Language teaching methodology

Dogmas & Delusions in current EFL Methodology [Robert O'Neill - May 1999]

'Anyone who claims that second language instruction must be arranged in a particular way on the evidence available from linguistics or neurophysiology or any other science, displays a fair amount of naivety if not presumption.' [Wolfgang Klein 'Second language acquisition' CUP 1986]

The Structure of this talk

  1. A Central Proposition
  2. A very brief statement of three further propositions
  3. A development of each proposition and the arguments which I believe support it

A Central Proposition

A theory, method or set of beliefs does not have to be completely wrong in order to become a dogma and then a dangerous delusion. All that is necessary for this to happen is that people accept theories, statements or sets of beliefs as if they were literally true, and then become intolerant of dissent and debate.

Three Further Propositions

  1. There is 'bad' teacher-talk but there is also 'good' teacher-talk. 'Good' teacher-talk is an essential aid to language learning, especially in the early stages.
  2. 'Student-centred' methods may work well-enough in some circumstances but will work badly or not at all in others. Good teachers need to know how to vary their styles for different circumstances and different kinds of learners.
  3. 'Authentic' materials are not authentic if they have been adapted or changed for classroom use. Although there are many arguments for encouraging learners to read and listen to a wide variety of materials outside the classroom, specially-written or adapted materials are usually if not always more suitable for many if not all uses with many if not all classes and groups of learners inside the classroom. - especially in early and intermediate stages.

A brief return to the central proposition

The danger that a theory, a method or a set of beliefs will develop into a dogma and then a delusion is especially acute in a field like EFL, where there is little or no 'hard evidence' to substantiate or disprove what we happen to believe. What kind of 'hard evidence' is there, for example, for beliefs that are frequently advanced as if they were scientific truths by many if not all teacher-trainers? I am thinking of such beliefs as 'teacher-talk is bad', 'Student-centred methods are better than teacher-centred styles of teaching' or 'Authentic materials are better than materials specially written for language-learners'. Do we believe these things for the same reasons that chemists have for their beliefs about the nature of organic and inorganic substances? We at least have good 'inter-subjective' evidence for believing that 'Have you been seeing that woman again?' is a very different kind of question from 'Have you seen that woman again?'. Do we have anything like this kind of evidence for our beliefs about what is and what is not 'good teaching' or the efficacy of certain methods? Have we, for example, tried to learn foreign languages ourselves through the same methods that we advocate in EFL? Have we talked about the results of those methods with other learners, and compared our feelings about the results of those methods with the beliefs and feelings of other learners?

And where, in the absence of such hard or even 'soft' evidence, could we look and perhaps find some way of either verifying - at least for the time being - what we believe in, or of rejecting those beliefs as dogmas that can all too easily become dangerous delusions?

I believe that we can and should begin with the kind of research people like Rod Ellis, Wolfgang Klein and Vivian Cook, to name only three, are associated with. The kinds of argument articulated by Henry Widdowson and the practical classroom experiments done by teachers and writers like Dale Griffee are equally valuable. What these people say does not directly support or refute anything I have said so far. This is why it is so important to look at their conclusions and arguments as dispassionately as possible.

Let me begin, then, by referring to the work of Rod Ellis. He suggests that there are eight 'classic facilitators' or, in his own words, 'features … likely to facilitate rapid development'.

  1. A high quantity of input directed at the learner.
  2. The learners perceived need to communicate in the L2.
  3. Independent control of the propositional content by the learner (e.g. control over the topic choice).
  4. Adherence to the 'here and now' principle, at least initially.
  5. The performance of a range of speech acts by both native speaker/teacher and the learner(i.e. the learner needs the opportunity to listen to and to produce language used to perform different language functions).
  6. Exposure to a high quantity of directives.
  7. Exposure to a high quantity of 'extending utterances (e.g. requests for clarification and confirmation, paraphrases and expansions).
  8. Opportunities for uninhibited 'practice (which may provide opportunities to experiment with using 'new forms)

The First of the Three Further Propositions Again

There are two kinds of teacher-talk. One type is a useful and often necessary pre-condition for the learner's progress in the L2. The second type is often wasteful, and rarely if ever helps learners to progress further.

Four of Ellis's eight 'facilitators' (1, 5, 6 & 7) suggest that what I all 'interactive teacher-talk' (which I shall define later) has a positive influence on learner development. . Who is capable of 'directing a high quantity of input at the learner (Facilitator 1) in a class of elementary or even intermediate learners, if not the teacher? The fifth facilitator suggests that interactive teacher-talk helps learners to perform different language functions. The sixth and seventh facilitators also indicate how and why interactive teacher-talk can be useful for learners. Clearly, if learners want to talk, they should be encouraged to do so. Very often, however, they expect not only to be listened to but also to be spoken to by the teacher. Remember. I am talking here about groups of learners who fall into three traditional categories of 'beginner' 'false beginner', and 'lower intermediate'.

My argument is not that teachers and only teachers can do the things Ellis describes in facilitators 1,5, 6 and 7. There are other very important sources of this kind of input,; such as appropriate textbooks, tapes or CDs, and - if the learners happen to be staying in a country where English is the dominant language - people outside the classroom such as host families and other 'informants'. However I do not think even these sources - as valuable as they are - compare with teachers whose experience informs the way they talk to the class. I wish I could also say 'whose training' guides the way they way they talk'. Unfortunately, however, one of the central dogmas that informs their training today is that all teacher-talk is bad.

What I am saying, in short, is that at zero beginner, false beginner and intermediate level, there is a valuable source of spontaneous, comprehensible "input" that current dogma dictates should never or hardly ever be tapped. This is a teacher who can provide 'good interactive teacher-talk'.

The characteristics of good, interactive teacher-talk

Good teacher-talk is highly interactive. The teacher does not simply 'talk', but talks in such a way to encourage the class to interrupt, to ask questions and to initiate topic change and further talk, not only by the teacher but by other members of the class. Bad 'teacher-talk' is the 'drone and groan' variety. The teacher does little or nothing to encourage the individual learner or group of learners to talk. In short, good teacher-talk has the following characteristics.

  1. It is broken into sense groups within sentences.
  2. It is simplified but not unnatural
  3. The teacher regularly pauses and does other things that encourage or invite students to interrupt, comment and ask questions.
  4. When new vocabulary or structure is taught, the teacher gives typical examples that illustrate pragmatic meaning.
  5. The teacher gets regular feedback through questions and other devices.
  6. The teacher constantly 'scans' the group and maintains eye-contact with different members of it, and is thus constantly alert to non-verbal and well as verbal indications of incomprehension, problems of attention-span or potential disruptive behaviour.
  7. The teacher gives students chances to interact with each other as well as with teacher.
  8. The teacher constantly uses language that is 'comprehensible', rarely or never falling below the 'switch off' barrier. In other words, the class may not understand every word but always understands the 'main gist'.
  9. A great deal of what the teacher says has 'here and now' relevance'.

Notice that the ninth characteristic of 'Good Teacher-talk' above directly reflects Ellis' Fourth 'Facilitator'. I interpret 'here and now' to mean 'of close or immediate relevance to the learner, and about things and events which the learner knows about or about which the learner's interest can easily be awakened'. This means that sometimes the teacher introduces topics which at first may appear 'alien and unknown' but which also learners can become deeply involved in and with. Many examples can be found in the fairy-tales which seem to be universal features of the kind of input children get when learning their "L1' or native-language. Dragons and one-eyed pirates with cutlasses are not often found in the 'real world' of such children. However, the 'real world' as seen through a narrow and dogmatic perspective can be far less real, immediate and interesting than a world of monsters and one-eyed pirates in a child's imagination or the equally 'alien' world depicted in some highly successful textbooks that have reached millions of learners all over the world.

But what of the three 'classic facilitators that Rod Ellis has identified which I have not referred to at all? These are facilitators 2 (The learner's perceived need to communicate in the L2), 3 (Topic Choice) and 8 (Uninhibited Practice). These three facilitators are highly relevant to my other two propositions.

The Second of the Three Propositions

All over the world, ordinary teachers face groups of learners for which - at least initially - a teacher-fronted style is likely to be far more successful than a so-called 'Student-Centred' approach. Teacher-trainers who insist on the dogma of 'Student-Centredness' are failing to provide teachers with training in some very basic survival skills for teaching the kinds of group I have in mind.

A definition of 'learner-centred'

Dale T Griffee, of Seigakuin University in Japan. In the December 95 edition of 'The Language Teacher (JALT, Tokyo) describes an experiment with the learner-centred approach. Griffee appears to be neither an opponent nor a passionate promoter of the methods and has obviously tried to assess them dispassionately. He identifies eight characteristics of learner-centred classroom instruction.

  1. Students define their own needs
  2. They have to develop an awareness of their own learning styles
  3. They have to be able to use various learning strategies.
  4. They are expected to set their own goals. 'The rationale is that students cannot take responsibility for their own learning if they do not know what they want to learn. Because only the learners can learn (the teacher cannot learn for them), and only the learners know their own learning needs, only the learners can state their learning goal or goals.
  5. Learners negotiate the curriculum 'that is to say they decide the content and organisation of their learning activities.
  6. Learners give feedback. They evaluate the course on a regular basis, in some cases week-by-week. They may even chair meetings. Each student may even have a personal tutor assigned to him for regular consultation.
  7. Learners study and engage in self-directed learning outside the class (projects, etc.)
  8. 'Learners need to be proficient in self-assessment. They have to be able to judge the accomplishment of the learning goals they have negotiated.

He tried the methods out on two second-year conversation courses in a Japanese private university consisting in all of 33 learners majoring in American and British culture. They were between 19 and 22 years old and each class had one 90 minute lesson each week. Among the difficulties he cites are the following.

Griffee also says:

Since a learner-centred curriculum is a joint-effort between students and teachers, teachers attempting to implement a more learner centred approach to their teaching will have to teach goal negotiation in the same way they would present a traditional exercise; step by step instruction will have to be given to take students through a process leading to student generated goals and objectives in a learner-centred classroom.

Griffee seems to wonder sometimes whether learner-centred methods were really worth all the trouble and pleading they involved. Nevertheless, he appeared ready to continue experimenting with them and comments that 'the jury is still out.

'Learner-centred' and the 8 Facilitators

At first sight, it seems that at least three of Ellis's facilitators are more likely to be activated in a 'learner-centred' classroom than in one in which 'teacher-dominant' styles of instruction are favoured. These three are : (2) 'the learner's perceived need to communicate in the L2, (3) 'Topic Choice' and (8)'Uninhibited Practice'.

However, there are complications, even with these three facilitators. Take 'perceived need'. There are many types of classes and circumstances in which few if any of the learners have any 'perceived need' to communicate in the L2, either in or outside the classroom. Many learners are studying English simply because it is there - on the syllabus. They have little interest in the language and even less reason to use it with their classmates, all of whom speak the same L1, and use it constantly both outside and inside the language classroom. What are teachers to do when there is simply no 'perceived need' by anyone except, perhaps, by the Ministry of Education official who stipulates that learners must get so many hours of instruction in English but who never has to teach those learners?

Let us consider 'Topic Choice'. How often, even in pair-work activities, do learners really have 'topic choice'? It is one thing to argue that pair-work activities will at least allow learners to say what they want to say. I often use pair-work for this purpose and also for 'rehearsal'. But this is not the same as claiming that pair-work or other allegedly 'student-centred' approaches actually give learners topic choice. The topic or topics have usually already been chosen by the teacher of materials-designer. The one facilitator that it is probably easier to bring into play through 'learner-centred' instruction is 'Uninhibited Practice'. The problem in many classrooms outside the UK or other English-speaking countries is not that learners might be inhibited if they were to practise the L2. The real problem is that, as we have seen, many typical learners see no need to practise the L2 at all. It is simply 'another subject'. There are people, I know, who deny this. To them I can only say 'what you are doing is intellectually reprehensible. You try to avoid the problem by denying that it exists. The only reason you do this is that you have never had to confront the problem. '

This does not mean that I believe 'student-centred' methods never work. It means that I believe there are at least some circumstances in which they do not work very well, and others in which they do not work at all, and that teacher-trainers ought to equip teachers with both 'teacher-fronted' and 'student-centred' skills.

I can give you many examples of such groups in which allegedly 'learner-centred' methods often do not work at all, or - if they do, work best when balanced by and with competent 'teacher-fronted' styles of instruction. I will confine myself to only four examples of groups which I have personally taught.

Instituo Luis Vives, Valencia, Spain 1984

The class consisted of 40 young adolescents, all 12 or 13 years old. The room was typical of many schools all over the world. It was 'narrow and long', with a low ceiling. There were 5 rows of chairs bolted to the floor. Each 'row' had 8 seats. One or two rows, I recall, had a ninth seat which was rarely occupied while I was there. The children in the class had never done group or pair work. When I tried to introduce this kind of interaction, they joked and laughed in 'Valens' - the local variety of Catalan spoken in Valencia. Although the group behaved well enough considering the classroom and the total lack of motivation or 'perceived need' to communicate in English, attention-span was very limited. Nobody in the class spoke any English. They had not learned even the most basic vocabulary.

University of Law and Economics, Osaka, Japan, 1994

The group consisted of between 25 and 30 older adolescents, all Japanese nationals (many of whom had Korean ancestry) The classroom was a kind of audio-visual language laboratory. The textbook was based on a BBC English video called 'The Lost Secret'. They were supposed to be 'low intermediate' level. However, even very simple questions like 'What's your name?' or 'Where are you from? seemed to pose immense problems of comprehension for them. When I tried to get them involved either in interaction with each other or with me, they sat like 'bumps on a log' and gaped in amazement. Even the simplest 'directives' like 'Ask your partner the questions in exercise 2' or 'Ask the questions. Don't just say the number of the question' were not understood at first and required long and patient repetition, demonstration and encouragement before the class, slowly and with great reluctance took a more active role. Even then, they tended to behave like spectators at a porn-show who are suddenly asked to take off their clothes and perform acts on a well-lit stage that they thought they would be able merely to watch passively and anonymously from the safety. of their darkened seats at the back of the theatre. Even when at last they did begin to do simple pair-work exercises, I often wondered what, if anything, they were learning. The only real exposure they got to anything that sounded like real English was when I questioned them or interacted directly with the class as a whole. I say 'interacted with' - I do not mean 'merely lectured', which was what they clearly expected me to do.

A group of Bosnian refugees in a London language school 1993-94

There were usually about eighteen in the group, but sometimes fewer. The group met twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a school near Paddington Station. The oldest learner was about sixty. The youngest was about seventeen. All the learners came from the city of Mostar and all of them had been living in welfare hostels and hotels in the Bayswater and Paddington area. Various teachers had taught the group, all on a voluntary basis. The teachers complained that student-centred techniques did not work well with group. One explanation the teachers offered was that perhaps the members of the group were suffering from trauma experienced before and during their flight from Mostar. One woman in the group - a former judge - had seen her husband executed in front of her. Other members of the group had had similar experiences. I did not doubt that these experiences had certainly scarred many members of the group, but I came to a radically different conclusion about why student-centred techniques did not work well with the group

Although the learners had been living in London for more than six months, they had learned no English. They did not know how to count in English. They did not know the days of the week in English. They did not understand words like 'right' 'left' 'come' 'go' 'stop'. They knew no English and the teachers who had taught them - or had tried to teach them - before had not taught them any English. The reason , in my opinion, was that the teachers concerned did not understand what it means to be a complete beginner, and nothing in their training had prepared them to understand this. They relied exclusively on elicitation and pair-work. However, there was no English to elicit. Zero beginners desperately need comprehensible input and one valuable - sometimes almost the only - source of this in the very early stages of learning is a teacher talking to them in the target language, demonstrating what words mean, giving examples of how they are used and explaining the different meanings these words have in different contexts.

Although L1 acquisition and L2 learning are very different processes, there is general agreement among L1 researchers that 'at a very basic level caretaker speech is all important; if children are not exposed to languages, they will not learn them.' In L2 learning, pair work and elicitation begin to be useful only when learners have learned enough English to do simple (and usually highly structured) pair-work exercises. Even then, I believe that pair-work and other typical 'student-centred' exercises are not always or even usually better than so-called 'teacher-centred' or 'teacher-fronted' exercises. Learners need input and intake, especially when they are zero beginners. It is not necessary to accept all of Krashen's 'comprehensible-input' theory to accept this. All that is necessary is to have been a zero-beginner yourself in a foreign language, and to have tried repeatedly to understand that foreign language or make yourself understood in it - an experience which I believe is invaluable for all language-teachers, and which can profoundly change your assumptions about learning or teaching a foreign language.

Siemens Sprachenschulungen,, Munich, 1997 and 98

There were between 10 and 15 participants, all Siemens employees and all adults between the ages of 23 and 60. They met one evening each week, on Tuesday, from 5 to 7.30 pm at the Siemens Training Centre in Perlachsüd. The room and resources were in many ways ideal for a 'student-centred' approach. The participants sat on comfortable office chairs at a kind of 'round table'. There was a video recorder in the room as well as a flip chart and well-kept 'white board'. The participants had all had previous English-training, reportedly of the 'student-centred, activity-based' type. Nevertheless, the level of English was extremely low. Very basic vocabulary and structure caused problems, such as the difference between 'He is unhappy' and 'He is unlucky' or 'What do you do?' and 'What are you doing?'. Nobody seemed to know the past forms of the simplest and most frequent verbs in English. When participants were asked or saw question forms like 'What did you do yesterday?' they were very puzzled. 'Why you don't say what did you?'' they asked. Attempts, however brief, to help them understand the 'rule' (which they repeatedly asked for) were unsuccessful Very often, when they spoke English, it was necessary to understand German in order to interpret what they were really trying to say.

However, despite these 'problems', I greatly enjoyed teaching this group, and they seemed also to enjoy the lesson as long as I used a 'teacher-fronted' style most of the time with regular opportunities for brief, highly-structured pair-work.

One aspect of the dogma - or rather, a delusion that supports it - is the belief that learners can get the kind of input they need from each other. Some teachers and teacher-trainers even appear to believe that this can and will happen regardless of the level of learner.

I do not deny that students talking to each other in the target language can be a valuable source of input, especially if at least one of two conditions are met - and preferably if both are met.

  1. One of the learners knows more of the target language than the other or others and is more skilled at using it.
  2. The two or more learners in the group or pair do not speak the same L1.

Personally, if I decided to study a foreign language I knew little or nothing about, and went to a school in the country in which it is spoken in order to study it, I would not be very satisfied if the teacher - presumably a competent and far, far better speaker of that language never or hardly ever spoke to me or to the class as a whole. Of course, I would hope that the same teacher would give the people sitting around me as well as me a variety of opportunities to speak to the teacher and to the other learners. This, however, is not an argument against teacher-talk. It is an argument for teacher-talk and learner-talk. It is an argument for the kind of teacher-talk that does not exclude learner-talk but helps to promote it.

This is not an argument against all pair- or group work. In Munich I used a great deal of pair-work exercises. They usually began as highly-structured conversations, which students read aloud to each other. I often read the dialogues aloud to them myself - an example of something that is currently deplored by many teacher-trainers and which I will return to later. I read aloud to the class for several reasons. First, I discovered that most of the learners in the group simply could not accurately pronounce even very simple words. By 'accurately', I do not mean 'like a native-speaker'. I mean, 'clearly enough to be understood by native and non-native speakers alike'. The reason many people in the group could not do this was not because the words involved difficult phonemic contrasts for Germans. German has vowel sounds that are the same or almost the same as the vowel sounds in bird word world and work . However, when these learners see the words written down, they tend to pronounce the letters with the same sound values those letters have in German. This well-known phenomenon is not, as far as I am concerned, an argument for the mistaken belief that 'nothing should be read before it is heard'. On the contrary, it is an argument for letting learners hear and see the words at the same time from the very beginning.

A useful teacher- skill that is 'frowned upon' - Reading aloud to a class

One reason I often read aloud to learners before asking them to read aloud to each other was and is my belief that their 'eyes follow my voice' - and so instead of stopping at every word they do not understand, they 'scan' to the end of each line and to the end of the text.

It has, by the way, been known and understood by many researchers into L1 acquisition that parents and teachers can promote the language development of infants and children by reading aloud to them. One such researcher notes that 'Reading aloud is traditionally discouraged by EFL/ESL teachers and those concerned with EFL/ESL methodology.'

However, recent research has provided substantive empirical evidence indicating that reading aloud to native English-speaking children improves their comprehension and encourages them to read. Reading aloud by the teacher can, in fact, be equally important for EFL/ESL learners, especially in the early stage of learning the language. These learners, when reading to themselves, tend to read word by word due to their limited linguistic competence. Guided by their anxiety to understand each word, they tend to break sentences into unmeaningful parts while they read.

The belief that such practices are bad is yet another example of something that has become a dangerous delusion . This makes it difficult to train EFL teachers to do simple but effective things effectively. The lack of debate in EFL - the apparently smug and complacent belief that such practices as reading aloud are 'bad' and 'wrong' in spite of the evidence to the contrary; the refusal even to consider that evidence let alone argue about it, contributes in my opinion to the intellectual enervation of EFL; to the tendency to regard the unbearable lightness' of our beliefs as proof of their validity rather than their intolerable superficiality. Even worse, it can lead to a mind-set that causes the holders of those intolerably superficial beliefs to think that anyone who disagrees with them must be motivated either by malice or stupidity - or probably both.

The Third Proposition

Children learning their L1 or adolescents and adults learning an L2 typically 'switch-off' when they encounter language that is too complex or difficult. Especially in the early and intermediate stages 'accessible but naturalistic' input is essential. Language produced by native-speakers for other native-speakers is usually far too difficult for beginners and intermediate learners. This is one of the reasons why almost always 'authentic' materials have to be modified and/or simplified in various ways, and are thus no longer 'authentic'.

Texts that have been written or selected for classroom use have usually been written or selected with more than one purpose in mind. Good teaching-texts for classroom use are not there simply in order to be read. If they are any good, they lead to comment and interpretation by learners, and also illustrate typical pragmatic uses of lexis and structure. They have to be fairly short, so that other activities besides comprehension can occur What is more, they have to be 'appropriately accessible'. This means ''not too difficult for learners to understand but difficult enough to encourage them to develop further in the language'.

All good 'authentic' materials are written or spoken with a particular audience in mind. Good speakers or writers take into account how much their listeners or readers are likely to know already , and use language which they think their readers and listeners - or fellow conversationalists - will understand. Good language teachers and writers of language-teaching materials do the same thing; they modify the style and density of the language they use to suit the people they are speaking with or writing for. They do not pretend that the people they are teaching have the kind of intuitive and instinctive grasp of English that native-speakers have. If those learners were just the same as native-speakers, they would not be in their classrooms.

Henry Widdowson has pointed out that authentic instances of language use do 'not guarantee an authentic response in the form of appropriate language activity.'.

Authenticity (like needs) is a term which creates confusion because of a basic ambiguity. It can, on the one hand, be used to refer to actually attested language produced by native speakers for a normal communicative purpose. In this sense it refers to naturalistic textual data. But the term can be used, quite legitimately, to refer to the communicative activity of the language user, to the engagement of interpretative procedures for making sense, even if these procedures are operating on and with textual data which are not authentic in the first place. An authentic stimulus in the form of attested instances of language does not guarantee an authentic response in the form of appropriate language activity.'

None of this implies that all authentic language is unsuitable. It simply means that writing and speaking 'authentically' to learners is not at all the same as speaking to and writing for native-speakers. Both kinds of speaking and writing require very real but sometimes different kinds of skills. The belief that 'only authentic materials will do' is one more reason why important and essential skills in international EFL are either misunderstood or not understood at all - and one more reason why EFL teachers and their trainers at the end of the twentieth century are likely to misunderstand or not understand at all some of the real challenges of EFL in the twenty-first century.