Skip to content

Why pre-selected language aims are a waste of time (and what we should be doing instead)

March 14, 2015

aim

http://tkt2uabcs.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/glossary-lesson-planning.html

I like to think I’ve made the case in previous posts that planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition. Just in case that contradicts how you were trained (it probably does), or if you think it’s just me ranting from my own narrow ESOL perspective, here are some quotes from other people to back me up. Let’s start with Jane Willis and her criticism of any lock-step approach to language teaching:

‘Spending twenty minutes on presenting and practising one single structure to perfection is likely to benefit only the very few learners who happen to be ready to use it. Some may know it already and it might be beyond the grasp of the rest. For these students, such practice is largely a waste of time.’ (Willis 1996: 15).

Then there’s the argument that the order in which we teach individual items of language (usually in order of linguistic complexity) doesn’t tie in with the order in which students acquire it:

‘Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the last thirty years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a time…bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items.’ (Long and Robinson 1998: 16).

And here’s David Nunan making the point that if you teach an item once, and if the students seem able to use it during the lesson (which tends to be regarded as “evidence of learning”), you can’t assume that you have “done” that piece of language:

‘A learner’s mastery of a particular language item is unstable, appearing to increase and decrease at different times during the learning process.’ (Nunan 2001: 192).

Nunan’s comment also suggests that if students are getting an item of language wrong, this doesn’t mean they’re not learning it; they are just going through the process, and this process lasts a lot longer than a single lesson.

This quote from Holliday points out the problem with lessons where the aim, or the agenda, is set by the teacher:

‘…classroom events incorporate not one lesson, but many lessons – one which the teacher plans and administers, and one for each student taking part. The significance of [this] is that the teacher’s and students’ lessons are inevitably different, and are very likely to be in conflict. The students want one thing out of the classroom process, and the teacher something else.’ (Holliday 1994: 143).

Basically, the point I’m making through these quotes (and in previous posts) is that there is nothing to suggest that selecting an item of language in advance, and then setting out to “teach” that item to the students, is an effective way of facilitating language acquisition.

Of course, it’s easy enough to criticise and expose deficiencies, but what’s the alternative? Well, if we follow some of the points made by those esteemed applied linguists and ELT professionals mentioned above, we need to be designing lessons according to the following guiding principles:

·       Students acquire language when they are ready to acquire it, not when the teacher decides to teach it.

·       Students need to engage with language within a meaningful context.

·       Different students will learn different language within the same lesson, and need to be given space to do this.

·       Students need multiple opportunities to use language items over a period of time before they can realistically be expected to fully acquire it.

·       Any overt language focus and clarification is more likely to be effective if it ties in with each student’s own “learning agenda”.

OK, so how can we design lessons that follow these principles? Well, for a start we need to give the students a lot more freedom to get what they are ready to get out of the lesson. This implies doing away with pre-selected language aims altogether. But that doesn’t mean our lessons should become aimless – far from it. Lessons can aim towards the achievement of tasks – not tasks like “find out how often your partner goes to the cinema”, but proper, real-world tasks that allow learners to be exposed to authentic language and then to engage and interact with it. The learners need to be given a space, an opportunity, to interact with language in a meaningful way and then acquire whatever language they are ready to acquire while these interactions are taking place.

One way that I’m trying to do this with my students is to set tasks for students that are meaningful to them, and which allow them to interact with language as authentically as possible. While they are doing this I am feeding language to individual students as they need it. After the task has been completed I encourage them to focus on what I call NU language – language that is both New and Useful (I know that sounds cheesy but my students see through the cheesiness and get the point anyway). The students look back at the language they used, or were exposed to, during the task, and record the items that were new to them and which they feel they will be able to use again. They then share what they have recorded and give each other some example situations where they can see themselves using it. Their homework is to go away and put this into practice, and then in a subsequent lesson I follow it up by asking them to tell each other what NU language from the previous week they have been able to use, describing how effective it was in allowing them to perform the tasks they needed to perform.

This is probably not very innovative. I’m sure a lot of people reading this do the same, or something similar. It’s a logical approach to language teaching, particularly (but not exclusively) in an English-speaking country where a huge amount of exposure to English can take place outside the classroom. But it’s good because it follows the guiding principles described above. It actually ties in with SLA theory because it allows learners to dictate what they learn. Rather than pushing them through some controlled activities that require them to use items of language that they’re either not ready to learn, already know or have no need to know, it allows them the freedom to identify the language that is most useful for them, and which they genuinely want to learn. Following on from Holliday’s comment above, this approach gives the students more freedom to follow their own agenda rather than just dancing to my tune. They all have different agendas and they will probably select different language as their NU language, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point. Allowing the students to connect the language learning process with what they want to do outside the classroom also helps to develop their motivation, which in turn has a positive impact on their learning (Dornyei and Ushioda 2011).

So, we need to stop planning lessons with aims like “To clarify and practice such and such a grammar item”, or “to introduce and develop students’ ability to use the following lexical items”, or objectives like “students will be able to use such and such a grammar item in the context of so and so.” There’s nothing to suggest that the achievement of aims like this actually leads to any learning taking place.

Instead, we need to shift the aim away from tiny specific language items and onto the tasks themselves. Aims like this:

  • Working in groups, students will plan and organise a trip to a local place of interest of their choice.
  •  Students will create an information leaflet for visitors to the town they live in.
  • Students will organise an event to raise awareness to an issue of local or national interest.
  • Students will identify an area of their health or wellbeing that they want to improve, and work out a plan to do this.
  • Students will research and prepare a presentation comparing two different education systems.

These are all tasks that I’ve set my students recently. Of course, you could argue that these are more outcomes than aims, and that they’re more projects than tasks. Call them what you like, I don’t mind. They’re nice big meaty tasks (or projects, if you prefer) that the students can properly immerse themselves in, with plenty of scope for them to have their own input – in the process and on the final product. Once they are focused on the achievement of this outcome, the linguistic content of the lesson pretty much falls into place; they learn whatever they need to learn in order to achieve the tasks or complete the project. Including frequent reflection tasks to focus the students on NU language ensures that learning takes place, that each student gets to focus on language that they are ready and able to learn, and that this language gets used in authentic and therefore memorable contexts.

It’s not particularly new or fancy, but it is nicely grounded in established SLA theory. Nevertheless, it’s not something you would be likely to learn to do on a teacher training course either. Why is that, do you think?

References:

Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. 2011, Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Holliday, A. 1994, Appropriate Methodology and Social Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. 2001, ‘Teaching grammar in context’, in Candlin and Mercer (eds.) English language teaching in its social context (pp. 191-199), London: Routledge.

Willis, J. 1996, A framework for task-based learning, Harlow: Longman.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

60 Comments
  1. I purposefully only read the following of your post as the basis of my counterargument (albeit risky)…

    “…planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition. Just in case that contradicts how you were trained (it probably does), or if you think it’s just me ranting from my own narrow ESOL perspective, here are some quotes from other people to back me up…”

    I would argue that language acquisition theories are not exactly the same as language learning theories. Teachers planning lessons who preselect specific language items screams language learning scenarios more so than language acquisition scenarios. Language acquisition scenarios for the most part involve incidental learning where specific language goals are usually not set a priori. In contrast, language learning scenarios typically involve formal educational environments that usually adhere to some curriculum, scheme of work, syllabus, and/or lesson plan, which collectively apply to a particular time frame. Language acquisition is usually what we think of when one learns a mother tongue (L1); language learning is usually what we think of when one learns an additional language (L2).

    There are certainly gray areas and I am hesitant to completely view language acquisition and language learning as being totally dichotomous, but there are some presumptions (warrants) built into this initial argument that I take issue with:

    Presumption #1: Language students who are learning an additional language (L2) within an educational setting (e.g., school) acquire the language in the same way those who acquire the L1.

    Presumption #2: Teachers preselecting individual language items negates any possibility of additional language that might emerge from classroom interaction that might lead to subsequent learning/acquisition (i.e., incidental learning). Teachers setting such goals simply ignore any additional learning/acquisition that might emerge from authentic learning experiences that goes beyond preselected individual language items.

    Presumption #3: Preselecting individual language items negates any possibility of creating authentic learning experiences that also includes using authentic materials, etc.

    Presumption #4: Students have no interest in setting linguistic goals.

    Presumption #5: Besides the teacher, there are no additional scenarios where others might set goals or obligations for the language student that would include preselecting individual language items to be learned/acquired.

    Presumption #6: Assumes that teachers have no obligation to adhere to a set of classroom goals.

    Presumption #7: Assumes that teachers see no value in setting classroom goals.

    Presumption #8: Assumes that the only goals worth not selecting are linguistic.

    I believe that the eight presumptions above make up the worldview necessary to incorrectly believe the following claim: “planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition”.

    The core debate here is language learning vs. language acquisition and intentional learning vs. incidental learning.

    I am curious to hear rebuttals either in how my presumptions fail to link to my counterargument or simply with the counterargument itself.

    • Hi Benjamin,
      So are you saying that you have written your comment after reading only the first paragraph of the original post? Risky indeed, but OK, I’ll have a go at responding anyway.
      You say:
      “Language acquisition is usually what we think of when one learns a mother tongue (L1); language learning is usually what we think of when one learns an additional language (L2).”
      But there is an entire discipline within Applied Linguistics called Second Language Acquisition, or SLA (sometimes referred to as L2A). I think it’s widely acceptable to use the term Acquisition in the context of people gaining a non-1st language.
      I agree though that this doesn’t mean the words acquisition and learning are interchangeable. Krashen (1982) famously developed his Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, which described acquisition as a subconscious process, while learning is something that we know we are doing. This is a bit like the distinction you make, except Krashen was talking about both of them within the context of SLA. Krashen’s argument was that the amount that can be gained from conscious learning is very limited, and that second language acquisition is actually a lot like first language acquisition. I’m not sure I agree with this; I think there’s a lot to be said for overt focus on language and the encouragement of conscious learning. I even advocate it in the post above, and this is why your presumptions are, for the most part at least, mistaken. Nevertheless I’ll go through them one by one:

      “Presumption #1: Language students who are learning an additional language (L2) within an educational setting (e.g., school) acquire the language in the same way those who acquire the L1.”
      Not in the same way, no. Once you have a first language it’s impossible to learn a second language in the same way, as you already have a first language to compare it to, consciously or subconsciously. There’s nothing in my post that suggests that my students, who are all mature adults, learn English in the same way they learned their first language. Nor do I suggest that I would want them to. Setting authentic, real-world tasks for my students is not the same as replicating the context in which they learned their first language.

      “Presumption #2: Teachers preselecting individual language items negates any possibility of additional language that might emerge from classroom interaction that might lead to subsequent learning/acquisition (i.e., incidental learning). Teachers setting such goals simply ignore any additional learning/acquisition that might emerge from authentic learning experiences that goes beyond preselected individual language items.”
      I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this negates any incidental learning. What I would say though is that it does nothing to encourage it. And anyway, arguing that students might still manage to acquire/learn language that the teacher hadn’t pre-selected is hardly a strong argument in favour of pre-selecting language items!

      “Presumption #3: Preselecting individual language items negates any possibility of creating authentic learning experiences that also includes using authentic materials, etc.”
      It’s entirely possible to use authentic materials and authentic scenarios to contextualise/introduce individual items. What I’m saying though is that these authentic learning experiences are more valuable and are likely to be more effective when language items/learning opportunities are identified by the students during the lesson, rather than by the teacher in advance of the lesson.

      “Presumption #4: Students have no interest in setting linguistic goals.”
      If anything I’m proposing the opposite; students are interested in setting, and should be encouraged to set, linguistic goals. One of the problems I have with pre-selected language items is that the teacher is setting the linguistic goals for the students.The idea I’m presenting here proposes that the students select their own language and then set their own goals for how they will use it.

      “Presumption #5: Besides the teacher, there are no additional scenarios where others might set goals or obligations for the language student that would include preselecting individual language items to be learned/acquired.”
      I’m arguing against the teacher pre-selecting the language aims. There are plenty of other sources of language goals/requirements, not least the students themselves. I don’t understand how my criticism of the idea of teachers pre-selecting language aims means I don’t think language items and accompanying aims can be derived from somewhere else.

      “Presumption #6: Assumes that teachers have no obligation to adhere to a set of classroom goals.”
      I think it’s probably fair to say that every teacher has some goals to adhere to. These vary from context to context, but surely a common goal is to facilitate the progress in English of our students as far as possible. I submit that teaching lessons which aim primarily to introduce and practise individual language items does not facilitate this progress as well as the use of tasks as aims, with language being developed during the process of task completion.

      “Presumption #7: Assumes that teachers see no value in setting classroom goals.”
      I don’t really see how you can assume this either. The lessons I teach, and the courses these lessons are part of, have very clear, fixed goals. They just don’t include specific individual language items.

      “Presumption #8: Assumes that the only goals worth not selecting are linguistic.”
      I’m saying that teachers should not select individual language items as lesson aims, but by saying this I don’t think that means that everything else is OK.

      Your concluding comment is:
      “The core debate here is language learning vs. language acquisition and intentional learning vs. incidental learning.”

      I think you’ve made a massive presumption of your own here. You’ve presumed that, because I am against the pre-selection of language aims by the teacher, I am against all forms of overt language focus, clarification and conscious learning. I’m not. I think all of that is very important. What I’m arguing for here is for the language items to be identified and selected by the students, rather than by the teacher. This allows learning (and I mean learning, not acquisition) to be individualised, relevant and (therefore) more likely to be internalised.

      Thanks for giving me the chance to explain things further.

      Steve

      Reference:
      Krashen, S.D. 1982, ‘Principles and practice in second language acquisition’, Pergamon Press. Internet version (2009) available from: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf

      • Hi Steve

        I was reading over this again and was struck by the following.

        ‘Once you have a first language it’s impossible to learn a second language in the same way, as you already have a first language to compare it to, consciously or subconsciously.’

        This seems to me to be an extremely strong claim, and one that therefore requires considerable evidential support. Do you really mean that there is something about an infant’s capacity to acquire a language that means it can happen once, and once only?

      • I’d like to respond to Patrick’s comment above but there’s no ‘reply’ button there, so I’m replying here.

        Patrick: a human can go through the First Language Acquisition process only once. It isn’t a particularly “strong claim” – it is what is understood among linguists to be true. You can find lots of information about this in a variety of books – any introductory book to linguistics should contain a section on it.

        Infants who acquire two languages at the same time go through the same process but are bilingual. As far as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in the brain is concerned, it is the same unique one-time process but it involves two languages. However, it might be worth noting that it is very fair people are raised truly bilingual in this sense.

        Once you have gone through this process, the LAD turns off First Language Acquisition: the process is complete. By the time you reach puberty, you can’t acquire a First Language anymore. There are lots of cases of kids who have started acquiring one L1 and the moved to another situation and then started acquiring a different L1. The second L1 simply replaces the first L1 if this takes place before puberty. There are also lots of examples of people who haven’t acquired an L1 by puberty and have never been able to acquire native-like language ability. Again, you can find all of this in any introductory book to linguistics.

        After the LAD is finished with the L1, you can go about acquiring a second language. However, the processes to this are different. A very simple of example of how we know these processes are different is, for example, the third person S in English e.g. he works, she talks, is acquired extremely late in L2 (usually when someone is at an advanced level) but is acquired by someone learning English as an L1 early on.

      • I was thinking about kids who move, while still young, from one language speaking environment to another. Don’t they typically acquire, so far as we can tell, the second language in much the same way as that in which they acquired the first? I’m not sure, Anthony, what you mean by ‘simply replaces’. Is the first language lost? If not, I don’t understand what you mean by its being replaced.

  2. Thanks , Steve. I found this post very helpful. I’m just wondering, though, whether, for those of us who teach learners living in an L2 environment, there is even a need to set tasks. It seems to me that our learners’ lives are choc-full of tasks already. Why don’t we just use those? Class time can then be spent entirely working on the NU language that has emerged, or that is emerging.

    • Thanks for this post, Steve, it’s always nice to read something like this whenever I start having the “maybe-I-should-set-more-specific-aims” doubts. I work in approximately the same manner as you do, and I have even more freedom to apply the principles you described as I’m teaching 1-2-1.

      I’m not going to join the theoretical discussion, I’ll just back up what you said with two real life examples.

      One is about myself as a learner of Spanish. As soon as I persuaded my teacher to refrain from following a syllabus and just have an authentic conversation while clarifying whatever language points I need at the moment, my progress increased drastically.

      The other example is my 1-2-1 student who has acquired significant learner autonomy in the course of our lessons. Once when I decided to teach him a particular structure he said: “Could we learn this a little later when I am ready for it? I think it will be more effective”. This level of awareness is rare for students but for me this case was an indication that, as you said Steve, students should be given more space for their learning and I as a teacher should listen more carefully to their needs at every given moment.

      • Hi Olga, and thanks for this comment. I think you posted it while I was replying to Patrick, so it’s nice to see we are both on the same wavelength about the 1-1 thing as well. It certainly makes sense to allow the students some space to reflect, as this allows them to become more aware of where they are in their learning, what they are capable of and where they want to go next. I think it can be applied across the board as well, not just in English speaking countries, and not just with 1-1 classes. I certainly think it’s what we should all be working towards at least.
        Thanks again for your comment, Olga.
        Steve

    • Hi Patrick,
      I’m glad you found this useful. You raise an interesting question here. What you are suggesting sounds very like the Social Practice model of learning which is very popular in Community Learning and Development (CLD) contexts in Scotland (I think this link will take you to a paper about it: http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CDMQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cldms.org.uk%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2014%2F11%2FCLDMS-Social-Practice-in-Adult-learning-2014.doc&ei=7UoHVY3jM4bbatrdgLAM&usg=AFQjCNHbAu5QaOv6Zz4tXO7Bi5KDvEdomA&sig2=MCtofli4DXOnTvObd0PxeQ&bvm=bv.88198703,d.d2s )
      This can be particularly productive in a CLD context where a lot of the teaching is 1-1 or in small groups. With larger classes it’s also possible, to a certain extent. For example when I did the “Identify an aspect of your health or wellbeing that you want to improve” project that I gave as an example in the post (with a pre-intermediate class), students were able to work on a task that they were doing, or had been thinking of doing, anyway. Some went on diets, others took up new forms of exercise, some decided to find a way of saving money. I had my own (non-linguistic) agenda too, which was to get them all through the Access 3 Problem Solving unit ( http://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/files_ccc/F3GD_09_ASP.pdf ). It led to them working on highly individualised projects, during which I was able to focus on common language needs as well as the rich amount of NU language that each student was able to gain from the project.
      In Scottish FE colleges (as you know) we are under increasing pressure to incorporate more accredited units into our ESOL programmes, which inevitably means finding ways of using non-ESOL units while continuing to develop linguistic competence. If we can find ways of doing this effectively then the introduction of units like this needn’t be a bad thing at all. In fact, and rather perversely, I seem to be arguing that it is actually a more effective means of teaching English than using an ELT coursebook.
      Steve

    • Hi again Patrick,
      Just to answer your query above, regarding this comment from me:
      ‘Once you have a first language it’s impossible to learn a second language in the same way, as you already have a first language to compare it to, consciously or subconsciously.’
      I suppose this is quite a strong claim. I could try to argue that it’s self-evident, in the same way that once you’ve tasted chicken it’s difficult to taste any other white meat without comparing it to chicken.
      I think Chomsky would back me up on this point as well though. Following his universal grammar hypothesis, he describes our innate language capacity as being like a switchbox, set to neutral at birth. As we acquire our first language, we set the switches in a certain way according the to way that this first language works. Here he is talking about it:

      So the acquisition of your first language requires setting the switches in one way, which means that when you learn an additional language you’re not starting from a neutral setting any more. The default is the language that you have already acquired. You can’t “un-know” your first language in order to learn a new language.
      Of course, children may grow up multilingual if they acquire two or more languages within the first few years of life, when the switchbox is still very flexible. For adults, however, a lot of evidence shows that they are less adept at acquiring second (or third, or further) languages than children. This all relates to the Critical Period Hypothesis – the idea that after a certain age the capacity to acquire new languages diminishes:
      http://tesl-ej.org/ej14/r14.html
      There’s a lot of evidence these days that disputes the CPH, but my own feeling is that the process of learning an L2 when you already have an L1 can’t be the same as learning and L1, when you have no previous skills in language. You can’t say that something tastes like chicken if you have never tasted chicken.
      Steve

  3. geoffjordan permalink

    Very good stuff Steve. Just 1 picky detail. You begin by saying that “planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition”. I think you’ll agree that there aren’t any established theories of language acquisition.There are over 50 theories of SLA, but none of them is complete, and none can claim to be “established”, if that means generally accepted. So I think the last bit of your sentence should read “runs counter to widely-accepted findings of SLA research”.

  4. geoffjordan permalink

    Sorry, I meant to add that while you and I might judge the research findings to be persuasive evidence to support your argument, we shouldn’t exaggerate the weight of the evidence or what conclusions can be drawn from it. I notice that you’re already clarifying that you are NOT saying that there’s no place for grammar teaching.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Yes, you’re probably right – there are plenty of theories of second language acquisition but none have really been established or universally accepted. Would you mind if I changed that sentence and used your words instead?
      I think that a lot of language teachers assume that if you disagree with an atomistic approach to teaching you must be against any kind of overt grammar teaching, the assumption being that you believe only in exposure/comprehensible input, without any clarification of language. While I think that placing students into authentic or highly motivating contexts can, in and of itself, contribute greatly to language development, I still think there is a place in the adult ESOL/EFL classroom for overt language focus and study. The problem I have is with where that language comes from. When the language is selected by the teacher or, worse still, pre-determined by the syllabus, there is only a very slim chance that this language is the same language that students are actually ready, wiling and able to learn. We therefore need to find ways for students to select the language that they want to, or are ready to, focus on. This is what I’m trying to do with the NU language thing.
      Thanks for your comments again,

      Steve

  5. Interesting piece…I do have one question though. How applicable do you feel this approach is outside of an English-speaking country where there is limited access to English speakers and English outside of the classroom (excluding the Internet of course!)? And how might evaluation or assessment work in this situation? These are not leading questions….I agree with the vast majority of what you’ve mentioned here: students need to engage with language in meaningful contexts, they need to take responsibility for their own learning and reflect on the process, that we as teachers should not be setting the agenda too rigidily for classes….but as a DoS in a medium-sized language school abroad, with 12 teachers with varying degrees of experience and qualification, I{m wondering how this sort of approach might look on a more macro, institutional level?

    • Hi Tom,
      I think that the location of the teaching is perhaps a lot less on an issue than it used to be. People living in non-English speaking countries have a huge amount of access to English via the Internet. This doesn’t just give access to materials for reading and listening – they can also interact with English-speaking communities via blogs, Skype and all kinds of other EdTech devices that I’m not familiar with. I’ve done a lot of project/task-based work that involves the students doing online research in order to produce something of their own. It would be less easy for you and your students to relate these things to their everyday lives perhaps, and I realise this might impact on motivation. However if your students are producing texts, powerpoints, videos, blogs etc and posting them online, they can then get feedback and interact authentically with people from around the world, using English themselves and getting exposure to some interesting varieties of English themselves.
      Another issue is getting monolingual classes to interact in English when working on authentic or real-world tasks. I acknowledge that this is a challenge, but it’s one we have to deal with here as well as we often get classes where a single L1 is dominant. I’m currently teaching a pre-intermediate class that is entirely Polish.
      As for how to formalize this and how to design assessments, I think it’s simply a question of prioritising linguistic competence over linguistic knowledge. By completing tasks, students will inevitably demonstrate their ability to use/understand spoken/written English. The complexity of language they use/understand in completing the task is a measure of competence. I’m suggesting this as opposed to the sentence/paragraph level “fill in the gaps” kind of test that is often used to measure progress. I would suggest that this sort of assessment tests a student’s knowledge of English rather than their ability to use it.
      I’m not sure if this answers your questions fully, and I’d be curious to know if you think this kind of approach could work in your context.
      Do you think it could?
      Steve

  6. Laurence Kinsella permalink

    Hi Steve, a quick reply as I’m not in a great mood Forest lost today and this cite (or my link) crashed after I did this the first time.
    Question: You state that:
    ‘planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition’.
    Do you include vocabulary as language items?
    Comment:
    I feel that citing Krashen does not help your case – much of what he claims (or has claimed in the past) has been disproven and anyway there was little evidence in the first place.
    Also, you cite Chomsky:
    ‘I think Chomsky would back me up on this point as well though. Following his universal grammar hypothesis, he describes our innate language capacity as being like a switchbox, set to neutral at birth.As we acquire our first language, we set the switches in a certain way according the to way that this first language works’.
    He should probably stick to his major fields – again there is currently a massive weight of research arguing against him. It’s arguable that we actually ‘learn’ not acquire our first language to a great extent – I’ve been reading Skinner in detail and feel that he’s been unfairly treated; his work links well to current L2 learning theories.
    Anyway, I’m off to bed now – but happier as I watched Ireland v Scotland and then England v France- Ireland the great!

    • Hi Laurence, nice to hear from you.
      I would include vocabulary items as language items, yes. I know we can’t apply any universal grammar/natural order-type arguments to individual vocabulary items, but that’s not really (or not only) what my post is about, though I have referred to such when responding to comments. The main point I’m trying to make here is that if the teacher decides what language the students are going to learn, the chances of this decision coinciding with the language that the students are ready to learn within that lesson are very slim indeed.
      I know that Krashen isn’t particularly popular, and I didn’t cite him to defend my argument, rather to try and relate what Benjamin was saying (above) about acquisition/learning to the field of SLA.
      Interesting to read that you are seeing the merits of Skinner’s work. Russell Mayne recently wrote a post suggesting we should look again at the whole Skinner-Chomsky debate: http://malingual.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-myth-of-neat-histories.html
      It is interesting that Chomsky managed to debunk Skinner so successfully (for linguists anyway) without really having any empirical evidence. It was never about empiricism for Chomsky, it was about presenting a rational argument. Anyway, I was using Chomsky to support my statement that learning a second language isn’t the same as learning a first language. Are you saying that we consciously learn our first language? I think we need to establish a definition of “conscious learning” in that case. Adults who learn a language in a classroom are clearly not learning in the same way as babies are when learning their first language. Or are they? Is that what you’re suggesting?
      If that IS what you’re suggesting then that sounds like an argument in favour of incidental learning. But please note, my post was not presenting an argument for incidental learning. I think that there is definitely a place for conscious, overt language focus in the adult ESOL/EFL classroom. I just think that the students should be given the space to decide what is focused on rather than be limited to what the teacher decides to teach them.
      Anyway, sorry to hear that Forest lost, but Norwich will do well under Alex Neil – it’s no disgrace. Congratulations for the rugby too. I’m happy to let you have that after Maloney’s wonder goal against you in the football.
      Take care,
      Steve

      • Doubtless I’m getting out of my depth but I was surprised to hear the claim that Chomsky’s rebuttal of Skinner lacked empirical evidence. Isn’t the relevant empirical evidence the fact that native speakers of a language can readily discern between well-formed and ill-formed sentences in that language (or in the particular variety of the language that is the speaker’s own), even when they have never heard those sentences before, this last provision excluding the possibility that experience alone could account for the speaker’s ability to make such a distinction. I think we can all identify some of the following sentences as well-formed, others as not.

        1. Who’s that?
        2. Who’s that at the door?
        3. Who’s that for?
        4. I wonder who that’s.
        5. I wonder who that’s at the door.
        6. I wonder who that’s for.

        I don’t think that experience alone can account for our ability to do this.

  7. Laurence Kinsella permalink

    Sorry – spelt site as cite – that’s what happens when you re-write quickly after a few cans and the football/rugby.

  8. Mike Chick permalink

    Hi Steve,

    Another interesting read about an important topic. A colleague recently put me onto the early work of Michael Breen (that prompted me to revisit some of his later papers – which I remember as standing out from the rest of the stuff I was reading at the time). Anyway, you are probably very familiar with his “Process syllabus” which, if I have understood correctly, tallies on many levels with what you are attempting in your teaching context. The article below contains a neat account of an ESOL educator attempting such an approach to syllabus construction and I think you might find much relevance in it to the context you describe:

    Wette, R. (2011). “Product–process distinctions in ELT curriculum theory and practice.” ELT Journal 65(2): 136-144.

    There are many Breen papers which articulate the theory behind the Process Approach but two that I have to hand which may be worth a read are:

    Breen, M. P. (2001). Navigating the discourse: On what is learned in the language classroom: English language teaching in its social context. C. Candlin and N. Mercer, Routledge: 306-322

    Breen, M. P. (1987). Contemporary paradigms in syllabus design, Parts 1 and 2. Language Teaching, 20(1 & 2), (1) 81-92 & (82) 157-174.

    Hope they are of interest – and apologies if I am stating the obvious.

    Mike

    By the way, I met a Scottish teacher trainer in a city in India recently. I mentioned the name of the only Scotland–based EFL teacher I could think of (You – who I have never met) and it turned out she is a good friend of yours. Funny as…can be. It’s a small (EFL) world.

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks very much for sharing these. Michael Breen has contributed a lot to communicative language teaching and his work is very important in all of this. The process syllabus is something I am familiar with and it has been quite influential in the sort of thing I’m trying to do.
      I’m trying to think who this Scottish teacher trainer could be – is she normally based in Sri Lanka?
      Best wishes,
      Steve

      • Mike Chick permalink

        Hi Steve, Yip Sri Lanka – you got it. I’m off to Nepal for a week of trekking now but when I return I intend to do some action research with an ESOL class I teach. I will be looking at issues that are not a million miles away from what you are doing – so please do keep writing up these great posts!
        Mike

  9. Hi Steve! Finally got a chance to read your. I need to read the comments though. ..an interesting discussion going on.

    Yes yes yes!!! To all the points you raised.

    • You’re right, Rose, there is some interesting discussion going on here – a good mix of theoretical and practical ideas. I like it when the comments raise more issues than the original post.
      Let me know of any more thoughts you have on this.
      Steve

  10. Hi Steve,
    Another interesting discussion, and one which I feel has a lot of merit. Like Olga, I’ve noticed much more progress in my own language learning when the teacher has followed where I’ve wanted to go.
    There’s one place I think it might be difficult to put this into practice though: beginner or very low-level classes where the teacher doesn’t speak the L1. How do you think your approach would work there? How would you convey what you wanted to do to the students, especially if they have little prior experience of language learning?
    Thanks,
    Sandy

  11. Hi Sandy,
    It is a good question, and to be honest I haven’t taught beginners for a while – the lowest level class I’m working with at the moment is pre-intermediate. My colleagues are doing this sort of thing with elementary students though. Recently our elementary classes have worked on projects like organising a trip, trying out a change in their lifestyle and preparing and giving a group presentation using powerpoint. Projects need to be set up carefully, and broken down into manageable tasks, but it can be done. Some key language needs to be fed to students in advance if they really don’t have it, though a lot of it can still be generated from students by getting them to brainstorm words they know that are related to the topic, and then asking them to use it in example sentences to demonstrate how they’ll use it on the project.
    Post-task reflection on language used is also possible, with students doing tasks like making lists of words that they have learnt and then grouping them into situations where they often use English. I might have to give myself an elementary class to try and work this out more clearly though!
    Thanks again for your comment.
    Steve

  12. Laurence Kinsella permalink

    Hi Steve,
    OK – replies to your reply:
    Firstly, I’m not sure Chomsky’s ‘debunking’ was rational, as you say he had no evidence. I feel that the whole era was one of making outlandish claims with the minimum (or no) evidence. Not just Chomsky; Goodman and the ‘Psycholinguistic guessing’ when reading; Krashen with totally unproven claims about vocabulary acquisition from reading. Remember, these were times of protest/rebellion when little hard evidence was asked for or given.

    You state/ask:

    ‘Adults who learn a language in a classroom are clearly not learning in the same way as babies are when learning their first language. Or are they? Is that what you’re suggesting’?

    I’m not sure, but think that young children just have a larger classroom and more time to study. They are subject to incredible amounts of informal teaching and repetition before they embark on formal schooling. The key way for adults to learn vital vocabulary is through repetition; meeting the most frequent and useful vocabulary through a planned programme around 10 to 15 times. So then, I’m clearly not arguing that this is incidental learning in either case – I’m pretty sure children are conscious and want to learn even if they have not signed up for a class.

    This leads me to another your comments:
    ‘I just think that the students should be given the space to decide what is focused on rather than be limited to what the teacher decides to teach them’.

    It surely depends on which students. If we consider adult beginner/elementary students I might think (as a teacher) that it is crucial they have at least receptive understanding of the first 1000 most frequent vocabulary items (covering around 70% of any text) in order to build a solid foundation for reading. I would want to plan how they met and recycled these words to ensure retention. Do I assume the students know how important this is or know which vocabulary is most frequent?
    I could say more but I am sure you will reply and prime me.

    If anyone is interested, I have listed some reading linked to these points:

    Barcroft, J. (2007). Effects of opportunities for word retrieval during second language vocabulary learning. Language Learning, 57(1), pp. 35-56.
    Biemiller, A. (2003) ’Vocabulary: needed if more children are to read well.’ Reading Psychology, 24, pp. 323-335.
    Brown, D. (2011). What aspects of vocabulary knowledge do textbooks give attention to? Language Teaching Research, 15(1), 83-97.
    Cook, V. J. (1998) “Relating SLA research to language teaching materials.” Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics (CJAL)/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée (RCLA) 1.nos1-2 pp. 9-27.
    Duppenthaler, P. 2007. Vocabulary Acquisition: The Research and Its Pedagogical Implications. 帝塚山學院大学研究論集. 文学部, 42, pp. 1-14.
    Folse, K. (2004). Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says. TESL Reporter 37(2), pp. 1-13
    These two are for entertainment only:
    Goodman, K.S. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6, 126-135.
    Goodman, K.S. (1973). Psycholinguistic universals in the reading process. In F. Smith (Ed.), Psycholinguistics and reading (pp. 21-29). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
    Back to reality:
    Hirsh, D., & Nation, P. (1992). What vocabulary size is needed to read unsimplified texts for pleasure?. Reading in a foreign language, 8, 689-689.
    Karpicke, J., & Roediger, H. L. (2008) The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319, 966-968.
    Laufer, B. 1997. The lexical plight in second language reading: words you don’t know, words you think you know and words you can’t guess. In Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: a Rationale for Pedagogy, eds. J. Coady and T. Huckin. Cambridge University Press. pp. 20-34.
    Laufer, B., Meara, P., & Nation, I.S.P. (2005) Ten best ideas for teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher 29 (7), pp 11-14.
    Matsuoka, W. & Hirsh, D., 2010. Vocabulary learning through reading: Does an ELT course book provide good opportunities? Reading in a Foreign Language, 22(1), pp. 56-70.
    Nation, I.S.P. (1975) Motivation, repetition and language teaching techniques. ELT 29: 115-120.
    Nation, I.S.P., 2003. Research and Practice in Vocabulary Teaching: When will they meet? Melbourne: Proceedings of the 16th English Australia Education Conference. Available online: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/54720/20060120-0000/www.englishaustralia.com.au/ea_conference03/proceedings/pdf/028F_Nation_Plenary.pdf
    Peters, E. (2014). The effects of repetition and time of post-test administration on EFL learners’ form recall of single words and collocations. Language Teaching Research, 18(1), 75-94.
    Roediger III, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), 20-27.
    Schmidt, R. (1995). Consciousness and foreign language learning: A tutorial on the role of attention and awareness. In R. Schmidt (Ed.), Attention and awareness in foreign language teaching and learning (Technical Report No. 9) (pp. 1-64). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i at Manoa.
    Schmitt, N. & Schmitt, D. (2014). A reassessment of frequency and vocabulary size in L2 vocabulary teaching. Language Teaching, 47(4), 484-503.
    Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts.
    Storm, B. C., Bjork, R. A., & Storm, J. C. (2010). Optimizing retrieval as a learning event: When and why expanding retrieval practice enhances long-term retention. Memory & Cognition, 38(2), 244-253.
    Webb, S. (2007). The effects of repetition on vocabulary knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 28(1), 46-65.

    • Hi Laurence,
      I know Geoff has already replied to you below, but I wanted to briefly pick up on a couple of things you said (thanks for the list of references, by the way).
      You say that children are conscious and want to learn. OK, but they don’t have any other language to compare their L1 to. When I’m learning a new language I consciously make comparisons with my own, or with other languages I know (this sounds like I know loads of languages. I don’t mean it like that; I know a few languages but not very well). That can’t happen when you’re learning your first language.
      The idea of choosing which language (lexical?) items to teach according to frequency is certainly appealing, but a lexical syllabus (is that what you’re advocating?) still leads to that lock-step approach that Jane Willis criticised, as I mentioned in the post. And the 1000 first words that one of my students encounters in Glasgow is probably very different from the 1000 first words that one of your students encounters in…where are you these days? If the tasks I am setting my students are related to their everyday lives and require them to interact with people and texts that they are likely to interact with outside the classroom, then doesn’t this ensure that they are getting opportunities to learn the language they need? You could in fact argue that this provides similar conditions to the ‘large classroom’ that you’re saying babies learn their 1st language in.
      Thanks for your ideas. These comments are raising interesting questions that I hadn’t thought about before.
      Steve

      • Laurence Kinsella permalink

        Hi Steve,
        I’ve taken your second point first:

        ‘The idea of choosing which language (lexical?) items to teach according to frequency is certainly appealing, but a lexical syllabus (is that what you’re advocating?) still leads to that lock-step approach that Jane Willis criticised, as I mentioned in the post. And the 1000 first words that one of my students encounters in Glasgow is probably very different from the 1000 first words that one of your students encounters in…where are you these days?’

        I wouldn’t claim to be advocating a purely lexical syllabus but I do think that there should be a far greater explicit focus on vocabulary with low-level adult learners than is commonly the case. You say this would lead to a lock-step approach but why should it? Let’s start from why the most frequent words (not the first 1000 in Glasgow) are the most important; the first 1000 most frequent cover over 70% of any English text (written or spoken) and the first 2000 around 80% (Nation & Waring, 1997). Clearly, a grasp of the meaning and spelling of these words would be beneficial when learning to read in English.
        What is an efficient way to accelerate receptive understanding? Nation (2001) argues that word cards with English on one side and L2 translation on the other is particularly effective. These can be made in sets of 20 and used from the level of the students existing vocabulary size. How? Test the existing size using tests such as the Vocabulary Size Test (Nation & Beglar, 2007) or the Vocabulary Levels Test (Schmitt, Schmitt & Clapham 2001) and the student begins at that stage. This means students in the same class can study from their own existing level.
        I have used this method in the UAE:
        Learners saw the Arabic word first, they then said and spelt the English translation before turning the card over to check accuracy. If they did not know the English word they turned over to check spelling and a model of the pronunciation was initially provided by the teacher. When students knew the word the cards were removed from the pack, when they did not know it the card was returned to the pack. Students practised until all the words in a set of 20 were known and then moved onto the next pack.
        In order to increase depth of knowledge and use time outside of the classroom my students used online recycling:
        • Meaning, a multiple choice where learners chose the Arabic word with the same meaning as the English one.
        • Spelling, a multiple choice, learners heard the English word and chose the correct spelling.
        • Spelling, heard the word and typed in the spelling.
        • Using, a multiple choice sentence completion.
        • Final test, multiple choice. Learners chose the English word which best matched the Arabic example.
        If a learner achieved less than 80% in any area they repeated the exercises and retook the test. I followed progress on the Blackboard Vista (BBV) site where the scores were automatically recorded for each student. I had control over when students could see each set of words, ensuring that students followed the prescribed procedures before moving on. This, together with the cards, allowed learners to meet words between 15 and 20 times without taking up too much class time.
        Why use cards and not lists? Cards force a mental retrieval effort which aids retention – lists do not (Roediger and Butler, 2011; Pyc & Rawson, 2009). The retrieval element is also present in the online exercises.
        This was complemented by a speed reading course (Quinn & Nation, 1974) where all of the readings used only the first 1000 words. This began once students had reached a vocabulary size of 1000 with the aim of fluency/reading rate development. Studies by Chung and Nation (2006) and Macalister (2008) claim improved reading rates through this type of course but stress the need for course texts, which are carefully controlled for length and vocabulary.
        Other reading texts were created to add depth of knowledge to academic words. The AWL was taught in the way described above once students had mastered the first 2000 words of West’s GSL (Bauman revision). Then the AWL words were used in texts (profiled with Tom Cobb’s vocab profiler on LexTutor) which had been edited to the 2000 level and also highlighted features of the AWL words including grammar patterns, collocation and connotation.
        The context for this was different to Scotland (I assume you’re there). Very little English outside of the classroom and students who had not grown up in a reading culture. The students’ average vocabulary size on entry was around 300 – I haven’t missed a 0! So, the rationale was that vocabulary size had to be increased quickly, if these students were to have any hope on the IELTS academic reading module; IELTS (band 5) was the entry test to degree courses. The vocabulary sizes did increase – around 1000 words on average in an academic year (35 teaching weeks) – still not enough but a start.
        I’m not at all against what you are doing but of course it’s not possible in all situations. So, this is an example of what I meant when I argued that teacher selection was preferable in some situations and especially with low-levels. As I’ve said the teaching is not lock-step, students begin with material at their current level if they have a VS of the first 500 words they start there and so on.
        Student feedback from questionnaires and focus group interviews indicated that students were strongly in favour of the approach. The main reason? Many commented that it was because they understood what they had to do and why they were doing it. Also, that they understood the translations and the reading texts when they could not at school.
        You asked where I am. I’ve left the Gulf and I now work for University College London in Astana, Kazakhstan. Much stronger students – mine all had IELTS Academic band 6 at least on entry
        I’ll get back to you on your other question but I’m off to Spain for two weeks tomorrow so there’ll be a gap.

      • Laurence Kinsella permalink

        Reference list for my reply:

        Chung, M., & Nation, I.S.P. (2006). The effect of a speed reading course. English Teaching, 61,181–204.
        Macalister, J. (2008). The effect of a speed reading course in an English as a Second Language environment. The TESOLANZ Journal, 16, 23–33.
        Nation, I.S.P. & Beglar, D. (2007) A vocabulary size test. The Language Teacher, 31(7), 9-13.
        Nation, I. S. P. and R. Waring. 1997. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage, and word lists’ in N. Schmitt
        and M. McCarthy (eds): Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge
        University Press.
        Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2009). Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory? Journal of Memory and Language, 60(4), 437-447.
        Quinn, E., & Nation, I.S.P. (1974) Speed Reading: A Course for Learners of English. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.
        Schmitt, N., Schmitt, D., & Clapham, C. (2001). Developing and exploring the behaviour of two new versions of the Vocabulary Levels Test. Language testing, 18(1), 55-88.

  13. Last week a learner asked me about the use of ‘pure’ as an intensifier before an adjective (common, as you know, Steve, in and around Glasgow). What interested me was that she wanted to know about this because she had, in her words ‘noticed (her)self’ using it. If a learner can ‘notice’ interesting things about her own usage, doesn’t this suggest that, to at least some extent, she may be acquiring language features (language features that she does not explicitly understand, or does so only tentatively; hence her enquiry) still in the sort of way we acquire L1?

    • Well, I suppose you could see it like that. However, you could also argue that her very noticing is a result of a conscious cognitive process. Also, the fact that she raised it with you in order to request clarification means she felt the need for some kind of conscious learning to take place. Of course, if she’d already managed to incorporate this item into her ‘interlanguage’ (or whatever people prefer to call it) then maybe she didn’t actually need to have this discussion with you. However, she was able to have this discussion, which is an option not available to babies when they are learning their L1. This perhaps also adds to my claim above that learning an L2 (particularly when you’re an adult) can’t be the same as learning an L1. Whether that places me on the Chomsky side or the Skinner side of the debate I’m not sure, but frankly I’m a bit bemused by the apparent need to be on one side or the other. I’m not sure it’s particularly constructive for the discussion to be so polarised.
      Thanks for bringing the debate back to a real situation with a real student, Patrick.
      Steve

      • Yes, her noticing is conscious, but her acquisition of the feature must have preceded her noticing it (for it to be present in her speech for her to notice.) Incidentally, I’m certainly not advocating a total reliance on comprehensible input and just leaving it to the LAD to do its thing. Certainly experience seems to tell us that if the child’s ability to acquire language more or less effortlessly is still present in the adult then it is so only in a very partial, weakened form.

      • geoffjordan permalink

        Hi again,

        I’ve also just noticed (sic) Patrick’s comments on noticing. Schmidt’s construct is appealing and has received a lot of attention, but it’s far from well-defined as a theoretical construct, and the hypothesis that input can only become intake if it’s noticed is very difficult to test. I don’t think you answer Patrick’s question about his student’s post-hoc noticing successfully. I agree with Patrick that “if the child’s ability to acquire language more or less effortlessly is still present in the adult then it is so only in a very partial, weakened form”. There is controversy about the various putative “critical periods”, but there is very little controversy about the statements that there are maturational constraints to SLA.

      • Not only is ‘the hypothesis that input can only become intake if it’s noticed … very difficult to test,’ it also seems a bit arbitrary (though it wouldn’t be arbitrary if we were able to test it, and did so, and found it to be true). Doesn’t such a hypothesis amount to the claim that comprehensible input can never, under any circumstances, by itself, in SLA, become intake? I see no reason to draw this conclusion. Nonetheless, we appear to agree, Geoff, that reliance on comprehensible input will not, of itself, lead to a desirable level of language attainment on the part of an adult language learner. Something else, we are agreed, is required. Isn’t ‘noticing’, in the ordinary sense of the word, the most plausible candidate for what that additional requirement is? I realise that what makes my claim here probably true (i.e. its non-specifity) is also what makes it probably boring.

  14. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    Laurence Kinsella says there is “a massive weight of research” arguing against Chomsky and that it’s arguable that “we actually ‘learn’ not acquire our first language to a great extent”. No support whatsoever is given in support of these assertions. Meanwhile all of the top 100 universities in the TES list have generative linguistics programmes run by people who all agree that L1A is predominantly an implicit (unconscious) process.

    You say “It is interesting that Chomsky managed to debunk Skinner so successfully (for linguists anyway) without really having any empirical evidence. It was never about empiricism for Chomsky, it was about presenting a rational argument.” Well actually, Chomsky showed Skinner’s behaviourist theory of learning to be false by using empirical evidence – and lots of it. Chomsky argued that the behaviourist model of language learning promoted by Skinner fails to explain the empirical evidence (collected by Chomsky and many others) of young children’s utterances and their responses to grammaticality judgement tests. This evidence shows that a child’s linguistic abilities are radically underdetermined by the verbal behaviour offered to the child in the period in which he or she expresses those abilities. In short, what children know about language can’t be explained by the verbal behaviour they’re exposed to, and therefore something else must explain it. So, Steve, the “poverty of the stimulus” argument (which no supporter of Skinner’s views has ever successfully answered) is based on empirical evidence. OK? (Just BTW, empiricism is an outdated epistemology which has nothing to do with an appeal to empirical evidence.)

    This, I hope, deals with Laurence Kinsella’s opening salvo in his reply to your reply: “As you say, Chomsky had no evidence”. Laurence further suggests that “these were times of protest/rebellion when little hard evidence was asked for or given”, which is ridiculous. These were times when huge strides were being made in science, all thanks to a method that was founded on “hard evidence”.
    Having accused Chomsky (wrongly) of having scant regard for evidence, Laurence gives no evidence at all to support the assertion that “The key way for adults to learn vital vocabulary is through repetition; meeting the most frequent and useful vocabulary through a planned programme around 10 to 15 times”. We must presume that Laurence thinks that this hopelessly unqualified generalisation is self-evidently true, like the rest of his daft pronouncements on vocabulary learning.

  15. Laurence Kinsella permalink

    Hi Steve,

    I take it Geoff doesn’t read all the posts. He states:

    “Having accused Chomsky (wrongly) of having scant regard for evidence, Laurence gives no evidence at all to support the assertion that “The key way for adults to learn vital vocabulary is through repetition; meeting the most frequent and useful vocabulary through a planned programme around 10 to 15 times”

    I gave a bibliography in my second post before his comment.

    Chomsky’s attack on Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behavior’ has been attacked as at best Chomsky’s misunderstanding and at worst wilful misinterpretation. These are a small collection of responses:

    Adelman, B. E. (2007). An underdiscussed aspect of Chomsky (1959). The Analysis of verbal behavior, 23(1), 29.
    Andresen, J. T. (1990). Skinner and Chomsky thirty years later. Historiographia Linguistica, 17(1-2), 145-165.
    Chomsky, N. (1959). A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Language, 35(1), 26-57.
    Guinther, P. M., & Dougher, M. J. (2015). The clinical relevance of stimulus equivalence and relational frame theory in influencing the behavior of verbally competent adults. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 21-25.
    MacCorquodale, K. (1970). On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner.. The Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1, 83-99.
    O’Toole, C., Barnes-Holmes, D., Murphy, C., O’Connor, J., & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2009). Relational flexibility and human intelligence: extending the remit of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 9(1), 1-17.
    Palmer, D. C. (2006). On Chomsky’s appraisal of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior: A half century of misunderstanding. The Behavior Analyst, 29(2), 253.
    Richelle, M., Foster, W. S., & Rondal, J. A. (1976). Formal analysis and functional analysis of verbal behavior: Notes on the debate between Chomsky and Skinner. Behaviorism, 209-221.
    Richelle, M. (1995). BF Skinner: a reappraisal. Psychology Press.
    Skinner, B. F. (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching. Cambridge, Mass, USA, 99-113.
    Skinner, B. F. (2014). Verbal behavior. BF Skinner Foundation.
    Stemmer, N. (1990). Skinner’s Verbal behavior, Chomsky’s review, and mentalism. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 54(3), 307-315.
    Watrin, J. P., & Darwich, R. (2012). On behaviorism in the cognitive revolution: Myth and reactions. Review of General Psychology, 16(3), 269.

    Also, there are up-to-date researchers in first language acquisition who find that children do learn language as against unconsciously acquiring it:

    Clark, E. V. (2009). First language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.
    Goldfield, B. A., & Reznick, J. S. (1990). Early lexical acquisition: Rate, content, and the vocabulary spurt. Journal of child language, 17(01), 171-183.
    Kuhl, P. K. (2004). Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code. Nature reviews neuroscience, 5(11), 831-843.

    I look forward to further comments.

    • geoffjordan permalink

      Hi Laurence,

      Do your lips move when you read? This has to be the most stupid reply to a request for evidence ever.

  16. It seems that the whole Chomsky-Skinner thing still manages to make emotions run high, even after all these years. Let’s try and stay focused on the debate though rather than just being insulting. That’s not going to convince anyone.
    Steve

    • Nonetheless, we can agree, can’t we, that simply offering reading lists the length of your arm is, to say the least, unhelpful.

    • geoffjordan permalink

      Hi Steve,

      When I pointed out that you were quite wrong to say that Chomsky wasn’t interested in empirical evidence, I hadn’t noticed that patrickamon had already done so. My apologies to Patrick for not acknowledging him. As he says, much of the evidence comes from grammaticality judgement tests, different versions of which have been used for 40 years in thousands of different studies which explore linguistic knowledge under the paradigm of Chomsky’s generative grammar. .

      • Ken MacDougall permalink

        Patrick,

        That second article was so tl;dr. Did you get the whole way through it? What happens in the end?

        Ken

      • Hi Geoff,
        I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m saying this based on what I remember from my masters course years ago so it may well not be accurate. What I understood about the origin of Universal Grammar Theory was that Chomsky wrote his review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, using a very cogent and rational argument to put forward the case that an innate capacity for language must exist and that languages are not acquired simply by listening and responding. Nobody had put forward this argument before, which is why it was heralded as such a breakthrough. It was only after this that linguists all over the world starting conducting research and coming up with a body of evidence to support Chomsky’s hypothesis. You’ve pretty much said the same above:
        “much of the evidence comes from grammaticality judgement tests, different versions of which have been used for 40 years in thousands of different studies which explore linguistic knowledge under the paradigm of Chomsky’s generative grammar.”
        So what I meant was that Chomsky himself didn’t use empirical evidence to support his original claim. He use examples like his famous “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” sentence to illustrate his point. It was only later that all the research appeared.
        Isn’t that what happened? Or have I got it all wrong?
        Steve

      • geoffjordan permalink

        Hi Steve,

        You’re right to say that Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s “Verbal Behaviour” didn’t include any evidence from GJ studies, and neither, as far as I remember, did his first book “Syntactic Structures” (1957) which sets out the idea of a generative grammar and contains the famous “colorless..” sentence. So while it’s true to say that Chomsky falsified Skinner’s theory by using empirical evidence, you’re right to say that in his review of Skinner, Chomsky used maths and logic. Let’s agree that it would be wrong to suggest that Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner, and his alternative theory of language and language learning is not concerned with, or supported by, empirical evidence.

    • We should all treat each other with consideration, absolutely. You’re perfectly correct. I sometimes find myself getting crabbier and more impatient in online discussions than face to face (independence referendum, anyone.) You’re quite right, though. Those of us who are inclined to this should stop and think of other people’s feelings before we hit ‘post.’

  17. He concludes that there’s no such thing as a ‘language’ as such, no ‘langue,’ so to speak, just loads of instances of ‘parole.’ WordPress won’t let me use italics.

  18. Hi Steve

    I hope you don’t mind my responding to a question you put to Geoff but I feel impelled to point out that experiments are generally designed to test hypotheses, and that therefore, naturally, the formulation of a hypothesis precedes the experimentation designed to test it. Chomsky’s purpose, if I’ve understood, was to show that Skinner’s account was inconsistent with the known, observed, empirical data, and to suggest a more fruitful line of enquiry.

  19. Sorry, everyone. I totally confused the threads.

  20. I should explain further, Ken. In the unlikely event that I’ve understood correctly, Davidson is suggesting that an account of what’s going on when we understand each other involves so much folk-psychology and other contingent theorising that the place left for the sort of logico-syntactic-recursive sort of thing that Chomsky emphasises is so relegated in importance that it cannot be credited with being the source of our possessing ‘a language.’ What I find appealing about this is that it might, it seems to me, give a good theoretical underpinning for all the things we say about ‘negotiating meaning.’

  21. Hi, this is in response to Laurence’s last comment above.
    Your description of vocabulary teaching sounds like it could have some success, and in fact it’s not dissimilar to the “Look, Cover, Say, Write, Check” technique that’s used a lot in teaching literacy. It sounds a bit atomistic though, with everything at individual word or sentence level.
    I think that activities like this would work well as post-task follow-up work using the NU language thing I was talking about in the post. The students can select their own words, which means they have already been exposed to them in context, and activities like this can help to consolidate the language and allow them to gain a different kind of knowledge of it, which may help retention. But I still think it’s important for the language to come from the students in the first place, as far as possible anyway.
    I hope you enjoy Spain and that I’ll see you, in here or somewhere else, soon.
    Steve

  22. Laurence Kinsella permalink

    Hi Steve,
    I can agree with your argument in the context of an English speaking environment and with higher levels. Yet I’m sure you know that most learners are not learning in this context. What I’m arguing is that lower levels, in their own countries, have to start from the bottom up. They can’t be just ‘exposed to authentic language and then to engage and interact with it’. The vocabulary level in authentic texts (I’m taking this as written for or spoken by native speakers) means they won’t understand a high percentage of the words and, consequently, the message. If you mean authentic in terms of a language classroom, which I believe Widdowson argued was authentic in the context of language teaching, then the lower-level students will understand in the classroom but won’t get understandable recycling on the streets.
    You also say that ‘It sounds a bit atomistic though, with everything at individual word or sentence level’. It only begins at this level and then builds up to full texts.
    Anyway, hope to speak more soon.

  23. That speakers of English can readily recognise ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ to be grammatically well-formed, despite it’s being nonsense is surely an empirical finding.

    • Then again, that people who know what ‘nine’ ‘three’ and ‘square root’ mean will take it as self-evident that three is the square root of nine could be presented as an empirical finding. Perhaps there’s a problem with the distinction empirical/non-empirical.

  24. I think I’ve put my finger on the source of the problem, in this discussion, re Chomsky. There is an old debate, going back at least to Locke and Leibniz in the seventeenth century, about whether all knowledge is attributable to experience (Locke) or whether, on the contrary, our grasp of certain ‘necessary’ truths, such as those of mathematics, cannot be explained solely with reference to experience and must, therefore, entail our possessing ‘innate ideas’ (Leibniz). These two tendencies came later to be known as ’empiricism’ (the view that knowledge is entirely attributable to experience) and rationalism (the view that there are innate ideas.) Chomsky is often presented as weighing in on the rationalist side of this debate. This characterisation is not incorrect. Chomsky’s argument for the innateness of UG does not depend, as Leibniz’s argument for innate ideas did, on the ‘necessity’ of what is known, but it does, like Leibniz’s, rest on the insufficiency of experience to explain what we know. In this respect Chomsky is correctly identified as anti-empiricist. Further, Chomsky himself sometimes uses the word ’empiricism’ to refer to the behaviourist methodological model according to which we must confine ourselves to observable phenomena and that therefore it is inadmissible to posit something not directly observable such as a mind lying behind the observable phenomena. This is slightly unfortunate nomenclature on Chomsky’s part, since empiricists at least since Hume have explicitly acknowledged the need to posit for observable phenomena causes which are not themselves observable but which serve as the best explanation for those which are (gravity is a good example). In any case, the claim that some knowledge is innate and not therefore dependent on empirical observation in no way implies that that very claim itself does not rest on empirical observation. I think Chomsky’s position may fairly be characterised as follows: We can know, on empirical grounds, that much of what we know does not rest on empirical grounds.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Initial teacher training: do they still teach PPP? | Willy Cardoso
  2. BrELT Chat 11/06/15: Lesson Planning – interesting reads | #BRELT
  3. Links I have found useful along the way – Throwing Back Tokens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: