First, let me say how much I like your blog and all the work you do on Research Bites
I write in reply to your post Is it time to SLAy PPP? which argues that my criticisms of the PPP approach to ELT methodology can be extended to any kind of explicit instruction. I’d like to argue that you fail to identify the root of the problem, viz.: the synthetic syllabus.
Here’s a brief summary of your argument, which I hope you think is fair:
- Learners are constrained in what they learn by the route of interlanguage development.
- Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.
- If instruction has no role in language learning, then what’s the point of teaching? Instructed SLA seems like an oxymoron and discussions of both PPP and TBLT (Jordan’s preferred methodology) are rendered moot.
- Needs analysis can’t take account of learners’ developmentally readiness. Our knowledge about which aspects of language develop in a fixed order and why they do so is still too limited to make reliable pedagogical decisions.
- Therefore, the instructed SLA approach seems defeatist.
- But the effectiveness of instruction need not be as limited as the claims above suggest. While SLA research shows a firm order of development, we have learned that instruction can certainly impact it. Through understanding students wants and task needs, offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, working with cognitive load in mind, providing opportunities for recycling (all evidence-based principles), we can affect the route, speed, and level of language learning. With these principles in mind, both TBLT and PPP have their place.
Points 1 and 2 are fine, but let me include here Mura’s comment to your post. He gives a summary quoting VanPatten from his radio show:
Instruction makes a difference in the short-term (a week, 2 weeks, at most a month) but:
- tests tend to measure explicit knowledge
- long term (8-9 months, 1 year) gains disappear
- sometimes instruction impedes acquisition, slows it down (3 studies only though)
Moving to the rest of the argument, I think it wrongly assumes that “providing the right instruction” depends on “pinpointing learners’ developmental readiness” for it. Interlanguage development moves through various stages, but it isn’t a linear process, and therefore it isn’t best helped by presenting and practicing bits of language IN ANY ORDER. You’re right to say that needs analysis of the usual type (What is the learner’s present level of proficiency as measured by grammar and vocabulary tests, competence in the 4 skills, “can do” statements, and so on; Where does he/she wants to end up?) can’t pinpoint learners’ developmental readiness for this or that type of instruction, but you’re wrong to suppose that this is the only kind of needs analysis available (tasks as the unit of analysis is the alternative I’ll discuss later), and equally wrong to suppose that we have to identify the point where learners find themselves in their interlanguage development in order to provide efficient teaching.
The faulty argument stems, I suggest, from regarding English as an object of study, and supposing that the only practical way English as an L2 can be taught is by using some kind of synthetic syllabus, where the English language is divided up into hundreds of artificially separated pieces, and then taught through a process of presenting and practising the pieces in a pre-determined order. When their learning is framed by a synthetic syllabus, students are faced with the impossible job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, without even the benefit of having seen him before he got smashed to bits. The whole project is doomed to failure: regardless of how the language is cut up into bits, how those bits are categorised, organised and sequenced, and how they are presented and practiced, it won’t work, because students will only learn what they’re ready for. And trying to make sense of it by pinpointing each learner’s developmental readiness is a fool’s errand because there is no such point. The view of language learning which underpins any synthetic syllabus is the same as the view adopted by the CEFR and the Pearson’s Global Scale of English: it’s a linear, incremental, bit-by-bit “climbing the ladder” process involving the proceduralisation of declarative knowledge. SLA research tells us that language learning is nothing like this representation of it.
I find Point 6, which attempts to rescue your argument from its depressing conclusion in Point 5, too optimisitc, I’m afraid! First, we can’t affect the route of language learning, and second, all the other good things you suggest – offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, opportunities for recycling, etc., – need a coherent framework which doesn’t clash with research findings. If they happen within the framework of a synthetic syllabus, provided by a General English coursebook for example, then they won’t work. As long as language teachers try to teach students the pre-prepared, pre-packaged stuff they or their bosses think makes up an attractive “course of English”, they’ll be forced to deal, one way or another, with their students’ inability to learn it, and they’ll never teach as well as they could if they took a different approach. My (unoriginal) argument is that all ELT based on implementing a synthetic syllabus is fundamentally flawed and hugely inefficient.
An alternative to the kind of needs analysis you refer to is the kind Long (2015) refers to, where real-world tasks are used as the unit for needs analysis. The question informing the needs analysis is: What tasks do the students need to perform in the target language? The tasks need to be clearly described, using either the ready-made job descriptions that exist in many sectors (including education, business, the professions, public administration, the military) or descriptions from what Long calls “linguistically naïve but work experienced informants”. From a task analysis, an analytical syllabus is designed, where target tasks are the source of pedagogic tasks, which themselves are defined as simpler versions of target tasks, not in language learning terms. This allows students’ real world needs, rather than teachers’ or coursebook writers’ ideas about English as an object of study, to guide the course, and it allows teachers to work with students in a way that respects the learners’ interlanguage development, while at the same time offering explicit instruction to help students with formal aspects of the language, vocabulary learning and so on. Note that TBLT as outlined here has nothing in common with the use of tasks in grammatical or functional or lexical syllabuses.
As you probably know, I’ve explained my objections to coursebook-driven ELT elsewhere, and I’ve tried to answer those who defend it. If we accept SLA research findings, then we should reject the use of synthetic syllabuses as a way of organising ELT and explore alternatives, such as the TBLT outlined here, Dogme, content-based language teaching, and immersion courses, for example.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts; thanks for raising these important issues, Anthony, and keep up the good work.
Appendix 1: Steps in Long’s TBLT Syllabus Design. (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 224)
Appendix 2: Characteristics of tasks (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 233)