a new policy or methodology. This is because governments or educational establishment regularly use research – and not often of the reliable kind – to justify unwanted and often unnecessary transformational change. And let’s face it, a lot of the imposed changes implemented in the last thirty years have not massively enhanced classroom practice. Hence, over time the teaching community has become cynical and in some quarters even hostile to L2 research and its claims.

To make things worse, L2 research is difficult to access cognitively and linguistically by the vast majority of teachers as most academic journals and other specialized publications are written in complicated jargon that you need a strong background in Applied Linguistics to be able to decipher. Very few researchers actually write with the average classroom practitioner in mind. This perception of researchers being somehow high-brow and pompous does not help.

Hence, most often teachers are acquainted with a highly diluted, watered down, oversimplistic and often distorted version of research which is passed on by educational consultants of questionable credibility. I have often attended CPD sessions were I was horrified by the way research findings I was very familiar with had been altered to suit the agenda of the facilitator or of the establishment that had invited them. Misrepresentation of research of this sort by educational consultants is rampant and often does more harm than good.

The time factor plays an enormous role, too. Difficult for busy classroom practitioners to find enough time to read L2 research literature. My current school has attempted to address it by giving teachers two hours every Friday afternoon which are used for professional development instead of teaching. My school is an exception to the rule, though. In most other secondary settings this need is not recognized.

Yet, as I discussed in my last three posts, the reality is that most teachers teach the way they were taught. They are more likely to make changes to their teaching – ‘real’ changes, not the ones one shows to their line manager or SLT during an observation or learning walk – because of the department micro-culture(s) or the influence of a charismatic colleague than as a result of an inset or workshop. This may lead to excellent teaching in some cases, no doubt. But, not always.

In many cases, however, teachers DO want to have a principled framework of reference to apply in their teaching. They want to know how to best teach listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, etc. Thirty or forty years ago, when research in language acquisition and cognitive psychology was in its infancy it would have been difficult to provide teachers with a sound pedagogic framework rooted in neuroscience. Nowadays Applied Linguistics is not an exact science, but thanks to tons of research, we have acquired a lot of very useful findings which can enhance modern language teachers’ practice.

I started to write my blogs because I felt that there was a lot of research out there that teachers could benefit from. The very positive feedback I had from my readers since I started to write in May has proven to me that teachers need, want and enjoy finding out what research has to say, especially when the implications for their classrooms are clearly laid out and theory is translated into implementable plans for action. This is, incidentally, the aim of the book that Steve Smith and I are writing, “The modern language teacher toolkit’. Blending theory, research, teacher experience and common sense to produce a principled guide to language teaching.

Research can be very useful and can greatly enhance teaching. Not simply the large scale, longitudinal studies which yield ‘irrefutable’ evidence, but also the small scale, quantitative or qualitative investigations interviewing a bunch of students or teachers. It is what teachers do with the research findings they read about that matters. Not the findings per se.

In conclusion, in an ideal world schools would invest more time and effort in this aspect of their teachers’ professional development as subject-specific competence can be highly enhanced by rendering teachers more conversant and reflective vis-à-vis current theory and research in modern language pedagogy. A culture of interest for and attention to research would be fostered through professional development and performance management. Most importantly, teachers would be allocated time to process, reflect upon and assimilate research in small subject- and non subject-specific professional learning communities

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com