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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

10 common shortcomings of secondary curriculum design and textbooks in the UK

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net. Many thanks to Dylan Vinales of Garden International School, too, for the thought-provoking discussion we had on the topic prior to writing this.

Introduction

In this post I will concern myself with issues in typical secondary school MFL curriculum design as evidenced by the schemes of work – and the textbooks these are often based on – which in my view seriously undermine the effectiveness of foreign language instruction in many British secondary schools.

Effective curriculum design is as crucial to successful MFL instruction as effective classroom delivery is and must be based on sound pedagogy and skillful planning. As I intend to discuss in this post, much curriculum planning and textbook writing flouts some of the most fundamental tenets of sound foreign language pedagogy and neglects important dimensions of language acquisition. Although Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net – with whom I am currently writing ‘The MFL teacher handbook’ – noted in his blog that the new editions of some British textbooks are actually addressing some of the issues I am about to discuss, there is still much scope for improvement.

Issue n 1 – Coverage vs Time available

Schemes of work are typically over-ambitious as they often reflect the structure of the textbook adopted; they usually aim to cover a given topic (i.e. a chapter / module in the textbook) in 6-7 weeks. This does not allow the students to truly acquire the target material, especially when it comes to grammar structures. As I have showed in a number of previous posts, the acquisition of grammar structures which involve ending manipulations/agreement and differ substantially from their L1 equivalent may take months to internalize. Another problem is that schemes of work – when based on textbooks – often devote only one or two lessons to each of the five or six sub-topics that make up the unit-in-hand and then move on to the next sub-topic. This does often not allow for sufficient recycling.

Solution – obvious: teach less but in greater depth; recycle more.

Issue n 2 – Fluency: the neglected objective

In previous blogs I pointed out how effective foreign language teaching ought to aim at developing fluency across all four skills and especially into areas where speed of processing is paramount to be an effective communicator: oral interaction and interpersonal writing (e.g. instant messaging). Fluency was defined in previous post as the ability to produce intelligible oral or written speech in response to a stimulus at high speed. This is a crucial skill for students to develop if we want to enable them to use the target language in the real world, especially in the workplace. Yet, fluency rarely – if ever- features expicitly as a goal in UK MFL departments’ schemes of work. Hence, teachers neither plan for fluency development nor are allocated adequate resources and training to teach fluency. Nor do they formally assess fluency.

Moreover, the issue highlighted in the previous paragraph often works against the attainment of fluency as rushing through a unit entails neglecting horizontal progression. Without sufficient horizontal progression fluency cannot be obtained.

Solution – Plan for the attainment of fluency. Include activities to develop speech automatization and opportunities for its assessment.

Issue n 3 – Topic compartmentalization / Lack of recycling

Schemes of work – even those that are not based on textbooks – rarely recycle adequately. Many colleagues – obviously not language teachers – ask me why I have uploaded over 1,600 teaching resources in two years on http://www.tes.com  and why I created a whole website devoted mainly to vocabulary teaching (www.language-gym.com). The answer is that textbooks and schemes of work usually compartmentalize teaching; term 1a one teaches topic X, term 1b topic Y, term 2a topic Z etc. Each time a topic or structure is covered, it is rarely consciously and systematically recycled in later units. I have had to produce my own worksheets and online resources to guarantee the necessary recycling; it has paid off, but teachers, as overloaded with work as they already are, should not have to do this.

Solution: include in the schemes of work a section in each unit headed ‘recycling opportunities’ and include activities aiming at consolidating old material. Also, make sure that each end of unit assessment tests students on material covered in previous units – or even previous years.

Issue 4 – What about communicative functions?

Most UK textbooks and MFL departments more or less explicitly adopt a weak communicative notional/functional syllabus with a variable focus (i.e. functions/notions + grammar). However, they usually patently neglect to focus adequately on important communicative functions. A glance at Finocchiaro and Brumfit’s (1983) classification of communicative functions (at http://www.carla.umn.edu/articulation/polia/pdf_files/communicative_functions.pdf ) will clarify what I mean. Much typical British secondary school teaching focuses mainly on Referential communicative functions and on only a few interpersonal functions. However, many Interpersonal and Imaginative functions are hardly touched on. Moreover, many important Personal functions are grossly neglected, too – although, I am sure you will agree,  they are crucial in daily life.

In PBL-based schemes of work this issue is worsened by the nature of the approach adopted which focuses on the attainment of a product rather than interpersonal communication.

Communicative functions are pivotal to effective target language proficiency. They are way more important than many other things textbooks teach.

Solution: use Finocchiaro and Brumfit’s taxonomy to fill the gaps in this area that you will identify in your schemes of work. Make sure that you recycle functions over and over again throughout the year.

Issue 5 – The 2 neglected word-classes

Textbooks, schemes of work and specialized websites focus mainly on nouns and –tragically – neglect verbs and adjectives – and hence adverbs from which adjectives are obtained. Verbs, as I pointed out in previous blogs, are essential in order to acquire a high level of autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk). One of the reasons for this neglect, I suspect, is that state-school English learners are notoriously bad at conjugating verbs; hence, textbooks dumb down their comprehensible input and target vocabulary by including only few essential and often more ‘learnable’ verbs.

Solution: include lists of target verbs in the schemes of work. Using quizlet or memrise to create your own online activities to drill them in (in the infinitive). You could use my verb trainer at www.language-gym.com – the pictures help the students learn the verb meaning as they conjugate – or my Work-outs.

Issue 6 – How about improvisation?

Schemes of work are usually planned around specific topics, which, in England, repeat themselves every year – how boring! However, autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk) is about being able to talk ‘across topics’ so to speak; to be able to have a ‘natural’ conversation with a speaker of the target language which is not bound to a specific topic or sub-topic but touches different aspects of human life and experiences. MFL departments – at least to my knowledge – never really plan for this. Yet, nearly everyone these days states that spontaneous talk is high on their agenda.

Solution: plan for one or two lessons every now and then – maybe in between half-terms? – which are entirely dedicated to talking, reading, listening and writing in the target language without being tied down to a specific topic. A very easy-to-set-up task is a general conversation task where the students ask each other a wide variety of questions covering several topics, including some that have never been covered before – but that the students possess the linguistic tools to talk about.

Issue 7 – Grammar, the ‘poor sister’

This point is so obvious that I will not dwell too long over it. British textbooks devote a ridiculously small amount of space to grammar and to its recycling. Teachers have to toil on a daily basis to resource grammar teaching.

Solution: teach more grammar and recycle it to death (see my previous post: 16 tips for effective grammar teaching’.

Issue 8 – Intercultural competence

Textbooks and schemes of work often include sections about ‘La Francophonie’ or other facts about the target language civilization. However, one very important dimension of cultural awareness is nearly always missing: how to avoid culture shock or other ‘faux pas’ and, more generally, how to train students to deal with target language native speakers in a way which is culture-sensitive and can foster effective integration. In an era where the labour market is so globalized, intercultural competence has become an important lifelong learning skill which our students need to be equipped with.

Solutions: Cultural awareness teaching should be more about the (cross-cultural) skills than the facts.

Issue 9 – Variety of topics

Every year, from year 6/7 to year 11, English teenagers keep learning about the same blocked topics, often relearning the same words. Here again, textbooks play an important role. As I tweeted earlier on today, most English textbooks seem to replicate the Metro textbook blueprint.

Solution: try new topics or combinations of topics. Prioritize topics teenagers are really interested in like relationships, entertainment, gadgets, social media, fashion, etc, rather than house chores or pets…

Issue 10 – Teaching sequences

The ‘Metro textbook blueprint’ is evident in all its successors not only in terms of the topics which receive more emphasis, but also in the way they sequence grammar structures. In a future post Steve and I will propose how we believe grammar structures should be sequenced and the rationale for it. There are many things we believe textbook writers and curriculum designers in the UK should change. One thing that springs to mind, for instance is modal verbs (e.g. Vouloir, Pouvoir, Devoir in French). One wonders why they are always introduced quite late when they are so important in everyday communication and have very high surrender value. Imagine how ‘handy’ they can be to a beginner learner, before they even start conjugating verb, followed as they are by infinitives. Moreover, their acquisition earlier on would partly address issue 5 by enabling the students to use many verbs at will quite easily.

Solution: Consider the surrender value and learnability of the target grammar structures. Would learning them earlier or later facilitate acquisition in your opinion? If so, don’t wait for the textbook sequence to teach them.

Conclusion

Some of the shortcomings in the typical secondary school MFL curriculum and course-book design I have just discussed are much more important than others. My pet hates are the lack of recycling, the insufficient focus on oral fluency, the neglect of verbs and adjectives and the sketchy and superficial approach to grammar. The reader should note that I have deliberately not dealt with the teaching of lifelong learning skills as I do believe that MFL teacher contact time being so limited, most of them are best taught explicitly as separate from the foreign language curriculum – unless, of course they overlap with the aims of the course (e.g. independent enquiry skills, problem solving, intercultural communication, effective communication, empathy, resilience).

Your greatest priority as a curriculum designer – and every teacher to a certain extent is one – should definitely be the systematic recycling of the target vocabulary, grammar and communicative functions and the allocation of sufficient time for deep encoding to occur. This will entail doing away with the one chapter per half-term approach, a tragic legacy of the Metro-based Schemes of Work.

Foreign language instructors’ most frequent pitfall and implications for teaching and learning

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net 

As already discussed in previous posts, my instructional approach to foreign language teaching is rooted in Cognitive theories of L2 acquisition and, more specifically, in Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000). Hence, my teaching is based on two main assumptions: (1) for any macro-skill to be fully acquired each and every micro-skill that that macro-skill can be broken down into must be fully acquired, too; (2) certain linguistic features are less teachable than others based on the cognitive challenges they pose to the learner, not on innate mechanisms (e.g. you would not ask a child who has not learnt the multiplication tables to solve a complex equation); many of the cognitive challenges will be of course posed by L1 negative transfer.

In twenty-five years of professional practice Steve and I have seen many language instructors frequently flout the above principles, often due to the pace and content dictated by ‘sketchy’ schemes of work or to the typical British MFL textbook structure. The new PBL trend further exacerbates the issue by neglecting the skill-building dimension of language learning.

This post concerns itself with a phenomenon which most teachers observe day-in day-out in their classroom with novice to intermediate learners: recurrent learner errors in the execution of the following micro-skills, which refer to the execution of high frequency and quite important linguistic features in most of the languages taught in the UK (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin etc.)

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

Teachers complain about the recurrence of student errors in these areas on a daily basis. What is most worrying is that many of these errors occur in written output, when, that is, an L2 writer has potentially more time to monitor and, consequently, to self-correct. This can only mean two things: (1) either the student lacks declarative knowledge of the grammar structure to deploy or (2) s/he has failed to apply the grammar rule due to cognitive overload. Both scenarios indicate that the to-be-applied structure is far from being routinized. Why?

The answer: for any skill to be routinized, the brain must create what Skill-theorists call a Production. A Production is like a program embedded in our Brain’s operating system which is triggered by a cue. Skill-theorist call this cue the ‘IF-condition’ of a production and the brain’s response to that cue the ‘THEN condition’. For instance, in the case of Noun-adjective agreement,

IF an adjective qualifies a noun (in French)

THEN that adjective’s ending must agree in gender and number with the noun

 IF the noun is feminine 

 THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ to the ending, unless it is irregular or ends in ‘-e’ already

This Production is – at least in theory – easy to create at declarative level (i.e. as a rule). The problem is that an English-speaking novice/intermediate student’s first language will work against its application at the early stages of internalizing the rule, because of negative transfer (in English you do not change adjectival endings in this context); this is especially the case when a student is working under time constraints or communicative pressure and is not asked to focus explicitly on agreement. Hence, two, three or even four lessons on adjectival agreement will never be sufficient, like many teachers seem to presume. They are often satisfied that their students seem to get adjectival agreement right during the lessons explicitly devoted to that grammar structure and they move on to another topic or skill.

The problem is that after two, three or even ten lessons that Production is only at the very early stages of its routinization. It will take many instances of application and positive feedback on its deployment for that Production to be automatized (i.e. applied quickly and effortlessly) as the brain is very cautious before ‘deciding’ to create any new permanent cognitive structure. Hence the fundamental micro-skills listed above must be practised as extensively as possible whether in class or through homework – ideally in every single lesson – before one can assume they have been mastered.

Although I am sure that most teachers would agree with most of the above, I wonder how many MFL classroom practitioners actually focus consistently and extensively enough on ensuring that they are effectively routinized. Yet, unless we do not care about accuracy, lack of routinization of the above micro-skills can undermine the subsequent learning of important complex structures and, consequently, progression along the L2 acquisition continuum. Here is an example. Think about the first three items in the micro-skills list above:

  1. Manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number

A few years ago I observed a lesson where the instructor was teaching her students (French) reflexive verbs in the Perfect tense (e.g. je me suis habillée) where the Past Participle has to agree in gender and number with the subject. It was clear to me not only that the students had not at all routinized the three micro-skills above but that they had not received much practice in verb-ending manipulation at all – a fundamental skill to master when learning a Latin language. Their processing ability was poor and this hindered their progression throughout the lesson. They were clumsy and slow in manipulating verbs and this impacted their accuracy and fluency.

Much of the cognitive overload that hinders language acquisition in French, Spanish, Italian and German learning is due to the insufficient practice students receive across those micro-skills. The Anglo-Saxon brain being not wired for and not used to manipulating verb and adjectival endings, a great amount of effort must be put on a daily basis by teachers on practising this specific set of micro-skills consistently  and systematically since the very early stages of learning. As I intend to show below, it is easy, not very time consuming and it pays enormous dividends. In my case, with CIE as an examination board, getting my student to be 100% correct in verb and tenses formation is a must, since the written exams assessment scheme requires high levels of accuracy (e.g. the written piece must feature the accurate use of 18 different verbs).

The same applies to any of the other micro-skills on that list. Consider word order of adjectives. Taken in isolation, the rule/Production “IF an adjective qualifies the noun, THEN place the adjective after the noun” seems easy to grasp and acquire. And at the end of a single lesson on it, teachers usually feel confident that it has been learnt. However, the above Production, when combined with the other related productions “IF the adjective qualifies a noun it must agree in gender and number with that noun” and “IF the noun is feminine THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ becomes much less easy to handle effectively and efficiently in cognitive terms unless the other two Productions have been highly routinized. Processing of the above Productions becomes even more cumbersome with novice learners when it occurs in the context of the creation of a complex sentence where they are coping with several structures simultaneously (e.g. conjugating the verbs in the sentence, choosing the right preposition, retrieving the correct lexis).

If novice to intermediate learners are not provided sufficient practice in the above micro-skills the risk of L1 transfer impacting student output will always be present, especially when the learners are working under pressure in contexts where there is not much time for self-monitoring (e.g exams, oral performance). This may lead to the fossilization of erroneous forms (i.e. the permanent internalization of mistakes) even when the learners know the rule(s) relative to those forms. This is a widely documented phenomenon in English secondary schools.

In conclusion, curriculum designers and teachers must reconsider the way they go about progression, in my view, or at least allow for more practice of the above micro-skills and related structures. Teachers using Independent Inquiry / PBL must be particularly cautious as this aspect of L2 learning is often neglected in their instructional approach. Creative ways must be found to embed any of the activities below.

Implications for the classroom – curriculum design and minimumpreparation teaching strategies

  1. Systematic recycling in Schemes of Work: in the first two or even three years of instruction, schemes of work should make explicit reference to the above micro-skills and allow for constant recycling. Opportunities for regular formative assessment aimed at evaluating the routinization of the micro-skills should be included, too.
  1. Micro-skill tracking : As I already advocated in a previous post, the use of a tracking sheet where one logs all the instances of recycling of each micro-skill in lessons can be extremely handy in assisting recycling
  1. Grammaticality judgment quizzes (to be used only at initial stages): Write three phrases on the board of which only one is accurate: e.g. une belle femme – une beau femme – une bel femme
  1. Gap-fills with or without options (still for the initial stages only): there are plenty of free gap-fills activities online (e.g. www.language-gym.com; www.languagesonline.org.uk ). I have uploaded lots of free ones onto www.tes.co.uk. www.frenchteacher.net has loads, too.
  1. Online self-marking verb trainers (at any stage): I find verb-trainers very valuable to the point that I created my own (free at www.language-gym.com). I ask my students to go on it every day for five minutes purely as a habit formation tool. Do not presume that just because they get 100 % on a verb trainer module and they can conjugate verbs very fast they have routinized verb use, obviously. They need to demonstrate correct deployment of verbs under real operating conditions, first.
  1. Mini White board activities (novice to advance stage depending on complexity)

5a. Translations (my favourite);

5b. Verb training – give pronoun, verb and tense and ask students to conjugate on the spot;

5c. From sound to letter (decoding skills) – pronounce a sound (e.g. ‘uah’ – in French) and ask students to write the combination of letters it represents (e.g. oi) ;

5d. Short dictations – utter a word that you have never taught your students and ask them to guess its spelling based on their decoding-skills repertoire

5e. Picture task –  example: picture of a green car; students to write: una macchina verde (Italian) / une voiture verte (French)

 

  1. Oral translation (novice to advance stage depending on complexity) – This is another favourite of mine. Students are given cards with bullet points and need to translate them into the target language in real time. Each bullet point will elicit the execution of the target micro-skill (e.g. agreement; verb conjugation; word order). This can be done impromptu, if one wants to assess student level of fluency or after some preparation. Although they require a bit more preparation – not much, though – the cards can be used across languages.

Conclusion

Teachers often complain about their students’ mistakes in the execution of the following micro-skills:

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

However, the problem lies in the lack of extensive practice the students receive in the performance of those skills. At the early stages of instruction students must be given extensive practice as frequently as possible until there is evidence that they have automatized them and that their execution occupies only subsidiary awareness. Moving on to another topic or structure prematurely can have serious negative consequences for student learning.

Ten questions to ask foreign language teaching CPD providers

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Intro

I have attended lots of MFL PD sessions throughout my career dishing out lots of WHAT’s (i.e. activities) and HOW’s (i.e. their classroom implementation). What was usually missing is that quid that has the power to transform teaching, i.e. the answers to the following difficult questions that everyone attending such PD sessions should ask. In writing our ‘MFL teacher’s toolkit’ Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net and I are keeping these questions very much in our focal awareness throughout the whole process.

Ten questions to ask your CPD provider

  1. Why this approach? – What is the rationale for this approach? Why should I use the activities you are recommending? How do you know they are going to work? Teachers are rarely told this by PD facilitators. This is, in my view, the greatest shortcoming of all.
  1. Where is the evidence that this approach ACTUALLY works? – By this I do not mean ‘conclusive’ evidence with long lists of reference and statistics; but at least some indication based on classroom research, some objective data that the recommended approach has worked with at least some foreign language students. Teachers, in my experience, need some degree of ‘certainty’ that something they are expected to use in their classrooms actually ‘works’ in order to buy into a new methodology or technology.
  1. How do I sequence the great activities you are recommending? Why? – This is one of the most important questions for many teachers, as it affects the nitty gritty of their daily practice. Teachers are very busy people; as much as we want them to be reflective and work the ideal sequencing out by themselves, they want and must be provided by people running inset training sessions with some sort of reference framework.
  1. How do these activities affect students’ cognition and language acquisition? Why? – MFL PD facilitators usually tell you things like ‘This activity develops your students’ vocabulary. They are really effective and fun’; then they show us a video or ask us to try them out with our neighbours. But they never tell us what aspects of grammar or vocabulary learning they impact and why. This in my opinion is crucial in order to empower teachers with the all-important ability to use those activities effectively and flexibly across contexts in the future.
  1. How do I get my students to ACQUIRE the target language grammar, not just LEARN grammar rules? – As it usually happens in MFL PD sessions, you never get to hear about how to bring students from declarative knowledge (knowing grammar rules) learning to actual acquisition (using those rules automatically and accurately in spontaneous speech). You are at best shown ‘activities which aim at memorizing grammar rules and practise them (e.g. mechanical or gap-filling drills; fun games) but you are never told how one gets the students to use them correctly in real time communication.
  1. How do the AFL strategies and the assessment rubrics you are showing actually help me assess my students’ development in term of FLUENCY, COMPLEXITY, ACCURACY, VOCABULARY RANGE and DEPTH and COGNITIVE CONTROL in a principled, valid and consistent way? – the AFL strategies and the assessment rubrics usually shown by UK MFL consultants are usually very limited in their power to asses performance and proficiency and help teachers identify at which developmental stage along the language acquisition continuum MFL learners are located.
  1. How are language skills acquired? How do we scaffold and monitor skill acquisition? – More than often UK PD providers will show you tons of rubrics and how you should use (very simplistic) rubrics to scaffold skill learning. I wish language learning was that simple…
  1. How can I get learners to acquire the memory strategies you recommend and use them autonomously? – PD facilitators often show scores of slides with memory techniques but they regularly fail to tell teachers how you get students to use them autonomously without any teacher prodding. Strategy training in memory strategy requires a specific set of knowledge and skills that the average teacher has not received training in; moreover, it requires extensive training (lasting months) to be effective and intensive scaffolding. Teachers are rarely – if ever – told this.
  1. How can we ensure that PBL implementation actually integrate all four skills and develops and assesses effectively the development of fluency and cognitive control? – Crucial and challenging question everyone should ask anyone showing you great example of projects integrating emerging technologies. Yet, never had or heard of a PD session where this issue is effectively tackled
  1. Does the kind of differentiated teaching you propose actually work? Where is the evidence and/or theoretical rationale behind? – None of the PD sessions I have ever attended on differentiation has ever attempted to provide me with any research evidence that the recommended differentiation strategies actually achieved their intended purpose; or at least with a theoretical rationale for the approach. Yet, since differentiated learning is very laborious and time-consuming to set up one does expect these questions to be answered.

Conclusion

The above ten questions refer to only a few of the many shortcomings of PD sessions I have been involved in in 25 years of teaching. Bizarre how, despite so much research having been carried out in L2 acquisition and pedagogy in the last twenty years or so, lots of MFL PD in the UK seems to have been recycling the same old topics ad nauseam – the only notable additions being PBL and emerging technologies.

As I have often reiterated in my blogs, for MFL PD to be effective it has to empower teachers with the WHY of language acquisition and pedagogy and the WHEN. The HOW should focus more on the process of learning rather than on how to use an activity or App; i.e. on how language learning is impacted by each step we decide to take in our planning, execution and assessment. Take PD in emerging technologies, for instance: the facilitator comes in, shows you a few Apps and web-tools and how to use them; teachers try them out and…that’s it! How about: how do they impact the process of learning at different stages of proficiency and why?

MFL CPD providers should not presume that teachers are not capable of or interested in learning how MFL students learn. For transformational professional development to work, it must provide a clear and convincing rationale as to why the methodological framework or principles proposed have the potential to be effective. Teachers must feel a sense of empowerment which cannot simply be brought about by being provided with new teaching strategies; rather, first and foremost it requires an understanding of how language learning happens; how what we do in the classroom affects acquisition and cognition; what fuels and sustains the development of cognitive control over language reception and production skills; what the markers of fluency, accuracy and complexity are at the various stages of language acquisition; how we bring about learner autonomy, etc.

On the subject of learner autonomy, I find it scandalous that after thirty years of research in learner training (or learning to learn) UK PD providers’ knowledge of this area of research and pedagogy can be so inadequate, especially considering how some very well-known learner-training researchers are actually UK based (e.g. Ernesto Macaro, Vee Harris, Suzanne Graham).

Of course, another major pitfall of PD refers to its follow-up; how firmly the content of the training session(s) is kept by teachers in their focal awareness and implemented and self-monitored in their daily practice well after the PD event(s). But this is beyond the scope of this post.