Why I teach the way I teach. The Skill-Theory principles which underpin my teaching approach

Fig. 1 – The most influential Skill-Theory account of language acquisition (Anderson, 1983)

1. Introduction

In a previous post, I argued that every language teacher, both novice and expert, should ask themselves the question “How do I believe that languages are learnt?” as a starting point for a deep and productive reflection on their own teaching practice.

The answer to that question is key, as without a clear and solid set of pedagogic principles our curriculum planning and design and every other decision that affects teaching and learning in our classroom will be random and haphazard or based on ‘hunches’. Imagine choosing a course-book, creating assessment procedures and materials,  deciding to integrate Information Technology or Generic-skill learning in our teaching without having formed an opinion as to how languages are best taught and learnt? Would you believe me if I told you that I have seen this done, time and again, even in some of the best  schools in the world?

As I suggested in that post, teachers and language departments should identify the set of pedagogic principles that truly constitute the tenets of their teaching philosophy and classroom approach and draw on them to ‘frame’ their long-, medium- and short-term planning, their discussions on teaching and learning (e.g. the ones that occur after a lesson observation), their assessment and any big decision of theirs that may significantly impact teaching and learning. Having such a framework will warrant coherence and fairness in peer and student assessment. It will also give the course administrators a better idea of what Modern Language (ML) teaching and learning is about in the institution they manage.

This is my own personal answer to the question “How do I believe that language are learnt?”, or rather part of it, as I will narrow the scope of this post only to the main tenets of my approach to ML teaching – borrowed from Skill Theory. Hence I will leave out other major influences on my personal pedagogy (e.g. Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis, Bandura’s Self-efficacy theory, Selinker’s Interlanguage hypothesis, MCcLelland and Rumelhart’s Connectionism, etc.).

2. My set of guiding principles

2.1  Skill Theory – the (very) bare bones

Whilst it integrates elements from several SLA theories, My approach is rooted in Cognitive-psychology-based accounts of instructed  second language acquisition, especially what Applied Linguists call Skill Theory (as laid out in Anderson,1994; Johnson, 1996,; DeKeyser, 1998; Jensen, 2007). I underscored the word ‘instructed’ for a reason: I do not believe that Skill Theory provides an accurate account of how languages are learnt in naturalistic environments.

In a nutshell, Skill Theorists observe that every complex task humans learn is made up of several layers of sub-tasks. For instance, driving a car requires a driver to pay attention to the road and take important decisions as to where to turn, how fast to go, when to brake; however, whilst taking these decisions, the driver is carrying out multiple ‘lower-order’ tasks such as changing gear, physically pushing the brakes, operating the indicator, etc.

Skill theorists observe that lower-order tasks are performed subconsciously, without requiring the brain’s Working Memory to pay much conscious attention to them (or, as they say: they only occupy subsidiary awareness). This, in their view, points to an adaptive feature of the brain: in order to be able to solely focus on the most important aspect(s) of any complex tasks, the brain, throughout Evolution, has learnt to automatize the less complex tasks.

This is  because, based on current models of Working Memory (e.g. Baddeley,1999) the brain has very little cognitive space to devote to any given task. For instance, when it comes to numbers, Working Memory channel capacity can only process  7+/- 2 digits at any one time  Miller (1965). In simpler terms, the only way for the brain to effectively and efficiently mult-task, is to automatize sub-tasks which are less complex.

Fig. 2 – Working Memory as conceived by Baddeley (1999)

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Skill Theorists argue that the same applies to language learning. A language learner needs to automatize lower order skills so as to be able to free up space in Working Memory in order to execute more complex tasks requiring the application of higher order skills. Example: you cannot form the perfect tense if you do not form the past participle of a verb and have not learnt the verb ‘to have’. Hence, the aim of language teaching is to train language learners to automatize the knowledge that the instructor provides explicitly to them (i.e. the knowledge of how a rule is formed). Once automatized, it will not require the brain’s conscious attention and the learner will have more space in their Working Memory to deal with the many demands that a language task poses to them.

Imagine having to produce a sentence and  having to think simultaneously (in real time!) about the message you want to convey, the most suitable vocabulary to convey it through, tense, verb endings, word order, agreement, etc. an impossible task for a novice whose mistakes will be due mainly to (cognitive) overload). Such a task would be a fairly easy one for an advanced learner as s/he will have automatized most of the grammar- and syntax-related tasks and will only have to focus on the message and the lexical selection.

This automatization process is long and requires a greater focus on fluency,  lots of scaffolding in the initial phase and negative feedback (correction) plays an important role.

A final point: Skill theorists (e.g. De Keyser 1998) propose that Communicative Language teaching which integrates explicit grammar instruction and focus on skill-automatization constitutes to date the most effective ML teaching methodology.

2.2 Skill-Theory principles and their implications for teaching and learning

2.2.1 Principle 1: language skills are acquired in the same way as any other human skill

The main point Skill-theory proponents make is that languages are learnt in much the same way as humans acquire any other skill (e.g. driving a car, cook, paint). This sets it apart from other influential schools of thoughts, which view language skills as a totally unique set of skills, whose functioning is regulated by innate mechanisms that formal instruction cannot impact (the so-called Mentalist approaches). This is a hugely important premise as it endorses what Applied Linguists call a strong interface position, i.e. the belief that whatever is learnt consciously (e.g. a grammar rule) can become automatized, i.e. executable subconsciously, through practice.

2.2.2 Principle 2: In instructional settings where the L2 grammar is taught explicitly, grammar acquisition involves the transformation of Declarative into Procedural knowledge

Whatever we learn is stored in the brain in one of two forms: (1) Declarative Knowledge, or the explicit knowledge of how things work and it is applied consciously (like knowing all the steps involved in the formation of the perfect tense) or (2) Procedural knowledge, the knowledge we acquire by doing and that we use to perform a specific task automatically, without thinking (like knowing how to ride a bike).

Example: I have declarative knowledge of the English  perfect tense when I can explain the rule of its formation and application. I have procedural knowledge of it when I can use it without knowing the rule (e.g.  because I have picked it up whilst listening to English songs or interacting with English native speakers).

Declarative knowledge has the advantage of having generative power, e.g.: if I learn the rule of perfect tense formation for French regular verbs I will be able to apply it to every single regular verb I come across. On the other hand, Procedural knowledge is limited only to the regular perfect forms I learn.

An advantage of Procedural Knowledge is that it is fast. So, a beginner who was taught ten perfect verb forms by rote learning can apply all of them instantly without thinking. Another beginner who was taught the rule of perfect tense formation, will have to apply each step of the rule one by one, which will slow down production.

According to Skill Theorists the aim of any skill instruction, including Modern Language teaching is to enable Declarative Knowledge to become Procedural (or Automatic). In the context of grammar learning, this means that a target rule which is initially applied slowly, step by step, occasionally referring to conjugation tables, will be applied – after much practice of the kind described in 2.2.6 below – instantly with little cost in terms of Working Memory processing efficiency.

It should be noted that our students pick up Procedural knowledge all the time in our lessons when we teach them unanalysed chunks such as classroom instructions or formulaic language. Whilst teaching such chunks should not be discouraged, Skill Theorists do believe that, in view of their limited generative power, instruction should not excessively rely on rote learning.

2.2.3 Principle 3: The human brain has limited cognitive space for  processing language, so it automatizes lower order receptive and productive skills in order to free up space and facilitate performance

When we learn to drive, we need to learn basic skills such as how to switch on the engine, change gear, press the clutch, turn on the wipers, operate the brakes, etc. before we actually take to the road. Once the lower order operations and skills listed above have been automatized or at least routinized to the extent that we do not have to pay attention to them (by-pass Working Memory’s attentional systems), we can actually be safe in the assumption that we can wholly focus on the higher order skills which will allow us to take the split seconds decisions that will prevent us from getting lost, clash with other cars, break the traffic laws whilst dealing with our children messing about in the back seats.

This is what the brain does, too, when learning languages. Because Working Memory has a very limited space available when executing any task,  the brain has learnt to automatize lower order skills so that, by being performed ‘subconsciously’ they free up cognitive space. So, for instance, if I am an advanced L2 speaker who has routinized accurate L2 pronunciation, grammar and syntax to a fairly high degree , I will be able to devote more conscious attention (Working Memory space) to the message I want to put across. On the other hand, if I still struggle with pronunciation, word order, irregular verb forms and sequencing tenses most of my attention will be taken up by the mechanics of what I want to say, rather than the meaning; this will slow me down and limit my ability to think through what I want to say due to cognitive overload.

In language teaching this important principle translates as follows: in order to enable our students to focus on the higher order skills involved in L2 comprehension and production we need to ensure that the lower-order ones have been acquired or performance will be impaired. Here are a few scenarios which illustrate what I mean.

Example 1: a student who struggles with pronunciation and decoding skills in English (i.e. being able to match letters and combinations of letters with the way they are sounded) will find it difficult to comprehend aural input from an English native speaker as they will not be able to identify the words they hear with the phonological representation they have stored in their brain. Hence, listening instruction ought to concern itself with automatizing those skills first (read here why and how).

Example 2: for a student who has not routinised Masculine, Feminine and Neuter endings in German, applying the rules of agreement in real time talk will be a nightmare. The same student will take for ever to write a sentence containing a few adjectives and nouns because his brain’s (working memory’s) capacity will be taken up by decisions such as what agrees with what, what the correct ending is and what the word order is; by having to deal with these lower order decision s/he will lose track of the higher order issue: to generate a meaningful and intelligible sentence

Example 3: if you teach long words (e.g. containing three syllables or more) to a beginner who has not automatized the pronunciation of basic target language phonemes, his Working Memory will struggle to process it (because of Phonological Loop overload), which will impair rehearsal and its commitment to Long-Term Memory.

Example 4: you cannot hope for a student of French or Italian to be able to acquire the Perfect tense if they have not automatized the formation of the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ and of the Past Participle. Yet, often we require our students to produce under time constraints Perfect tense forms a few minutes after modelling the formation of the Past Participle.

Hence, teaching ought to focus much more than it currently does, on the automatization of lower order skills (or micro-skills as we may also call them) across all four language skills . In this sense, progression within a lesson should mainly refer to the ability of our students to produce the target L2 item with greater ease, speed and accuracy (horizontal progression), rather than moving from a level of grammar complexity to a higher one, from using two adjectives in a sentence to using five or from using only one tense to using three (vertical progression).

The progression I believe teachers should prioritize is of the horizontal kind. We should concern ourselves with vertical progression only if and when horizontal progression has achieved automatization of the target L2 item.

Most of the failures our students experience in our lessons is due to focusing on vertical progression to soon, mostly because of teachers’ rush to cover the syllabus and/or ineffective recycling.

2.2.4 Principle 4: Acquisiton is a long pain-staking process whose end-result is highly-routinized consistently- accurate performance (which approximates, rarely matches native-speaker performance)

Automatization is a very long process. Think about a sport, hobby or other activity you excel at. How long it took you to get there. How much practice, how many mistakes, how much focus. Every skill takes huge amounts of practice in order for it to be automatized, lower order skills usually taking less time than higher order ones as they require simpler cognitive operations (there are exceptions though, e.g., in language learning, the acquisition of rules governing items which are not salient such as articled prepositions in French, Spanish or Italian).

The process is long for a reason; whenever a given L2 grammar rule is fully acquired, it gives rise to a cognitive structure (called by Anderson,2000, a ‘production’) which can never be modified. As a  result, the brain is very cautious and requires a lot of evidence that whatever rule we apply in our performance is correct. Hence we need to use a specific grammar rule lots of times and receive lots of positive feedback on it, before a permanent production is formed and incorporated.

Do not forget, also, that when a learner is figuring out if their grasp and usage of a given L2 grammar rule is correct s/he might have two or even more possible hypotheses about how it may work and try them concurrently, awaiting positive or negative feedback to confirm or discard them. Hence, the brain needs to make sure that one of the hypotheses it is testing about how a given language item works ‘prevails’ so to speak over the others substantially before ‘accepting’ to incorporate it as a permanent structure. In the absence of negative feedback – hence the importance of correction, especially in the initial stages of instruction – the brain might store more than one form.

Example: a student keeps using (1) ‘j’ai allé’ and (2) ‘je suis allé’ alternatively to mean ‘I went’ in French ; if he does not heed or receive regular corrective feedback pointing to (2) as the correct one and  does not use (2) in speaking and writing often enough to routinize it, (1) and (2) will still compete for retrieval in his brain.

2.2.5 Principle 5 : the extent to which an item is acquired depends largely on the range and frequency of its application (i.e. across how many context I can use it accurately and automatically)

A tennis player being able to perform a back-hand shot only from one specific point of the tennis court cannot be said to have acquired mastery of back-hand shooting. Evidently, the more varied and complex the linguistic and semantic contexts I can successfully apply  a given grammar rule and vocabulary in,  the greater will be the extent of its acquisition.

Example: whilst learning the topic ‘animals’ student X  has practised over and over again the word ‘dog’ for three weeks only in the contexts ‘I have a dog’,’ my dog is called rex’,  ‘Mark has a dog’, ‘I like dogs because they are cute and playful’, ‘we have a dog in the house’. Student Y, on the other hand, has been given plenty of opportunities to practise the word dog in associations with all the persons of the verb ‘to have’, with many more verbs (e.g. feed, groom,  love,  walk , etc.), with a wider range of adjectives new and old (good, bad, loyal, funny, lazy, grredy,etc.) and other nouns (I have a dog and a turtle, a dog and a cat, etc.). Student Y will have built a more wide-ranging and complex processing history for the word ‘dog’ which will warrant more neural associations in Long-term memory and, consequently greater chances of future recall and transferrability across semantic fields and linguistic contexts.

Consequently, language teachers must aim at  recycling each core target item across as many linguistic and semantic  contexts as possible. For instance, if I am teaching the perfect tense in term 3 and I have covered four different semantic areas prior to that, I would ensure that that tense is recycled across as many of those areas too. In a nutshell: the extent to which the target L2 items have been acquired by our students will be largely a function of their processing history with those items.

In concusion, the more limited the input we provide them with and the output we demand of them the less deeply we are likely to impact their learning.

2.2.6 Principle 6: Acquisition is about learning to comprehend and produce language faster under Real Operating Conditions

The five principles laid out above entail that for language acquisition to occur, effective teaching must aim at enabling the learners to understand and produce language under real life conditions or, as Skill-Theorists say ‘Real Operating Conditions’ (ROC). This changes the focus of instruction from simply passing the knowledge of how grammar works and what vocabulary means (Declarative Knowledge) to enabling students to apply it quickly and accurately (Procedural knowledge) by providing lots of training in fluency. Hence, for grammar to be acquired we must go beyond lengthy grammar explanations, gap-fill exercises and quizzes. E.g.: students must be asked to use the grammar in speaking and writing under time pressure.

Training students to be fluent across all four skills means scaffolding instruction much in the same way as one would do in tennis or football coaching. First, one would start by working on automatizing the micro-skills, as already discussed above. Secondly, one would focus on routinizing the higher-order skills by providing an initial highly structured support which is gradually phased out. This translates itself, in my classroom practice as follows:

(1) An initial highly controlled phase which includes: modelling, receptive processing and structured production– During this phase the target L2 item is practised in a controlled environment. The phase starts with lots of comprehensible input through the listening and written medium. The target grammar/vocabulary is recycled extensively before the students engage in production.

A structured production phase ensues. The input given and the output demanded are highly controlled and the chances of error are minimised by providing lots of scaffolding (e.g. vocab lists; grammar rule reminders; writing mats,dictionaries, etc.) and guidance and by imposing no time constraints. Example (speaking practice in the present tense ): highly structured role-play in the present tense only,  where each student has to translate their respective lines from the L1 to the L2 or are given very clear L1 prompts; the language is simple and the students are very familiar with the verbs to be conjugated; verb tables are available on the desk.

(2) A semi-structured expansion phase –This phase is about consolidation and recycling and cuts across all the topics subsequently taught. So, for instance, if one has introduced the French negatives in Term 1 under the topic Leisure, they will recycle them throughout the subsequent terms as part of the topics taught in those terms until the teacher feels fit. This will ensure that the target structure/vocabulary is systematically recycled in combination with old and new.

During this phase, the support is gradually reduced. The input provided and the output expected are more challenging but the teacher still designs the activities with a specific set of vocabulary and grammar structures in mind. Some form of support still available. Example (speaking practice in the present tense): interview in the present tense across a range of familiar topics. Prompts for questions and answers are provided by the teacher (in the L1 or L2). The students are given some time to look at the prompts and think about the answers. Prompts look like this:

Partner 1: ask where Partner 2 usually goes at the week-end

Partner 2: answer providing three details of your choice relating to sport

This phase ends when the teacher feels the students can produce the target structure/vocabulary without support.

(3) An autonomous phase – Here the support is removed. Examples (speaking practice in the present tense): (1) Students are shown pictures and are recorded and assessed as they describe them. The task may elicit a degree of creativity and the use of communication strategies to make up for lack of vocabulary. (2) students are asked to have a conversation about the target topic with only a vague prompt as a cue (e.g. talk about your hobbies). They generate questions and answers impromptu under time constraints. Conversation is recorded and assessed.

(4) A routinization phase – in this phase, the only concern is speed of delivery. The teacher focuses on training the students to produce language ‘fast’, under R.O.C. (real operation conditions), i.e. real life conditions, across various topics and in spontaneous conversations. In this phase the production activities of election will be oral translation drills and communicative activities (e.g. general conversations, simulations, more complex picture tasks) under time constraints. The tasks will not limit themselves to topic X or Y; rather, they will tap on various areas of human experience at once.

It must be stressed that the four phases above may stretch over a period of several months.

3. Concluding remarks

A lot of L2 teaching nowadays concerns itself with the passing of grammar and declarative knowledge of the target language. Such knowledge stays in our students’ brains as declarative because way too often teachers are obsessed with vertical progression at all costs. This attitude, though, short-circuits and straight-jackets learning preventing the learners from truly automatizing the grammar structures and vocabulary we aim to teach them.

L2 students’ failure at acquiring what we teach them and eventually their disaffection with the learning process is often due to the inadequate amount of horizontal progression we allow for in our classrooms. Automatization, ACROSS ALL FOUR SKILLS,  the ability to apply the core L2 items in the performance of tasks rapidly, fluidly and accurately should take priority in the classroom over activities which build intellectual knowledge (e.g. lengthy grammar explanations and gap-fills), concern themselves  with producing artefacts (e.g. iMovies) or simply entertain (e.g. games and quizzes).

Grammar teaching is currently taught in many classrooms through teacher –led explanations followed by gap-fills. This does not lead to automatization and fluency. Grammar structures ought to be taught in the context of interaction which mimicks real life, first through communicative (highly structured) drills then through activities which increasingly allow the students more creativity and freedom in terms of output choice.

Vocabulary ought to be recycled through as many linguistic contexts as possible, shying away from the almost behaviouristic tendency  one observes in many language classrooms to teach and practise the target words in isolation or almost exclusively in the same unambitiously narrow range of phrases (a tendency encouraged by current ML textbooks and many popular specialised websites, e.g. the tragically unambitious Linguascope).

In conclusion, effective ML teaching, as viewed by Skill theory, concerns itself with

  • the micro-skills needed by the students to carry out the complex tasks teachers often require their students to perform. In many contexts, e.g. listening instructions,such micro-skills (e.g. decoding skills) are grossly neglected, often leading to failure and learner disaffection;
  • providing the students with opportunities to automatize everything they are taught before the class move on to another set of grammar rules, vocabulary or learning strategies;
  • building a wide-ranging processing history so that many neural connections are built between a new target item and as many ‘old’ items as possible through real-time language exposure/use;
  • fluency, i.e. the ability to perform each target L2 item as rapidly and accurately as possible;
  • skill-building rather than knowledge-building. Knowledge building is only the starting point of acquisition; that is why error correction that merely informs of the error and cryptically states the rule is considered as having very limited impact on learning.

For those interested in finding out more, please check out this online article by  Jensen (2007) [click on the rectangular download button]

References and suggested bibliography

Anderson, J.R. (1987). Skill acquisition Compilation of weak-method solutions. Psychological Revie. 94(2) 192-210

Anderson. J.R. et al. (1994). Acquisition of procedural skills from examples. Journal of experimental psychology, 20, 1322 -1340.

DeKeyser, R.M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing a second language grammar . In C. Doughty and J. Williams. (EDs). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. (pp42-63) New York: Cambridge university Press

Jensen, E. (2007) Introduction to brain-compatible learning, 2nd edn. Thousand

Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Johnson, K. (1996). Language Teaching and Skill learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schneider, W. & Shiffrin. R. (1997) Controlled and automatic information processing.

Nine commonly made errors in L2- grammar instruction and how to address them

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of The Language Teacher Toolkit and Dylan Vinales of Garden International School

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  1. Introduction: Why grammar instruction is often ineffective – a Skill-building perspective

Based on my professional eperience and on my readers’ accounts, much ML and EFL grammar instruction in the UK and, I suspect, across the world, is undermined by a number of shortcomings that stem from a misunderstanding of grammar acquisition and/or ‘sketchy’ curriculum design. In this post I discuss nine of the most serious shortcomings I have observed in 25 years of ML and EFL teaching. Please note that each of the points I make below is valid only if one espouses Skill-theory based theories of L2 language acquisition (also referred to in the literature as Skill-building or Cognitive Code approaches). If you operate within the C.I. / T.P.R.S. paradigm, you are very likely to disagree with every single one of the points I raise below.

  1. The starting-from-zero approach

More often than not, the teaching of a given grammar structure occurs ‘from scratch’, so to speak, with the students having had no previous exposure to it. However, learning – any kind of learning – is much more effective when the students can relate new input to past experiences. This is true of language learning too. That is why the ‘planting the seed’ technique or ‘anaphoric recycling’, facilitates and enhances grammar learning.

‘Planting the seed’ refers to planning the curriculum in such a way that, if you aim to teach, say, the present perfect in week 7 of term 2, the students will have come across several instances of its usage in aural and written texts throughout the preceding six weeks or even earlier – as ‘peripheral’ items. These previous encounters will have provided you and the students, in week 7, with plenty of past experiences of handling the target structure to draw upon and, in many instances, all you will have to do is help the learner connect the dots.

This technique works best when the students are – on each previous encounter – encouraged to notice the ‘seeds’ you are ‘planting’ and are provided with cognitive support when processing them. This does not mean that the ‘seed’ must become the main focus of the lesson – not at all. Nor does this mean that you are going to explain in detail how the structure works every time the students come across it; that would entirely defy the purpose of seed-planting. What I mean is that the unknown structure should not constitute a challenging obstacle to learner comprehension/execution of the task-at-hand. So, for instance, if you are ‘planting the seed’ of the present perfect, you may want to underline, write in bold or colour-code every instance of the present perfect in the written texts you give your students – to promote ‘noticing – whilst providing the translation in brackets or in a ‘help’ box.

You can do this with listening too, through jigsaw listening activities, for instance, in which the ‘planted’ structure is made to stand out through one of the above typographic devices so as for the students to pay more attention to it as they process the aural input.

  1. Minimal receptive practice and the ‘PPP-in-one-lesson obsession’

This refers to one of the greatest shortcomings of grammar instruction. Most grammar lessons unfold through a PPP (presentation, practice, production) sequence which goes way too quickly from the explanation of a grammar point to production. However, a very important stage, which plays a decisive role in grammar acquisition is nearly always missed out: receptive practice through the aural and written medium.

This hyper-neglected stage is very important, especially for the less confident of our learners, for the following reasons; (a) receptive processing is less cognitive challenging than production, especially when effective support/scaffolding is provided; (b) if the texts in use contain language the students are familiar with, they provide old material to hook the new items to, which may facilitate retention; (c) it models the application of the target structure in context, not in a communicative vacuum (as the sentences used by teachers and course-books as examples do); (d) reading allows more time for students to process the new information – production puts much more cognitive and emotional pressure on them; (e) aural modelling through listening – when the transcript of the track is visible to the learners- can be valuable in preventing many decoding/pronunciation errors which may impede acquisition – going back to the English present perfect scenario: think of the pronunciation of ‘I have read’ as opposed to ‘I read’; of ‘I have written’ versus ‘I write’. In French, I have significantly reduced the voicing of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present indicative (e.g. ils parlent) by extensive modelling through listening practice.

Often teachers feel they have to get students to apply the target structure in production before the end of the same lesson in which they first introduce it. It is seen as evidence that ‘progression’ has occurred. However, the learning of any grammar structure – intended as its full automatization – requiring months of practice (see my article on grammar acquisition here), whether students ‘go productive’ or not by the end of the first lesson is not important. The more receptive practice the students actually get, the better. Having every single student leave the room feeling they have fully understood how the target structure works is better than having half of them go out having experienced problems using it in writing or speaking.

In conclusion, give the students lots of modelling of contextualized target-structure usage through receptive practice through lots of reading and listening activities, grammaticality judgment tests and metalinguistic tasks (e.g. Why is X used here and Y there? How many irregular forms can you spot here? Based on the text, how are adverbs used with the present perfect?). Let them experiment with the target structure in oral production in the next lesson.

  1. Building knowledge – not skill

If you were a football coach you would not teach someone how to dribble by simply explaining verbally to them how to do it, right? You would want them to try it out in front of you, give them some feedback on their performance and then get them to try again and practise extensively until you are sure they got it right.More importantly, you would not expect them to do it rightly the next time around – unless they are particularly gifted. You would know from your own experience, that it will take lots of practice before they will finally crack it – if they crack it at all. Finally, you would not assess whether they learnt what you taught them through a quiz at the end of a training session; you would want to see them play a match!

Yet this is what many teachers do when they teach their students grammar. They explain how a grammar rule works; give them a few examples and practise it through a few gap-fill exercises and maybe translations. Another classic is to get them to apply the target structure in some form of written production (e.g. to describe pictures or to write a creative or discursive essay). However, by and large, the typical way they assess uptake will be through a cloze test or a multiple choice quiz – Kahoot being the plenary of election in the UK, these days. A comparison with the football coaching scenario outlined above will clearly show how futile and ineffective this way of teaching grammar is; how little validity assessment carried out through quizzes and gap-fills is. Yet nearly everyone does it.

What this kind of teaching does is working on declarative knowledge of the language; on the understanding of the rules of the L2-system, but it does not bring about acquisition. Acquisition of a grammar rule can only occur through extensive practice across all four skills: Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing. All four of them. And we may only say a grammar rule is acquired when it can be performed rapidly and correctly under Real Operating Conditions (i.e. in real life situations, whilst performing a real life task). Hence, grammar teaching needs to involve students in activities promoting fluency. But how do we achieve this?

Exactly like a football coach teaching his students how to dribble; first by modelling the use of the target structure to the learners through numerous contextualised examples (the receptive phase discussed above). Then by getting them to practise it in highly structured tasks (e.g. verb drills, gap-fills, easy written and oral translations, role plays). When the students are ready, the teacher will require them to carry out tasks which become less and less structured and pose greater cognitive challenge (e.g. oral picture tasks; solving a real-life problem based on a given scenario and prompts). The process will culminate in the performance of unstructured oral or written interaction under serious time constraints (e.g. an impromptu conversation with questions designed to elicit learner deployment of the target structure).

As one can imagine, this process involves lots of real-life oral and written communication aiming at building skill as opposed to creating knowledge – which sadly accounts for most of the grammar teaching I have witnessed in 25 hours of classroom observations.

Only extensive skill-building practice can bring about acquisition, not a few quizzes and gap-fills or corrections scribbled out in our students’ books or a list of targets. I was disappointed recently at seeing a great grammar lesson packed with oral communicative practice I observed end with a Kahoot; the answers to a multiple choice quiz will not tell us anything about the extent to which a grammar structure has been acquired.

  1. Compartmentalized learning

When the language curriculum is based on the course-book, grammar teaching is often ‘compartmentalized’, so to speak. The teaching of a specific structure is confined to a given unit or sub-unit of the course-book and then virtually forgotten. Although the students may encounter it here and there in future units, there is never evidence of systematic recycling of the target structure(s). Yet it is this systematic recycling that leads to acquisition.

It is paramount when putting together the Curriculum/Schemes of work for a given year group/ proficiency level to identify the core grammar structures you want the students to have acquired by the end of the year and plan for opportunities to recycle them in every single unit of work at receptive and/or productive level. In my career I have never come across Schemes of Work which systematically do this – the greatest flaw of all!

Effective teaching is not simply about good classroom teaching and resources; what it is often forgotten is that curriculum design is nearly as important as the ability to deliver it. This is because of the nature of language acquisition. A well-planned curriculum being a curriculum which aims at ‘making things stick’, an effective curriculum designer never loses sight of any of the target structures; through systematic recycling s/he ensures that every memory trace ‘stays alive and kicking’ and becomes stronger and stronger as the course progresses.

This is relatively easy to accomplish and definitely pay dividends – all teachers need is regular reminders to go back to the structures previously taught every so often. Homework can play an enormous role in this respect by incorporating, say, in the week-8 assignment a section on a grammar structure covered in week 3.

  1. The often-unflipped flippable

Much – not all – grammar learning can be flipped, especially when it comes to less cognitive challenging grammar points and automatization work. Inductive tasks whereby the students are given a number of sentences modelling the use of the target structures (e.g. relative pronouns) and are asked to work out by themselves (by analyzing the sentences and through internet-based research) the rule governing their usage, can be given as assignments prior to the lesson.

Moreover, let us not forget that much of the grammar-learning work that leads to the acquisition of a target structure involves actively processing and/or using it. This can be flipped too. Think about the tiresome mechanical grammar drills that you may not want to do in class for fear of boring the daylight out of your students. Ask them to do this sort of stuff at home and – as I mentioned in the previous point – ensure that the assignments include new and old material.

  1. The tense obsession

In the modern-language-teaching world, less so in EFL instruction, tenses (and moods) dominate grammar teaching, as language-proficiency assessment has been tense driven for decades. Preposterous as this is, this tendency to identify grammar learning with tense-learning still persists even after the old English National Curriculum Levels have been scrapped. In schools where NC levels have not as yet been abolished, students are still being told that tenses are the key to progression along the acquisition continuum. This leads L2 instructors to overemphasize tense-learning at the detriment of other very important grammar structures which play a more important role in the execution of communicative functions.

By so doing, we convey to our students ‘bad’ metaphors of language learning, which they will live by in the years to come should they pursue language learning to higher levels. This is a very likely scenario when you hear students as young as 11 or 12 asking you obsessively “what tense do I need to get to level 5a? And 6b?”. But what about the ability of producing complex sentences, performing communicative functions effectively and accurately or the all-important ability to express oneself fluently under real operating conditions?

  1. Unrealistic expectations

As discussed above, coursebook-based curriculum design, when it comes to grammar instruction, is based on the unrealistic expectation that a given structure is acquired in six to eight weeks or even less. Nothing could be more preposterous. Acquisition meaning that students can perform the grammar structure accurately at (near) real-life speed, it will take way longer than that for students to routinize the application of a grammar rule. Allow more time in your Schemes of Work. The authors of the textbooks you use are not eminent second language acquisition researchers nor experienced curriculum designers – they do not necessarily know much more about teaching and learning than you do. The pace they set is more often than not, in my experience, flawed and unfair to the students; it does not take into account developmental constraints and never allows sufficient time for consolidation.

  1. Flawed assessment

The other day I was shown a grammar test that consisted of a series of gapped sentences to fill in with the present tense of verbs provided in brackets. A classic! I was all but surprised. This practice has been going on for a century or more and nearly everyone does it. Yet, how does that assess L2 students’ acquisition of the present tense? It assesses, at best, their ability to conjugate some regular and irregular verbs in the present tense, in a vacuum, totally divorced from communication. They do not even need to understand the all-important linguistic context surrounding the gaps.

My students conjugate verbs every day on the www.language-gym conjugator (for no more than 5-10 minutes!) often scoring 90 -100 %. Does that mean they have acquired present verb conjugations? Far from it. It is like saying that a five-year-old who has learnt how to kick the ball around his bedroom is fit to play a Premiere League match.

  1. Over-correcting but under-remediating

Based on my discussion above, it will be now pretty clear why spending a lot of time correcting surface level errors in our students’ written pieces is not an effective way to go about improving student grammar proficiency – unless you are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time in the remediation process, that is. Error correction is only the starting point, the awareness-raising ‘bit’ of the error-eradication process.

Let us go back to the football-coaching analogy. If you simply confine your intervention to providing the correction or coding errors and asking the students to self-correct you will be doing the equivalent of the coach telling his student that he should kick the ball differently and showing him how to do it – awareness-raising and modelling. Pretty much the equivalent of telling an alcoholic that drinking is bad, explaining why it is harmful and telling them not to drink again. But what about the all-important extensive practice needed for the student to re-learn how to kick? What about the rehab time and therapy needed by the alcoholic to stay away from drinking?

Unless teachers are prepared to spend hours and hours helping the students re-learn grammar structures, they’d better limit their marking to errors that are common to a fair number of students in the same class and ‘remediate’ them in lessons day-in day-out through regular recycling. A much more efficient and effective use of teacher time.

Here is a simple tool I use to ensure I recycle grammar over and over again across the areas of student structural competence I have identified over the years as the most problematic in French:

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Concluding remarks

Grammar instruction still occurs, in many quarters, through outdated practices which defy neuroscience and, more importantly, common sense. From what we know about how the brain acquires cognitive skills, the way grammar is still taught and assessed in many school settings is highly ineffective. The most important message that I would like any teacher reader to take away from the above is that grammar teaching must be more skill -than knowledge-orientated and that without a carefully planned curriculum design (Schemes of work) which consciously aims at the routinization of the core target structures and strives to recycle them as much as possible throughout the course, across all four skills, effective L2 grammar acquisition cannot occur. Far too often grammar teaching and error correction stops at awareness-raising – the result being children that at best know how grammar rules work but cannot apply them correctly in spontaneous speech and under exam constraints for lack of R.O.C. practice.

To find out more about my views on grammar instruction and acquisition do read the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith.

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

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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.

Do teachers know how to teach grammar?- Of beliefs and misgivings, perceptions and reality

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1.Introduction

In the prequel to this post, “Language teachers and Grammar – Should we worry?”, Steve and I partially answered the question in the title through our discussion of language teachers’ KAL (Knowledge About Language) . In that post we reviewed empirical studies which identified serious deficits in pre-service and in-service teachers’ KAL which affect their ability to teach grammar explicitly (Brumfit et al. 1996; Borg, 2001 and 2015; Swan, 2006).

In the present post we aim to widen the perspective on teachers’ ‘know-how’ in the area of explicit grammar teaching. It is important to note that our discussion of the available research will extend beyond the boundaries of what teachers do in the classroom as we believe that grammar-teaching related competence refers also to the extent to which

(a) language instructors’ beliefs and attitudes about language teaching are aligned with current theory and research;

(b) their teaching intentions match students’ learning agendas, preferences and other individual variables (e.g. age, personality, educational biographies, etc.);

(c) they are aware of their own classroom practice – this aspect of teacher competence is important, we believe, as without self-awareness one cannot identify deficits in their performance, the crucial starting point of any effective professional development.

2. Important disclaimer

The research reviewed below is by no means exhaustive or conclusive. It does, however, yield interesting and useful findings which resonate with our professional experience and should be heeded by colleagues as well as course administrators as they point to issues which do commonly hinder effective grammar teaching and learning in secondary school settings.

3. Teachers beliefs about grammar instruction

Beliefs often play an influential role in how effective the teacher will be in the classroom (Richards,1998) by acting as a filter for their instructional judgements and decision making in class and subsequently providing a “systematic justification process with which to plan, assess, judge, decide, accept, deny or act” (Ezzi, 2012).

3.1 Do teachers believe grammar should be taught?

By and large the empirical studies that we located in the core literature found that language teachers feel that Explicit Grammar Teaching is central to language learning and students need direct and explicit teaching of grammar rules for accuracy (e.g. Chandler,1998; Schultz, 1996 and 2001; Burges & Etherington, 2002; Ebsworth & Schweers, 1997; Potgieter & Conradie, 2013; Graus and Coppen, 2014).

It must be pointed out, however, that the existing empirical data are by no means consistent across the board as they are inevitably affected by socio-cultural variables, curricular constraints and students’ agendas. For instance, Eisenstein-Ebbsworth and Schweers (1996) found that, although all of the university ESL teachers they studied thought grammar should be taught, the New York- based ones were significantly less in favour of conscious grammar instruction than their Puerto Rico counterparts. The researchers attributed this phenomenon to the more traditional approach to language teaching usually adopted in Puerto Rico. As one of their informant stated, grammar learning had been such an important part of their learning experience, that they did not see any reason to abandon it. The researchers concluded that awareness of research plays a minimum role in L2 teachers’ rationale for the approach to use in grammar teaching.

Moreover, differences have been identified by some studies between second-language and foreign-language teachers. Mitchel et al. (1992) and Brumfit et al (1996) found that the second-language teachers they studied rarely did any explicit grammar teaching, wherever foreign language teachers regularly did so. This is a finding that definitely resonates with our own experience.

3.2 The main source of teachers’ beliefs about grammar teaching

Eisenstein-Ebbsworth and Schweers’ (1996) findings refer to the all-important point we made in the conclusion to our post ‘Why teachers teach the way we do’, that ultimately teachers’ beliefs about grammar pedagogy are largely shaped by their previous learning experiences much more than by their method classes on teacher training courses and subsequent CPD – which explains why L2 teachers’ grammar teaching approaches are often outdated. Borg (2015) concluded his review of the relevant literature stating that:

In reporting their beliefs about grammar teaching, teachers commonly refer to the impact of their views of their prior language learning experiences; there is evidence that these may exert a more significant impact on teachers’ views than the results of formal research into grammar teaching. This is not surprising: an apparent lack of impact of formal theory on teachers’ cognition has also been reported in mainstream education (e.g. Crawley and Salyer, 1995).

Mitchel et al. (1994) noted how the teachers they studied ‘had been influenced very little by those theories of second-language acquisition that downgrade the role of explicit form-focused instruction in the learning of a foreign language’. Their findings are echoed by a number of other studies.

In Chandler (1998), for instance, the vast majority of the respondents to a postal questionnaire stated that most of their knowledge of grammar was learnt in school and constituted the basis of their existing pedagogy. Chandler was concerned with the lack of understanding of the role of language awareness in language learning which he referred to as ‘confident ignorance’.

Nespor (1987) found the teachers can be influenced by ‘a crucial experience or some particularly influential teacher produces a richly-detailed episodic memory which later serves the student as an inspiration and a template for his or her own teaching practices”.

Farrell (1999) reported how his subjects refused to teach grammar deductively as it had not worked for them as language learners.

Other factors appear to affect teachers’ beliefs about grammar. Ebsworth and Schweers (1997) claim that, when it comes to “articulating their rationales, teachers referred to various factors shaping their views, such as student wants, and syllabus expectations”. Borg (2015) notes how in many cases teachers choose to teach grammar not because they actually believe it will enhance language acquisition, but because they believe that students expect it. Andrews (2003) notes how schools’ microcultures affect teachers beliefs (e.g. the beliefs and practices of one’s colleagues).

4. What are teachers’ instructional preferences ?

Research suggests that modern language instructors still favour the PPP (presentation, practice, production) instructional sequence marked by a deductive approach to grammar teaching with teacher-to-class interaction and drills as the preferred mode of delivery and practice. This is often the case even when they believe that language teaching must develop student communicative ability (Andrews, 2003; Wang, 2009; Borg, 2015). Despite the teachers investigated had received formal training in Communicative Language Teaching, little evidence was found of CLT in their grammar teaching classroom practices. This reflects findings by Richards and Pennington (1998), Sato and Kleinsasser (1999), Richards, Gallo, and Renandya (2001).

This type of approach is quite outdated and not aligned with the current wisdom in grammar pedagogy, which advocates a more eclectic approach (a) integrating form focused instruction (FFI) with tasks involving negotiation of meaning (CLT); (b) combining deductive and inductive learning and (c) aiming at the proceduralization (automatization) of grammar structures (Lightbown and Spada, 2008). The last point (c) is particular important in our view as it refers to the greatest shortcoming of much current grammar pedagogy; the failure, that is, to recognize that a grammar structure can only be considered as fully ‘learnt’ by a student when s/he can deploy it correctly in fluent oral/written speech and teach grammar accordingly.

A finding by Andrews (2003) is interesting in this regard as it may provide an explanation why some teachers may prefer a deductive rather an inductive approach to grammar teaching and alludes to a very common scenario in secondary British schools. Andrews found that teachers with high levels of explicit KAL feel more confident teaching grammar inductively than those with lower levels of it. The reason is obvious: deductive teaching allows the teacher total control over the pedagogic content of the grammar lesson; inductive teaching is less predictable, may require improvisation and the ability to answer students’ grammar queries on the spot.

  1. Do teachers have sufficient knowledge of their students’ grammar cognition to teach them effectively?

Research shows that the effectiveness of any instruction depends on the extent to which teacher intentions and learners’ expectations, wants and needs are aligned (Dornyei, 2005). A substantial lack of alignment often results in students’ disaffection and less effective learning. Hence, one facet of teacher competence is the ability to adapt one’s teaching to learner preferences and agendas.

Two large scale studies carried out by Schultz (1996, 2001) set out to investigate to what extent teachers’ and students’ beliefs about how languages are learnt matched.  In her 1996 study, Schultz studied teacher and student attitudes to grammar teaching and error correction. 94% of the 824 students she investigated stated they wanted to be corrected when they made errors in class. However, only 48 % of the 92 teachers on the study concurred with them. Schultz also identified ‘perturbing differences’ between teachers and students’ stances on this issue. The vast majority of the students believed that the formal study of the L2 grammar is essential to effectively master a language whereas only 64 % of the teachers concurred with this view.

In a subsequent study with Colombian students (Schultz, 2001) the gap between students and teachers’ perception was even greater. Whilst 76 % of the students said they valued grammar, only 30% of the teachers thought their students did.  Mismatches like these have been reported by numerous other studies (Cathcart & Olsen, 1976; Yorio, 1986; Spada, 1987; Wesche, 1981).

We would add that, in our experience, students’ parents’ own beliefs about language learning may play an important role, here, especially with infant and adolescent learners.

Another astonishing finding in his area comes from a study by Berry (1997), who asked ten teachers of English in Hong Kong to rate the knowledge of grammatical terminology (metalanguage) of 372 students they taught. The discrepancies were huge indicating that the teachers grossly overestimated their students’ knowledge of metalanguage. Berry stated that such discrepancies have the potential to cause serious problems in the classroom.

I personally found this to be an issue when I was lecturing at university and school with the language assistants I supervised. The language assistants – coming from foreign school systems with a solid tradition of formal instruction – did take for granted that their L1-English students would understand the metalanguage they used in their grammar explanations. This did put some students off.

  1. Do teachers’ beliefs and classroom practices match?

Several studies indicate that there is often a clear mismatch between what teachers says they do in the classroom when they teach grammar and what they actually do.

Andrews (2003) observed teachers whose stated beliefs were rooted in Communicative Language Teaching. He found very little evidence of CLT in their grammar teaching classroom practice.

Basturmken et al (2004) reports incongruences with regards to corrective practices whereby the teachers’ classroom behavior contradicted their stated belief that one should not interrupt students’ oral output during communicative activities to correct unless errors impede intelligibility. Basturmken and his co-workers put these incongruences down to the fact that when teachers talk about their beliefs they draw on their espoused theory and/or abstract technical knowledge of grammar pedagogy; however, when they respond to classroom contexts they draw on their practical knowledge. The two types of knowledge may not be necessarily aligned, especially in less experienced teachers (Borg, 2015).

Ng and Farrell (2003) and Farrel and Lim (2005) who found similar inconsistencies vis-à-vis error correction and other areas of grammar instruction, put them down to the fact that teachers often have to adapt their beliefs to curricular and student needs and goals. This, too, is a finding that strongly resonates with our experience and points to a common source of teacher frustration.

  1. Do teachers know how to teach grammar?

Research has identified that in many cases the problem is not so much lack of grammar knowledge but the teacher’s ability to transform that knowledge in pedagogic content; in other words, the ability to turn what they know in effective materials and lesson plans. This phenomenon seems to be partly caused by lack of knowledge of the adequate grammar terminology (Hislam and Cajkler, 2005). In our view, though, the most crucial factor is the absence of adequate training in this aspect of teaching which causes teachers to rely largely on the textbook or – as we discussed above – on their previous images of learning. Unfortunately, the kind of teacher training provided on PGCE or CELTA courses seems to fail in this respect (Borg, 2015).

  1. Concluding remarks

The research discussed above is by no means conclusive, exhaustive and consistent enough to grant any generalization of the findings discussed to the whole international language teaching population. However, the studies reviewed do identify important issues which very strongly resonate with our teaching experience (which amounts to almost 60 years between the two of us!) and have important implications for language teaching and learning.

Firstly, overall modern foreign language teachers – and ESL teachers to a lesser extent – seem to believe that grammar teaching is important and should be implemented in lessons. However, their approaches to grammar teaching appear to be rooted in very outdated views of grammar acquisition. This finding calls for much greater emphasis on professional development which models more eclectic and modern approaches to explicit grammar instruction of the likes of those recommended by Lightbown and Spada (2008), Swan (2006) and many of our blogs. The approaches envisaged would (1) integrate grammar and negotiation of meaning, (2) combine inductive and deductive teaching and (3) aim at automatization of target morphemes.

Such professional development, in order to be successful needs to involve extensive not merely intensive practice. Also, since schools’ micro-cultures seems to play an important role in re-shaping beliefs and approaches to grammar pedagogy, trusted and charismatic colleagues will play an important role in the process.

Schools administrators need to recognize that the process of re-shaping teacher beliefs and practices vis-à-vis grammar pedagogy is a very long and complex one which requires a lot of quality time and support that they must be prepared to allocate. Results cannot be expected at the end of a few weeks or even months’ training. It is likely to take much longer than that!

Another finding with huge implications for teacher training and professional development programs refers to the incongruences between teachers’ stated beliefs and actual classroom practice. Such incongruences may be due to various factors. The most important ones refer to (a) the dichotomy declarative vs procedural knowledge and (b) the inability to transform grammar knowledge into a lesson plan (in other words: the lack of a principled framework). Whereas (b) calls for CPD of the likes envisaged in the previous paragraphs, (a) calls for the need for teachers to elicit more non-judgemental student and peer feedback on their teaching practice and self-reflection supported by reflective journals, lesson-videoing, etc.

Finally, a worrying finding discussed above refers to (a) incongruences between teacher beliefs / goals and learner expectations / needs and (b) gross mismatches between teacher perceived levels of student grammar-related cognition and actual ones. The former issue can seriously hinder effective learning and it is imperative that teachers assess students’ beliefs about and attitudes to grammar to find the pedagogic fit that best suits their classroom. As for (b), an initial assessment of new students’ KAL may be desirable to better match their needs. This is rarely done in UK secondary school settings, in our experience.

In conclusion, the biggest lesson to be learnt from the research reviewed in this and in our previous post is that schools must place greater emphasis than it is currently done on professional development in the areas of grammar knowledge (KAL) and grammar pedagogy

-END –

PART 2 – Do teachers know grammar?

  1. The rise-fall-rise of Explicit Grammar Instruction

Explicit Grammar Instruction (henceforth EGI) was the primary mode of language instruction from the Romans to the first half of the 20th century. It fell out of favour in the 70s/80s with much of the international modern language teaching community with the advent of theories and methodologies based on the epistemological dogma that it does not significantly enhance L2 proficiency development. Such theories and methodologies, based as they were on experiential models of learning and on the attainment of communicative competence as the ultimate goal of language learning, inevitably marginalized the formal teaching of grammar. Nativist theories, such as Krashen’s, even advocated the total ban of EGI in the belief that a natural order of acquisition of L2 grammar structures exists which cannot be altered by formal instruction.

Recently, however, a substantive cohort of L2 educators has advocated that, whilst EGI, on its own, does not enhance acquisition, when integrated with approaches like CLT it may indeed be beneficial and a mounting body of empirical evidence seems to endorse this view (Ellis, 1990, Harley 1993, Ellis,2003). This has prompted a grammar revival that in the last two decades or so has started to creep into mainstream modern language education.

The effective integration of EGI into communicative language teaching or task-based learning is not without challenges. Steve and I believe that EGI can play an important role, however it (1) should not dominate modern language lessons; (2) should be carried out as part of a variable-focus curriculum concerned predominantly with the teaching of communicative functions and vocabulary; (3) should occur mainly in the context of interactional tasks aiming at developing fluency as well as grammar accuracy and syntactic complexity;  (4) should aim at creating procedural knowledge (as opposed to traditional approaches which focus mainly on declarative knowledge); and (5) should involve inductive learning as well as deductive approaches

2.Caveat

The reader should bear in mind that the body of research we shall draw upon in our attempt to answer the above questions is by no means representative of the international teacher community. To generalize the findings of the studies reported above would be preposterous and unfair. However, the data that the studies we shall very concisely review below do yield very interesting findings which do resonate with our experience and do raise important issues which both governments and education providers must heed and address as part of their professional development programmes as they refer to important areas of teacher competence which, in our experience, are grossly neglected.

Please also note that for reasons of space we shall discuss only studies which we deem as representative of each research strand and topic.

3. Do teachers know the target language grammar?

Researchers refer to the knowledge of how language works as KAL (knowledge about language) or LA (language awareness). An important distinction must be drawn between Declarative and Procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language. Declarative knowledge refers to the explicit knowledge of the grammar rules, i.e. being able to articulate how a grammar rule works. Having the procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language means being able to use it in production, by-passing consciousness, so to speak (e.g. I can use the imperfect tense in French but I cannot explain why). Most native speakers of a language who have not been taught language explicitly, for instance, would possess procedural knowledge of their mother tongue but very little – if any – declarative knowledge of it.

As many language theorists and educators believe nowadays, there is a clear link between explicit knowledge of the formal aspects of language and performance when using that language. Hence, as Andews (2008: 1) puts it:

fostering learners’ ability to analyse and describe a language accurately is likely to help them become more effective users of that language. Arising from this is the belief that teachers of a language need an understanding of how that language works and an ability to analyze that language to function effectively as teachers.

It follows that it is paramount that teachers’ subject specific competence ought to include high levels of declarative knowledge as well as the ability to teach it effectively.

3.1 How much do university language students know?

Research investigating L2 teachers’ levels of KAL has yielded shocking results which raise serious concerns. First off, let us have a look at a set of UK-based studies which investigated how much metalinguistic knowledge modern languages university students know. Why should we be interested in this? Because (1) these students constitute the UK language learners elite, the pool from which language teachers usually come, hence, (2) studying them will tell us how much metalinguistic knowledge language teachers are exposed to at secondary school level.

Bloor (1986), Alderson et al (1997) and Alderson et al (2010) investigated the metalinguistic knowledge of 63 students enrolled on language courses in British universities. Bloor’s (1986) findings were the most dispiriting: most students failed to meet the Department of Education and Science target that 16-year-olds should be able to identify verb, noun pronoun, adjective, adverb, article, preposition and conjunction. The only grammatical terms they could identify were ‘verb’ and ‘noun’. Alderson et al (2009) replicated Bloor’s study to see if things had improved 23 years on. Their study confirmed Bloor’s (1986) dispiriting findings although they observed slight improvements in terms of the understanding of metalinguistic terms. They recommended that an increased focus on teaching the use of the terms rather than simply presenting them to students might ensure that they are able to fully understand them, rather than just being familiar with them.

3.2 How about teacher trainees?

Wray (1993) and Williamson and Hardman (1995) investigated the KAL of pre-service teachers at the start of their teacher training programme. Their results confirmed Bloor’s (1986). Some findings were astonishing. In Wray’s study, only 30% of the subjects could identify adverbs and; 23 % pronouns and less than 10% prepositions. Williamson and Hardman (1995) found that their informants scored only 5.6 out of 10 on a question requiring them to name parts of speech. They concluded that the 99 trainees they studies had serious gaps in knowledge about grammar, misconceptions about it and a lack of metalanguage for analyzing language use. Several other studies (e.g Chandler et al., 1988) concurred with these findings.

3.3 In-service teachers’ KAL

Andrews investigated practicing teachers’ levels of KAL in a few studies (e.e. 1994, 199a and 2005). His findings confirmed Bloor’s (1986) and Alderson’s (2009). Andrews (1999a), is particularly interesting because it compared the explicit knowledge of grammar  and grammatical terminology of 4 groups:

  1. NNS (non-native speakers) of English
  2. NNS prospective teachers of English
  3. NS (native speakers) of English with a background in English studies
  4. English NS trainee teachers of modern languages

Andrews found that on average the levels of grammar knowledge were utterly inadequate, although the NNS teachers of English did much better than the other groups. The lowest scores were obtained by the prospective teachers (group 4).

Mitchell et al (1994), in an interesting project in English secondary school settings which involved, amongst others, classroom observations of several Modern Language teachers found that generally, levels of KAL were inadequate and that

There was some evidence that the limits to teachers’ own linguistic knowledge were a constraint on the development of maximally effective KAL work. This could be seen even in some KAL focused units, which at times seemed to have conveyed inaccurate messages to pupils; more generally, teachers’ tendency to avoid technical vocabulary in KAL-related talk seemed linked at times to insecurity in using grammatical or discourse terminology.

Shuib (2009) set to investigate English language teachers’ nature and level of grammatical awareness. Questionnaire and interview techniques were used to elicit data from primary school teachers who were following their B. Ed TESOL programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2006 and 2007. Her data confirmed previous findings. She concluded that in terms of training, her findings suggested that more efforts need to be made at teacher training institutions to promote grammatical awareness among aspiring teachers.

Other interesting findings come from studies by Grossman, Wilson and Shulman (1989) and Beard (1999), which demonstrated that teachers tend to avoid teaching grammar due to their uncertainty about their knowledge of grammar and inadequacy of grammatical knowledge. Beard (1999) noted that besides having much ‘intuitive implicit knowledge’ about grammar, the problem for many teachers is the inability to make the implicit knowledge explicit and to use the appropriate technical terms (metalanguage).

4. Concluding remarks

Although the studies just reviewed and many other investigations carried out all over the world do paint the same bleak picture, we know that there are many excellent practitioners who do have high levels of grammar knowledge. Thus, it is important to reiterate that these research findings, whilst spotting a worrying trend, cannot and should not be generalised to the whole international language teaching community. We have, however, the ethical imperative to heed these findings and, as Borg (2015) puts it,

on the assumption that an explicit understanding of language plays a major role in the effectiveness of the work of language teachers, these findings suggest the need for language teacher preparation programmes to dedicate substantial time to the development of trainees’s declarative knowledge about the language.

We would add that practising teachers should not be afraid to recognize KAL as an area of their subject specific competence requiring development. After all, as Chandler et al.’s (1988) informants stated, most teachers’ KAL was acquired during their school days. A deficit that stems from the way an educational system is run should not be viewed as something to be ashamed of. Hence, senior teachers/professional tutors/line-managers should be encouraged to address any observed gaps in their colleagues’ KAL through professional development strategies in a non-judgemental way.

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

Language teachers and grammar – should we worry? (Part 1)

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith of The Language Teacher toolkit (www.frenchteacher.net)

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  1. Introduction

This is the first of a series of posts on language teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, conceptions and practices in the realm of grammar teaching which will address the following questions:

  1. Do teachers know the target language grammar?
  2. What beliefs do teachers hold about conscious grammar instruction? Where do these beliefs come from?
  3. How good are teachers at teaching grammar?
  4. Do teachers practise what they preach ?
  5. Do L2-students want to learn grammar?

The present post will concern itself with the first of these five questions.

  1. The rise-fall-rise of Explicit Grammar Instruction

Explicit Grammar Instruction (henceforth EGI) was the primary mode of language instruction from the Romans to the first half of the 20th century. It fell out of favour in the 70s/80s with much of the international modern language teaching community with the advent of theories and methodologies based on the dogma that it does not significantly enhance L2 proficiency development. Such theories and methodologies, based as they were on experiential models of learning and on the attainment of communicative competence as the ultimate goal of language learning, inevitably marginalized the formal teaching of grammar. Nativist theories, such as Krashen’s, even advocated the total ban of EGI in the belief that a natural order of acquisition of L2 grammar structures exists which cannot be altered by formal instruction.

Recently, however, a substantive cohort of L2 educators has advocated that, whilst EGI, on its own, does not enhance acquisition, when integrated with approaches like CLT it may indeed be beneficial and a mounting body of empirical evidence seems to endorse this view (Ellis, 1990, Harley 1993, Ellis,2003). This has prompted a grammar revival that in the last two decades or so has started to creep into mainstream modern language education.

The effective integration of EGI into communicative language teaching or task-based learning is not without challenges. Steve and I believe that EGI can play an important role, however it (1) should not dominate modern language lessons; (2) should be carried out as part of a variable-focus curriculum concerned predominantly with the teaching of communicative functions and vocabulary; (3) should occur mainly in the context of interactional tasks aiming at developing fluency as well as grammar accuracy and syntactic complexity;  (4) should aim at creating procedural knowledge (as opposed to traditional approaches which focus mainly on declarative knowledge); and (5) should involve inductive learning as well as deductive approaches.

3.Caveat

The reader should bear in mind that the body of research we shall draw upon in our attempt to answer the above questions is by no means representative of the international teacher community. To generalize the findings of the studies reported above would be unfair. However, the data that the studies we shall very concisely review below do yield very interesting findings which do resonate with our experience and do raise important issues which both governments and education providers must heed and address as part of their professional development programmes as they refer to important areas of teacher competence which, in our experience, are grossly neglected.

Please also note that for reasons of space we shall discuss only studies which we deem as representative of each research strand and topic.

4. Do teachers know the target language grammar?

Researchers refer to the knowledge of how language works as KAL (knowledge about language) or LA (language awareness). An important distinction must be drawn between Declarative and Procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language. Declarative knowledge refers to the explicit knowledge of the grammar rules, i.e. being able to articulate how a grammar rule works. Having the procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language means being able to use it in production, by-passing consciousness, so to speak (e.g. I can use the imperfect tense in French but I cannot explain why). Most native speakers of a language who have not been taught language explicitly, for instance, would possess procedural knowledge of their mother tongue but very little – if any – declarative knowledge of it.

As many language theorists and educators believe nowadays, there is a clear link between explicit knowledge of the formal aspects of language and performance when using that language. Hence, as Andews (2008: 1) puts it:

fostering learners’ ability to analyse and describe a language accurately is likely to help them become more effective users of that language. Arising from this is the belief that teachers of a language need an understanding of how that language works and an ability to analyze that language to function effectively as teachers.

It follows that it is paramount that teachers’ subject specific competence ought to include high levels of declarative knowledge as well as the ability to teach it effectively.

4.1 How much do university language students know?

Research investigating L2 teachers’ levels of KAL has yielded shocking results which raise serious concerns. First off, let us have a look at a set of UK-based studies which investigated how much metalinguistic knowledge modern languages university students know. Why should we be interested in this? Because (1) these students constitute the UK language learners elite, the pool from which language teachers usually come, hence, (2) studying them will tell us how much metalinguistic knowledge language teachers are exposed to at secondary school level.

Bloor (1986), Alderson et al (1997) and Alderson et al (2010) investigated the metalinguistic knowledge of 63 students enrolled on language courses in British universities. Bloor’s (1986) findings were the most dispiriting: most students failed to meet the Department of Education and Science target that 16-year-olds should be able to identify verb, noun pronoun, adjective, adverb, article, preposition and conjunction. The only grammatical terms they could identify were ‘verb’ and ‘noun’. Alderson et al (2009) replicated Bloor’s study to see if things had improved 23 years on. Their study confirmed Bloor’s (1986) dispiriting findings although they observed slight improvements in terms of the understanding of metalinguistic terms. They recommended that an increased focus on teaching the use of the terms rather than simply presenting them to students might ensure that they are able to fully understand them, rather than just being familiar with them.

4.2 How about teacher trainees?

Wray (1993) and Williamson and Hardman (1995) investigated the KAL of pre-service teachers at the start of their teacher training programme. Their results confirmed Bloor’s (1986). Some findings were astonishing. In Wray’s study, only 30% of the subjects could identify adverbs and; 23 % pronouns and less than 10% prepositions. Williamson and Hardman (1995) found that their informants scored only 5.6 out of 10 on a question requiring them to name parts of speech. They concluded that the 99 trainees they studies had serious gaps in knowledge about grammar, misconceptions about it and a lack of metalanguage for analyzing language use. Several other studies (e.g Chandler et al., 1988) concurred with these findings.

4.3 In-service teachers’ KAL

Andrews investigated practicing teachers’ levels of KAL in a few studies (e.e. 1994, 1999 and 2005). His findings confirmed Bloor’s (1986) and Alderson’s (2009). Andrews (1999), is particularly interesting because it compared the explicit knowledge of grammar  and grammatical terminology of 4 groups:

  1. NNS (non-native speakers) of English
  2. NNS prospective teachers of English
  3. NS (native speakers) of English with a background in English studies
  4. English NS trainee teachers of modern languages

Andrews found that on average the levels of grammar knowledge were utterly inadequate, although the NNS teachers of English did much better than the other groups. The lowest scores were obtained by the prospective teachers (group 4).

Mitchell et al (1994), in an interesting project in English secondary school settings which involved, amongst others, classroom observations of several Modern Language teachers found that generally, levels of KAL were inadequate and that

There was some evidence that the limits to teachers’ own linguistic knowledge were a constraint on the development of maximally effective KAL work. This could be seen even in some KAL focused units, which at times seemed to have conveyed inaccurate messages to pupils; more generally, teachers’ tendency to avoid technical vocabulary in KAL-related talk seemed linked at times to insecurity in using grammatical or discourse terminology.

Shuib (2009) set to investigate English language teachers’ nature and level of grammatical awareness. Questionnaire and interview techniques were used to elicit data from primary school teachers who were following their B. Ed TESOL programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2006 and 2007. Her data confirmed previous findings. She concluded that in terms of training, her findings suggested that more efforts need to be made at teacher training institutions to promote grammatical awareness among aspiring teachers.

Other interesting findings come from studies by Grossman, Wilson and Shulman (1989) and Beard (1999), which demonstrated that teachers tend to avoid teaching grammar due to their uncertainty about their knowledge of grammar and inadequacy of grammatical knowledge. Beard (1999) noted that besides having much ‘intuitive implicit knowledge’ about grammar, the problem for many teachers is the inability to make the implicit knowledge explicit and to use the appropriate technical terms (metalanguage).

4.4 Concluding remarks

Although the studies just reviewed and many other investigations carried out all over the world do paint the same bleak picture, we know that there are many excellent practitioners who do have high levels of grammar knowledge. Thus, it is important to reiterate that these research findings, whilst spotting a worrying trend, cannot and should not be generalised to the whole international language teaching community. We have, however, the ethical imperative to heed these findings and, as Borg (2015) puts it,

on the assumption that an explicit understanding of language plays a major role in the effectiveness of the work of language teachers, these findings suggest the need for language teacher preparation programmes to dedicate substantial time to the development of trainees’s declarative knowledge about the language.

We would add that practising teachers should not be afraid to recognize KAL as an area of their subject specific competence requiring development. After all, as Chandler et al.’s (1988) informants stated, most teachers’ KAL was acquired during their school days. A deficit that stems from the way an educational system is run should not be viewed as something to be ashamed of. Hence, senior teachers/professional tutors/line-managers should be encouraged to address any observed gaps in their colleagues’ KAL through professional development strategies in a non-judgemental way.

The sequel to this post can be found here

You can also find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ which I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase here

Why teachers teach the way they do

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith, with input from  Dylan Vinales

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Introduction

This post is the first in a series of articles in which we explore teacher’s beliefs, conceptions, images of learning and attitudes vis-a-vis teaching. In other words, what teacher education theorists and researchers refer to as ‘teacher cognition’.

An insight in the way language teacher cognition ‘works’ is of interest to any L2 educator and administrator who values self- and other-professional development. This series of posts will draw on the core literature on teacher cognition in an attempt to enhance language teachers’ understanding of why they teach the way they do.

Beliefs, conceptions about and attitudes to language teaching and learning

There are many reasons why we teach the way we do. The most prominent ones refer to the way we were taught and learnt languages (Borg, 2003). It is mainly our language learning ‘biographies’ – as researchers call our history as L2 learners – that shape our beliefs. Some of our beliefs are so strong and so deeply embedded in our cognition that, as we will argue below, even years of pre-service and in-service teacher education will not be able to alter them. Educational researchers refer to them as ‘central’ or ‘core’ beliefs. Others, the ‘peripheral’ ones, are more amenable to change, but still require quite a lot of conditioning in order to be modified.

Previous images of learning that we have acquired throughout our L2-acquisition experience seem to have a huge bearing on our beliefs about and attitudes to language teaching. Calderhead and Robson (1991) define these images as “general metaphors for thinking about teaching; overall concepts of a lesson; memorized snapshots of particular experiences; conceptions of a subject; ideas about how students learn”. These images act as models of action (Johnson, 1994), triggering automatic responses to the various contexts teachers face on a daily basis. It appears from research that teacher training courses do not discard previous images of learning, especially those that last only a few weeks (e.g. CELTA).

What teacher training courses do is – at best – enhance teachers’ intellectual knowledge about and grasp of pedagogy and their repertoire of techniques, i.e. declarative knowledge (MacDonald et al, 2001). However, their ‘automatic’ teaching behaviour will be still determined by their previous images of learning for as long as it takes for the teacher to automatize the newly acquired pedagogy – a process that may take several years and, in many cases, may never happen. 

Hence, ‘experienced teachers’ does NOT necessarily equate with ‘expert teachers’ !

So, for example, a student-teacher trained in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) but previously taught in a Grammar-Translation setting throughout her history as an L2 learner might have clear knowledge of how a CLT teacher should teach and may be able to plan a lesson using the framework their trainers modelled on her training; however, in her classroom practice when responding ‘automatically’ to a situation, especially if under stress, the images of learning embedded in her cognition will take over (a widely documented scenario in teacher cognition research).

If after her teacher training the same teacher carries on teaching in settings where CLT is explicitly encouraged by the course, CPD is CLT orientated, textbooks and teaching materials are CLT based and colleagues espouse and implement CLT in their classrooms, one can foresee how this teacher may eventually automatize CLT practices. However, if in her post-training years she teaches in contexts where instructional approaches are not aligned with CLT and/or alongside more experienced colleagues who embrace other methods, she might evolve differently.

The existence of the dichotomy between teacher declarative and procedural (or practical) knowledge is evidenced by a number of studies which report how numerous language instructors’ perception of the approach they use in the classroom differs greatly from their students and/or observers’. For instance, Ng and Farrell (2003) found that teachers who said they believed one should minimize explicit error correction in lessons actually corrected a lot. Loewen and Ellis (2004) identified similar behaviours in their informants. Hawkey (2003) found that teachers and learners’ perception of the way they taught did not match in many respects.

All of the above brings into question the value of much of the professional development practice taking place in schools around the world, as it lacks the momentum, support, resources and long-term planning required to succeed. Not to mention the fact that it often lacks an educational rationale strong enough for teachers to buy into it.

The above also suggests that self-reflection, whether carried out by the teacher alone or in dyads or triads may not necessarily per se results in much enhancement in terms of procedural knowledge. For self-reflection to pay dividends, it must not only generate change at an intellectual level (e.g. I see this is not working, I should try this out); the change must result in classroom implementation which is sustained long enough for it to be automatized. In 25 years of experience we have rarely seen this happen successfully. Have you?

Yet, scores of blog posts and articles are shared on a daily basis on social media strongly encouraging teachers to self-reflect but never, to our knowledge, discuss the most important ‘bit’: how we get from the outcome of the self-reflection to actual change (intended as long-lasting practical change in classroom behaviour not in teachers’ heads). Moreover, how can we be sure that teachers do have the cognitive ‘tools’ to self-reflect effectively?

Steve and I are strong believers in self-reflection as a teaching competence enhancer,  yet there are a series of serious obstacles in the way of productive self-reflection that one has to consider:

(1) can we be truly objective and honest with ourselves? – After all we have a vested interest in appearing good in our own eyes (a question of self-preservation);

(2) do we fully trust/value the professional judgement of the person who gives us feedback? Are they credible? Do they walk the talk? Are you going to listen to a very teacher-centred Head of Languages telling you to do more oral group-work? Or to a rigid, autocratic and closed-minded member of the Senior Leadership Team advocating growth mindset?  And if we actually do listen to peer feedback, what are the chances of us investing a lot of time and effort processing and acting on it?

(3) one has to have sufficient levels of cognition about language teaching pedagogy to be able to evaluate one’s teaching;

(4) one has to have the time and the ability to be able to research and process any relevant research – when it is available. It must be noted that reading pedagogic literature/research may create declarative knowledge but it does not follow that it will result in deep learning. And even if it will, for that learning to give rise to procedural knowledg it will take a lot of effort and time – often more than the average teacher can afford.

(5) for self-reflection based professional development to succeed, teachers must invest a lot of cognitive effort in the process. For instance, our blogging has definitely impacted our teaching practice and, indirectly, that of those around us; and research shows that producing coursework on a given area of pedagogy does enhance the chance of professional development impacting practice (Borg, 2003). However, this is not always easy in busy state schools were teachers are overloaded with teaching and marking.

(6) last, but not least. One has to have high levels of motivation and resilience to consistently carry out self-reflection and to learn from it. How many snowed-under secondary school language teachers actually have that?

The ineffectiveness of much professional development practice in bringing about substantive change in teacher cognition and behaviour is often due to the fact that much CPD does not explicitly aim at creating teaching procedural knowledge. Procedural knowledge, in order to be acquired, requires lots of modelling, extensive practice with lots of initial support which is gradually phased out and, most importantly, intentionality (the desire to change). Schools’ professional development courses usually fall short of doing this. And, to make things worse, they divide teachers’ attention by setting too many objectives failing to recognize how cognitively overloaded full-time classroom practitioners already are in their professional and personal lives. As the old saying goes, he who chases two rabbits catches none.

Furthermore, the colleagues you work with will be an important surrounding variable, too, as teacher competence is very much socially constructed. Much of our professional development will be dependent on that. Motivated, knowledgeable, inspiring, supportive and empathetic line-managers and colleagues will have a major impact on one’s professional development. Hence, the idea of having self-reflecting triads of teachers is a great idea, at least on paper. However, especially in the light of what we said before about the imperviousness to change of previous images of learning, the gap between declarative and procedural knowledge, and that between perceived and actual practice, the implementation of such approaches must be carefully thought out. For instance, it is all very well to tell teachers ‘ choose who  you want to work with’; however, one might choose someone one gets along with, not necessarily someone who might provide a productive cognitive challenge and new information and ideas which may propel them further professionally.

Concluding remarks

This post serves as an introduction to a series of articles on teacher cognition. It  has highilighted some crucial issues in teacher education: the existence of core beliefs and behaviours acquired during our learning biographies which, as research shows, may be impervious to change and require several years of training and teaching practice in order to be altered. This has huge implication for in-service professional development. The most important one is that for CPD to work it must aim at developing teacher procedural knowledge (i.e. automatised behaviours) not simply intellectual knowledge about teaching. This entails that in-house professional development programmes must narrow their focus; aim at extensive rather than intensive practice; provide teachers with sufficient quality time to self-reflect, share and try out new teaching strategies. Finally, and most crucially, they must recognize that the proceduralization of behaviour takes a long time and requires tons of scaffolding from various angles and sources. Consequently, they must device a well thought-out long-term support system and clever ways to keep up teachers’ motivation to grow professionally.

The next installment- Teacher beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and misperceptions vis-à-vis grammar teaching

In the next installment of the ‘why teachers teach the way they do’ series we will focus on why teachers teach grammar the way they do. We will present and discuss some research findings which paint a worrying picture as to how much pre-service teachers actually know about grammar and grammar pedagogy. We will also map out how teacher cognition in the realm of TLA (teacher language awareness) and TMA (teacher metalinguistic awareness) actually changes from the pre-service training to the novice and expert stage.

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

Using translation as a language-proficiency-enhancing technique – A teaching sequence

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net with some input from Dylan Vinales of GIS Kuala Lumpur

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In a previous post Gianfranco provided the rationale for using translation in the MFL classroom rooted in common sense and cognitive theory. In that post the point was made that translation, a ‘legacy method’ frowned upon by many language educators for several decades, it is not simply a useful but a truly must-have skill if we are to prepare our students for life in the real world. Why?

Good translation skills can help you get scores of well-paid jobs and language knowers translate for other people on a daily basis. In the Internet age, possessing effective translation skills has become all the more important as (a) sources of information are often not entirely faithful to the original version and things get often lost in translation; (b) reading for gist can get us in trouble – even legal ‘troubles’ – when sharing something on social media or executing an online transaction; missing a crucial detail, such as failing to notice the negative nuance of a word or being misled by a false-friend cognate (e.g. ‘disposable’ which in Italian evokes ‘disponible’, ‘available’) a double negative, an unknown idiom or an obscure cultural reference can cause us to misunderstand the important part of a text.

Someone might object: doesn’t (b) above refer to effective reading skills? Yes and no. Research (as reported by Macaro, 2007) shows that less proficient readers (like the ones we teach at GCSE level in Britain) do often translate into their mother tongue when grappling with more complex and challenging text, rehearsing it in their working memory as they reconstruct meaning. I am a near native speaker of English and French and still find this strategy very useful when dealing with very complex literary texts. It eases the cognitive load and the processing of more challenging concepts.

As far as the benefits of translation for language learning please refer back to Gianfranco’s previous blog: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/translation-part-1-the-case-for-translation-in-foreign-language-instruction/ . Here’s a concise summary of the ways translation can benefits the novice-to-intermediate foreign language classroom:

  1. Benefits of L2 to L1 translation (with dictionary)

– learning of new vocabulary in context;

– focus on detail – reading comprehensions do not require students to understand each and every word. Translations do. This often sparks off the use of a wider range of learning strategies (including dictionary use) than reading to answer comprehension questions does;

– because of the focus on detail translation is more likely to bring about the Noticing  of new L2 structures than reading for comprehension would. Noticing is posited by many cognitive researchers as the starting point of the L2 acquisition process (see Schmidt’s, 1980,Noticing hypothesis)

– greater cognitive investment in the processing of L2 texts than reading. This is not necessarily always the case, but often, due to the necessity of having to translate each and every word, the learner will invest more time and effort processing the target text;

– the greater cognitive investment just mentioned above may lead to deeper learning than reading for comprehension would bring about;

– practice in the use of dictionaries, a lifelong learning skill;

– requires minimum preparation but can have high impact if used adequately.

 

  1. Benefits of L1 to L2 translation (with dictionaries)

– enables teacher to ‘force’ students to focus on language items that other less structured writing tasks may allow students to avoid;

– allows teachers to recycle at will vocabulary and language structures that may not be used spontaneously by the students in other types of writing tasks;

– oral and written translations under time constraints are invaluable instruments for the assessment of oral/written fluency and constitute minimum-preparation starters/plenaries.

– elicits the use of lots of useful learning strategies and dictionary use;

– encourages greater focus on accuracy and on grammar and syntax – when it goes beyond word level;

– differentiation is easy.

The drawbacks are that some students do find translations boring, especially when they are long; some students may found it daunting; assessment is not always straightforward; there are not many examples in the current literature of how to use translation for teaching.

Rationale for this post

This post is motivated by the many queries Steve Smith (www.frenchteacher.net ) and I have received in the last four weeks by readers of our blogs asking how we would prepare students for GCSE level translation tasks. Steve has already written a great post listing a vast array of ways in which translation can be used to enhance language learner proficiency. This post should be seen as complementary to Steve’s in that it purports to provide a teaching sequence based on various L1-to-L2 translation tasks rather than a list of discrete activities.

The teaching sequence

When using translation, like any other learning technique we have to ask ourselves the all-important question: what is it for? Is it to drill in new vocabulary or consolidate ‘old’ language items? Is it to assess students’ oral or written fluency? Is it to teach dictionary skills? Is it to impart learning strategies/translation skills? Or is it to focus on connotative language and its nuances?

The sequence below can be used to enhance/consolidate vocabulary, grammar, fluency and translation strategies across all four skills. More translation-task-based sequences will follow in future posts. It should be noted that the sequence does not necessarily have to take one lesson.

Please note that this sequence presupposes that the students have declarative knowledge of most of the grammar structures included in the target translation task and of part of the vocabulary.

Step 1 – Planning

(a) Prepare or select the translation task. Make sure it is not too long. It should not take more than 20-25 minutes maximum for your average student to complete.

(b) Prepare/select four-five texts very similar in length and linguistic content to the target translation task with some comprehension questions. This is basically, what I call a narrow-reading task (see this example on https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/ks3-4-french-narrow-reading-on-hobbies-11098035  ), i.e.: a series of comprehension tasks based on texts that are extremely similar to each other (see my post on narrow reading and listening on this blog). Make sure the tasks include finding in the texts the L2 equivalent of L1 words.

(c) (Optional) If you have the time, prepare three or four more (shorter) texts with the same features for listening comprehension (narrow listening). It seems like a lot of work but it isn’t. All you have to do is to slightly modify the texts you produced for reading comprehension purposes by changing two or three details here and there. Five minutes’ work.

(d) Identify the words/structures you expect the students will have problems with and prepare a set of sentences in the L1 and one in L2 which feature them. Important: make sure the sentences are as similar as possible in grammar/syntax to the kind of sentences found in the translation task. Gap or cut in half the sentences in the target language by removing the key items you want the students to focus on. The gapped sentences in the L2 will be for aural processing; the ones in the L1 for written translation purposes.

Step 2 – Word level teaching

This can be flipped. Using Quizlet, Memrise, www.language-gym.com  , etc. prepare a series of activities which drill in most of the key unfamiliar lexical items and the grammar structures included in the translation task.

Step 3 – Modelling of target language items through narrow reading

The modelling of the target language items occurs through narrow reading first as it is easier. Dictionaries are allowed. Narrow reading allows for recycling of the key target lexical and grammar items.

Step 4 – Eliciting selective attention to key items through listening with gap-fill

Use the gapped/cut-in-half sentences in the L2 that you prepared in Step 1 (d). You will utter the sentences at moderate speed (the purpose is modelling so speak clearly) to draw the students’ attention to the unfamiliar words/phrases you will have removed when you gapped them.

Step 5 – Reinforcing modelling through narrow listening

Same as Step 3 except that it is through the aural medium.

Step 6 (OPTIONAL) – Paying selective attention to the key target grammar items through grammaticality-judgement quizzes

Here you can stage a ‘Sentence auction’ whereby the students are presented with a number of sentences, some right, some wrong, containing the key items found in the target translation task. Each sentence has a price. Working in groups, the students must decide whether to buy or not the sentence the teachers wants to ‘sell’. If they refuse to buy when the sentence is wrong they win the equivalent of the sentence price; the same happens if they buy a sentence when it is correct. Conversely, if they buy a wrong sentence or refuse to buy a correct one they will lose money. The aim here is to focus the students on the kind of grammar mistakes that, in your experience, they are more likely to make in executing the target translation task

Step 7 – Sentence level translation

You can do this as a whole-class activity or in groups, turning it into a competition. Students translate the L1 sentences you prepared in Step 1 (d) under time conditions. The student(s) making fewer mistakes in each round win(s).

Step 8 – Translation task

You can go about this in two ways. 8a. If you want to assess fluency, you will do it under time constraints. You will break up the text in sentences and you will utter one sentence at a time.Equipped with mini white boards, the students will translate them into the TL in the time you allocated. 8b. If you are not bothered about their ability to operate in exam conditions, you will allocate the time you deem necessary for them to complete the task. Dictionaries allowed.

Step 9 – Follow-up

It would be ideal if you could set as homework a text which is extremely similar to the one done in Step 8.

Conclusion

This sequence does require some preparation time – about 45-60 minutes. However, we are confident the reader will see the advantages of the kind of recycling and selective attention to the key target items that this sequence brings about. The most important outcome of this sequence is that students, in our experience, get to the target task confident and prepared and usually do well. If a series of follow-ups of the kind envisaged in Step 9 occur, the gains obtained will become consolidated. The reader should note this is a ‘no-frills’ sequence, so to speak, devoid of fancy or flashy games; deliberately so, to be as low-effort as possible. However, we are sure there are ways to ‘spice it up’ and make it more engaging.