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Big Questions in ELT For two years now I’ve been regularly blogging about ELT-related issues that have caught my attention. The topics have been loosely organised around the format of an encyclopaedic dictionary I’d published previously, called An A-Z of ELT. I’ve since clocked up over a hundred posts that in turn have attracted thousands of comments comprising I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words. A couple of things that have emerged from this ‘long conversation’ are: 1. the same issues come around and around, and 2. they’re often framed as questions. The issues tend to relate to my ‘other’ life as advocate of a Dogme approach to ELT teaching, i.e. the use of minimal materials so as to free up the classroom space (and the cognitive space) in order to allow learner-initiated learning opportunities to arise naturally. That the issues are framed as questions is partly due to the fact that there are still no answers to many of the concerns that exercise us, and partly because, in my teaching and in my training, I favour dialogue over transmission, and dialogue – almost by definition – entails asking questions. Like all things online, the blog has started to become a little unwieldy, especially for new visitors, so I figured it was time to condense some of the issues and some of the questions into a friendlier format, taking a handful of the original entries as my starting point, reworking them a little to take into account the conversations that evolved online, and presenting them in the form of Big Questions. Each Big Question, therefore, has been generated from one of the original blog posts (and I’ve thrown in a couple of new ones for good measure) and each entry is rounded off by a number of subsidiary questions – the offspring, if you like, of the Big Questions. These questions are designed as an aid to reflection (for the individual reader), or, in a training context, as a way of framing a discussion or workshop. In a sense, they are a means of reactivating, and continuing, the online conversations that the original blog posts triggered. As a taster, three Big Questions are accessible here. • • •

How do you achieve ‘flow’ in your teaching? What makes an activity ‘communicative’? Is there anything wrong with rote learning?

Other entries will include the following: • • • • •

Can you teach well without planning? Does language learning take place in the mind or in the body? Do rules help? How does conversation structure learning? What good is practice, and what is good practice?

What makes an activity ‘communicative’? The term communicative is applied fairly loosely. Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal-pairs activity which involves pairs of students pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term ‘communicative approach’ has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups. But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. A communicative activity will also be: •

• • • • •

purposeful Speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake. reciprocal To achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak. negotiated Following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other. synchronous The exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time. unpredictable Neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable. heterogeneous Participants can use any communicative means at their disposal. In other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.

It may, of course, be the case that not all these criteria will apply in equal measure, not least if the exchange involves writing. And many activities that are simply interactive will share at least some of these criteria. But the difference between an interactive activity and a communicative one is the difference between ‘Tell your neighbour about your weekend’ and ‘Talk to your neighbour about your weekend and find three things that you did in common’. The first is not necessarily reciprocal; the second is. (Of course, the second is also more contrived, but it’s arguable that a degree of contrivance is needed in order that tasks meet the communicative criteria.) The archetypal communicative activity is the information-gap task where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and draw, Spot the difference and Find someone who ... are all examples of information-gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above. But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism – that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such lifelike language exchanges. Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning demanded in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency. None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive. For a start, there’s a contradiction between, on the one hand, the aim to replicate the features of authentic communication, and, on the other, doing so by means of activities that are often highly contrived (as noted above). When, in real life, did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance? On the other hand, the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from real life. According to this view, activities that are not at all communicative – such as drills – may nevertheless have a legitimacy that ‘authenticates’ them in the eyes of the students. Finally, isn’t there a danger that, if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely, the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? The phenomenon of the secondlanguage user who is very communicative but irremediably inaccurate is a familiar one. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a good case for arguing that only lifelike language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that the communication matters: that it is contingent, i.e. that it connects to the real world in some way, and that it is engaging, i.e. that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I call big-C communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterized by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-c communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991: 8–9):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teachers’ manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems. So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C communication, I would add the following characteristics to the list above. A communicative activity needs to be: • •

contingent The speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc.) in which they are uttered. engaging The speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!

Questions for discussion 1. Has the term ‘communicative’ lost so much meaning that it might be time to dispense with it? 2. Are the arguments in favour of using information-gap activities convincing? Are there any other pros or cons of these types of activities? 3. In your experience, do learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy when they’re doing this type of activity? If not, does it matter? 4. Is the distinction between small-c communication and big C-communication a valid one? Can you think of an activity that you could label big-C? 5. How could you ensure an activity is ‘contingent’ – as it is defined above? 6. An activity might be ‘engaging’ for one learner but not for another. Is there some way of maximizing the potential for engagement? 7. Would a communicative approach based on these criteria really be any different from the ‘current’ version of the communicative approach? If so, how? 8. The article focuses on communication as if it were only speaking. But how would these criteria apply to the design of writing tasks?

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

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How do you achieve ‘flow’ in your teaching? Özbek, the publisher’s rep, got on to the subject of ‘flow’. He was driving me from the airport into the centre of Istanbul, and it turned out that he was currently researching a Master’s dissertation on motivation. He was attracted by the idea that intrinsic motivation is located in the present moment, and reaches a peak when you are so absorbed in a task that time seems to slow down or even to stop altogether. The poet W.H. Auden describes the effect of this absorption as ‘the-eye-on-the-object look’, when, for example, skilled craftsmen wear the same rapt expression, forgetting themselves in a function. (from ‘Sext’ in Horae Canonicae) This is what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1990) calls ‘flow’. It is the kind of ‘peak experience’ often reported by artists or sportspeople, when there is a perfect match between performance challenge and available skill. The alternatives, such as too much challenge, or too little, are likely to result in either anxiety or boredom. According to Csíkszentmihályi (1993: xiv), flow experiences have the following characteristics: 1. they have concrete goals and manageable rules 2. they make it possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities 3. they provide clear information about how well we are doing 4. they screen out distractions and make concentration possible. Appearing as it did around the same time as the popularization of task-based learning, the theory of ‘flow’ offered an elegant rubric for the design and management of secondlanguage-learning tasks. The theory suggested that good tasks should stretch learners, pushing them beyond their immediate ‘comfort zone’, while at the same time providing them with sufficient support so as not to induce anxiety. But since then Csíkszentmihályi’s

theory seems to have lost traction, so I was intrigued to hear my Turkish friend (in gridlocked traffic that was the antithesis of flow!) update me on a couple of recent studies that have rehabilitated the notion of flow. One of these (Egbert 2003) reports a study in which students rated their experience of various classroom tasks (such as reading aloud, group discussion, etc.). The one task that seemed to have induced the greatest degree of flow, based on self-report data, was one in which the students (all US high-school students of Spanish) interacted freely in a chatroom discussion with Spanish-speaking contemporaries. The researchers concluded that tasks which are most conducive to flow are those in which the participants’ perceptions of challenge, control, and interest are optimal. The concept of flow applies not only to learning but also to teaching. Of course, ‘flow’ – in a less figurative sense – is a concept that has often been invoked by educators to capture a desirable quality of classroom management, as when we report that ‘a lesson really flowed’. Flow, in this sense, is a function of having well-rehearsed classroom routines, and it typically distinguishes the teaching of experienced teachers from the rather stop-start nature of novice teaching. But flow in the ‘forgetting oneself in the function’ sense is also a well-attested phenomenon. In a study by Christine M. Tardy and Bill Snyder (2004), a group of teachers in Turkey reported experiencing ‘flow’ in their professional lives, noting that ‘flow tended to occur when students were more personally interested and involved’. Moreover, the study found that ‘these teachers often perceived flow to emerge when they felt classroom communication to be authentic and not mechanical’. And ‘flow was seen by the teachers … as something that could not be planned or predicted, but seemed to arise rather spontaneously’. Finally, the teachers ‘described flow as occurring at moments in which they perceived learning to occur, for both themselves and their students’. The writers conclude that ‘experiencing flow in their work may help to explain why teachers “stick with it”, despite the often minimal external rewards’. Looking back on my own teaching, and recalling ‘eye-on-the-object’ moments, they are often associated with some kind of high-risk strategy that I had embarked upon. Quite often, in fact, they were stand-by lessons when I was substituting for an absent teacher, working from very little information about the class, and with zero opportunities to plan. It was real seat-of-the-pants stuff. I remember once teaching two classes (in adjoining classrooms) simultaneously – timing the groupwork so I could whip next door and do a bit of whole-class stuff, and then out again. I felt like one of those chess grandmasters, playing a hundred games simultaneously in a shopping mall! Pure flow!

Questions for discussion 1. 2.

Have you experienced ‘flow’ in the classroom – either as a learner or teacher? If so, to what do you attribute it? How would you know if learners were experiencing ‘flow’? How could you research this?

3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

To what extent is the prosaic sense of ‘flow’ (as in ‘the lesson flowed nicely’) a prerequisite for the ‘peak experience’ sense? Is flow really a function of spontaneity? In which case, what does that say about lesson planning? Is there a danger that ‘teacher flow’ might be achieved at the expense of ‘learner flow’? ‘Flow’ seems to be associated with ‘stepping outside your comfort zone’: what are the implications for teacher training and development? Is ‘flow’ a 1990s idea, and has it been superseded by more realistic educational goals, such as competence and communicative effectiveness? Does flow compensate for the ‘minimal external rewards’ of teaching, such as low pay and long hours?

References Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, NY: Harper Row. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1993) The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, NY: Harper Row. Egbert, J. (2003) ‘A study of flow theory in the foreign language classroom’, The Modern Language Journal, 87, 4. Tardy, C.M. and Snyder, B. (2004) ‘“That’s why I do it”: flow and EFL teachers’ practices’, ELT Journal, 58, 2.

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Is there anything wrong with rote learning? In her controversial book about parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale professor Amy Chua (2011) argues for the virtues of a Chinese-style educational model over a Western one, that is, one that prioritizes rigorous discipline and hard work rather than one that nurtures individuality, discovery and self-expression. Fundamental to Chua’s system is faith in the value of rote learning: Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.’ But is rote learning really an East-West thing? In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009: 302) draws six practical implications from current research findings. These include such ‘Western’ notions as the one that instruction ‘should be meaning focused and personally engaging’. But what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning – a skill that he notes has been virtually ignored by applied linguists but which may be experiencing something of a comeback? In an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981: 105) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is ‘rote learning ability’. This is ‘the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations.’ Subsequently, Peter Skehan (1998: 204), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that ‘memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored … Fast-access memory systems … are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance.’ It's not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: ‘To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use’ (1998: 221). If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results? Nearly a century ago, Harold Palmer (1921) believed fervently that they could. For Palmer memorization was at the heart of successful language learning, less as an aptitude than as a skill. Initially, this would take the form of ‘deliberate and conscious memorizing’. But there would come a point when ‘we must train ourselves to become spontaneous memorizers, and this can only be done in one way: we must acquire the capacity for retaining a chance phrase or compound which has fallen upon our ears in the course of conversation or speech’ (1921: 92, emphasis added). More recently, in a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, ‘The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them’ (ibid.: 271). What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, was entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: ‘Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent.’ As one of the subjects reported, ‘through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points.’ This accords with my own experience of how the learning by heart of a number of poems in German helped me develop a ‘feel’ for the language when I studied it at secondary school. I can still recite the whole of Hölderlin’s Hälfte des Lebens, with its sombre last lines: Die Mauern stehn Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde Klirren die Fahnen. However, the chances that I would subsequently use – or even encounter – ‘rattling flags’ (klirrenden Fahnen) in natural contexts are fairly remote. This is the problem – it seems to me – of memorizing literature. If we assume that a core vocabulary of some 3,000 highfrequency words is the threshold that enables non-specialist language comprehension and production, literature alone is unlikely to provide that core – or, rather, it eventually will, but a great deal of low-frequency vocabulary may have been traversed in the meantime. More useful – although perhaps less satisfying from an aesthetic point of view – might be the memorization of specially written dialogues that embed high-frequency lexis, including

formulaic language, with a ‘high surrender’ value. Dörnyei (2009: 298–9) refers to a study by Taguchi (2007) in which the researcher developed a dialogue-based teaching programme of grammatical chunks ... consisting of an initial video presentation of the target dialogue, followed by choral and pair repetition of the text and rule explanation. Students then underwent structured drilling of the chunks within a communicative context, and finally they memorized and performed short dialogues that included the target sequences. … The results indicated a substantial development, with the range and number of the chunks performed by the students doubling over the training period. This approach seems to combine the features of both a communicative approach and (the much maligned) audiolingual one, with its emphasis on memorized dialogues – a case of East meets West perhaps?

Questions for discussion 1. Have you ever learnt anything by rote? Did it work? 2. Why does rote learning have a bad name? 3. Rote learning, memorization and learning by heart: are they all just different names for the same thing? 4. Is ‘having a good memory’ something you’re born with, or can it be trained? 5. Is rote learning a cultural artefact? That is to say, does it work in some contexts but not in others? 6. What techniques have you used in class to develop your learners’ capacity to remember vocabulary? 7. What criteria might dictate the choice of chunks (i.e. formulaic language) that you could insert in dialogues to be memorized? 8. To what extent does dialogue memorization seem like a return to audiolingualism?

References Carroll, J.B. (1981) ‘Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude’, in K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude, Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Chua, A. (2011) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, New York: Penguin. Ding, Y. (2007) ‘Text memorization and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English’, System 35, 2. Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Dörnyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Palmer, H.E. (1921) The Principles of Language-Study, London: Harrap & Co.

Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Taguchi, N. (2007) ‘Chunk learning and the development of spoken discourse in a Japanese as a foreign language classroom’, Language Teaching Research, 11, 4.

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Big Questions in ELT  

A sample from Scott Thornbury's forthcoming ebook with the round.

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