Gagged!

I’m in danger of crying wolf here, because the last time I said I’d been censored, it turned out that it was my own clumsy use of the “reply” function that was to blame. But I’ve checked, and I think this time I’m right. In any case, the important thing is to air the matter of an influential ELT author and teacher trainer not being as rigorous as I think she should be in her role as mediator between researchers and teachers.

Penny Ur recently wrote an article for the IATEFL materials writing special interest group called “And what about the research?”  Ur points out that in the last twenty years, research has produced some “convincing evidence” for ideas which challenge popular, widely-held views among teachers. Ur sympathises with the busy teacher, but urges them to read the research and to pay attention to it. In her role as mediator, Ur goes on to give three examples of this kind of research:

  • Use of the L1  Often proscribed by teachers (and/or their bosses), research shows that using the L1 is very helpful in some situations;
  • Lexical sets  Teaching lexical sets is popular, and the basis for a lot of ELT material. But research shows that it’s counter-productive: learners actually learn new items much better if they are disconnected, or connected thematically;
  • Guessing from context  Another popular activity in many classrooms and in workbooks, research shows that it’s “a thoroughly unreliable way of accessing meaning”.

I wrote a comment about the article and Ur replied. Next, I replied to Ur’s reply but Ur didn’t reply. Finally, Catherine Richards commented, I replied to Richards, but my reply wasn’t published.

There are two issues. The first is that Ur claims to act as an honest mediator between those doing research and busy teachers, and yet she ignores important research findings that don’t fit her own view of ELT.

The second is that whoever is responsible for looking after the MaWSIG blog chose to publish a quite personal, ad hominem attack on someone who criticises Ur, and yet refused to publish the reply.

Here is the exchange of comments, beginning with mine:

My first comment 

You have repeatedly given your own views on TBLT (“there’s no evidence that it works”) and the usefulness of teaching grammar proactively through traditional focus on formS (“it’s effective”), without adequately discussing the evidence from research findings that challenge such opinions (see, for example, Long 2015).

In this article, you mention 2 areas where research can inform ELT while ignoring the elephant in the room, i.e., the 60 years of research findings on interlanguage development. This research (see Han and Tarone, 2017 for a review) poses a serious challenge to the use of materials such as coursebooks, which chop the target language into bits, and then present and practice the bits in a pre-determined sequence on the assumption that learners learn what they’re taught it this way.

Pienemann’s ( e.g. 1987) work showed that all the children and adult learners of German as a second language in a very big study adhered to a five-stage developmental sequence. Later work by his group and others in the 1990s established an acquisition order for morphemes, negation, questions, word order, embedded clauses and pronouns (see Han and Tarone, 2017, for a review). The conclusion from the research findings is that there are various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development which are impervious to instruction, in the sense that stage order can’t be altered, or stages skipped: acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and thus teachability is constrained by learnability.

The implication is that a lot of the materials you recommend, including coursebooks that implement a grammar-based syllaubus based on a PPP methodology, fly in the face of robust findings in SLA research.

References

Han, Z and Tarone, E. (eds.) (2017) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and Task-based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Pienemann, M. (1989). Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics, 10, 52-79.

Penny Ur’s reply

Thanks for your challenging response, Geoff! I’ll try to respond!

I don’t think I did, actually, in my piece, advocate coursebooks based on a grammatical syllabus? All I said was that the research on grammar teaching or about TBLT is inconclusive. You produced references against explicit grammar teaching and for TBLT: these could easily be countered with evidence such as that produced by Norris and Ortega (2002) in the first case or arguments put forward by Michael Swan (2006) in the second. And a lot of doubt has been cast on the practical implications for teaching of the Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis: see for example Spada and Lightbown, 1999. But my point in this case was not that materials should or should not be grammar based or that TBLT is or is not a good idea: but simply that we have no conclusive proof either way, and a lot of conflicting evidence. On the other hand where we DO have substantial and reliable evidence to support a conclusion that affects materials writing, and we have access to it, I think we have a moral obligation to take it into account in our own composition.

Norris, J. M. & Ortega, L.. (2001). Does type of instruction make a difference? Substantive findings from a meta-analytic review. Language Learning, 51, Supplement 1, 157-213.
Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. (1999). Instruction, first language influence, and developmental readiness in second language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 83 (1), 1-22.
Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by hypothesis: the case of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26(3), 376-401.

My second comment

Dear Penny,

Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t referring only to your piece here, but rather to what you’ve said in recent conference talks and in your book “A Course in Language Teaching”. If we take all these into account, I think it’s fair to say that you have criticised, and indeed, dismissed, TBLT without properly discussing different versions of it, and commended courseboooks which implement a grammar-based syllabus through PPP, without properly discussing the evidence from research findings. My general point is that while you accept the role of mediator between academics who carry out empirical research into (instructed) SLA and teachers, you use this role to argue for a very partisan view of ELT, which is often at odds with research findings.

The works I cited were in support of findings in interlanguage development, and all four of the academics you cite – Spada, Lightbown, Norris and Ortega – support the consensus view among scholars of SLA that instruction can’t affect the route of interlanguage development. They also support the commonly held view that basing ELT on the presenting and practice of pre-selected formal elements of the grammar in a pre-determined order, a methodology which you recommend, flies in the face of robust research findings. It’s surely your duty to discuss these matters with the teachers you council and to explain why you disagree with these views.

You cite the work of Norris and Ortega (2002) as evidence of the value of explicit grammar teaching. Nowhere do these scholars recommend the kind of presentation and practice of successive bits of grammar as you do in your book “A Course in Language Teaching”.

You cite the work of Swan against TBLT. Nowhere does Swan deal with Long’s particular form of TBLT as described in his 2015 book.

You say “a lot of doubt has been cast on the practical implications for teaching of the Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis: see for example Spada and Lightbown, 1999”. One practical implication of Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis has already been mentioned: teaching should respect the learners’ own internal syllabus, and this is an implication that Spada and Lightbown accept. Pienemann’s hypothesis doesn’t ihave clear implications for how to teach, but it does have very clear implications for how not to. You choose to ignore these implications when you encourage teachers to carry on using coursebooks.

Of course we don’t have conclusive proof about the efficacy of grammar-based materials or TBLT. But we do have a great deal of evidence to suggest that you misguide teachers when you tell them that using coursebooks and other materials to support a gramar-based PPP methodology is a perfectly fine way to go about ELT. On the one hand you insist on the need for ELT teachers to be more critical and to pay more attention to research findings, while on the other hand, you don’t deal critically with research findings that flag up the false assumptions on which your own approach to ELT are based.

Catherine Richards’ comment 
I am a little bemused by your bad tempered, disrespectful approach to the exchange of ideas, Geoff Jordan. While some of your points may indeed be valid and worthy of debate, I don’t think you’re much interested in commenting on Penny Ur’s piece on the importance of materials writers being research-aware – the topic here.

You seem much more interested in attacking her for her views on Task Based Learning and for her views on the use of coursebooks that appear to follow a grammar-based syllabus. My own experience, Geoff, is that the vast majority of English teachers in the world don’t work in private language schools with small groups of motivated students and enthusiastic colleagues (with CELTAs and DELTA’s.) They are state school teachers, language or philology graduates, speak English as an L2, put up with poor working conditions – big classrooms, full timetables, hours of admin and stress to the eyeballs. For this reason they love coursebooks, love bite-sized grammar chunks – they are under obligation to test 3 times a semester – and they loathe Task Based Learning almost as much as they loathe pompous academics telling them that they should embrace it and that much of what they do is wrong (because it is based on false assumptions?)

We need to understand teachers first, before we beat them around the head with the latest theory, don’t you think?

My unpublished reply to Richards

Hi Catherine,

I don’t tell teachers what to do, and I certainly don’t beat them around the head with the latest – or any – theory. I dedicate just a bit of my time to taking leading members of the ELT establishment to task for writing books on how to teach English and giving PD teacher training courses which ignore research findings and misguide teachers by telling them that using coursebooks and other materials to support a gramar-based PPP methodology is a perfectly fine way to go about ELT.

Your only defence of coursebook-driven ELT is that it’s convenient. It’s based on false assumptions? Pah! It flies in the face of robust research findings? Never mind! The critic is a bad tempered, disrespectful, loathsome, pompous academic, so we can safely ignore his arguments.

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15 thoughts on “Gagged!

  1. Hi Geoff.

    You weren’t gagged. Your message (with another) have been in the queue since they were posted, pending approval. I just hadn’t seen the alerts as I wasn’t at my computer.

    I now have – along with an alert of this blog post – and have approved any outstanding comments. Sorry for the delay but there’s no conspiracy.

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  2. It’s certainly there now, Geoff. Sometimes comments and replies in WordPress only show up once they’ve been moderated. I found this recently when my comment didn’t appear for about two weeks. The blogger was new to WordPress, and mine was the very first comment and he simply didn’t know he had specified that he would moderate comments!

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  3. I’m disappointed to see that over and over again the argument to continually defending the use of CBs is what teachers need and not what learners need. Brazil is a huge market for English language teaching, training and material sells, and yet learners don’t really learn English. If we look at learning x teaching, the evidence of failure is there. And teachers and students are the ones to blame. Not methodology, not those who were responsible to train them, not the course owners and not those who create or sell the material.

    Those who actually learn enough to communicate and manage to get good at grammar at basic verb structures (maybe even able to use past perfect!) still never learn to the expectation of coursebook syllabus with those fancy vocabulary and advanced grammar lessons in advance coursebooks. Yeah, we have the intermediate plateau to explain it. Still everyone is still selling the damn coursebooks (upper intermediate and advance ones) and making money out of it, and blaming teachers and students for the failure.

    It’s not rocket science to realize that the syllabus and its expectations (teaching/learning goals) imposed on teachers and students are not right. That is exactly where our learning/teaching problems start. How long does a language learner take to actually become able to communicate in a language? 6 years in a private language course, from beginner to advance? Just follow the coursebook? Do your homework? immerse in English like there was only English in your life? I’m sorry to say that 6 years even if a student only breath English for 6 years, he will not incorporate all that stuff from a CB. Or perharps, 12 years if they are lucky to get English classes for an hour or two a week from primary school to senior year of high school? Would that really make the difference? With all those years dedicated to teaching English, we certainly have niche to explore for the rest of our lives if we got paid well. But that is another problem, or is it not?

    I realized that as long as we don’t respect how one learns, we are fooling ourselves and deceiving our students.

    I’m not a scholar and neither I have to be, to see what is going on and be honest to myself. And so should everyone who actually work in education if you truly care. I know we all need the money to survive and that is our profession, but if we can do a better job, why do we insist in keeping feeding the industry and accepting what it imposes on us, learners and teachers?

    “Se você finge que ensina, eu finjo que aprendo” is a book written in 1992 by Hamilton Werneck and discusses the failure of teaching. Worse! It’s discusses the fact the learning is not occurring but we all pretend it is. And although people in the system of education get through English classes, when they leave it, they still can’t really use English effectively. Let’s not even start with the fact that teachers leave university without being able to communicate in English themselves, feeding the vicious cycle that must serve someone, but definitely not teachers and students.

    So more organic and honest approach to language learning is not doable because of the system… well that is exactly why Geoff (and others) writes what he writes to show that the system is in the way and those who actually set the path are equally responsible for keeping the system as it is when promoting it.

    I’ve never heard of Judy Thompson, as she surely ain’t part of the mainstream ELT, but I do appreciate her candid presentation.

    or how about this lady who put the problem into perspective so elegantly!

    Ps. I’ve read articles and books from some of those people in mainstream ELT throughout the 20 years I’m part of it and the more I’ve critically observed my reality, question what I was taught about teaching, the coursebook approach and the system, then, trying to find explanations on why our students still leave school without the ability of communicating, more that took me away from the mainstream or the system imposed. So much so that as truth reveals itself, I can’t ignore it anymore.

    As someone who became an English teacher by opportunity and who was fortunate to take a degree in education, I’ve been studying what is going on in schools and language courses for a decade and the educational system as a whole, I can say that the truth hurts. It hurts me too, but it hurts more to support the lie. The good news is, all we have to do is shift the focus to learning and use our creativity to create good learning opportunities for them to learn and use language. How about connecting classrooms around the world to actually give students authentic spaces to use language and we can then use technology also as tool to support learning and be there to show our students that they can communicate with the world just like we can.How about shifting the goals from a syllabus to really communicating with people?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Aleksandra,

      That’s what I thought at first, because my comment was there, awaiting “moderation”, and then it was gone! But I have absolutely no reason to doubt Nick’s very human explanation. As is too often the case, I was too quick to react.

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      1. WordPress works in mysterious ways. On the odd occasion I post on Scott’s blog, when I go back to check I don’t see my comment waiting for moderation. Were you logged in to WordPress yourself both times you looked? If you weren’t logged in the time you couldn’t see your post pending, that’s because it didn’t know who you were (as revealing pending posts to any old Tom Dick or Harry defeats the purpose of moderation). That may explain it, any road.

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      2. Hi Anthony,

        I was logged in both times. You’re right that on many blogs, if they “recognises” you, the comment gets published immediately. On others, the owner has set it up so that he/she can check before it’s published, and that’s when you see the message. This time, I saw my comment “waiting” one day, and the next day it had disappeared and that’s why I supposed I’d been “gagged”. Still, thanks for trying to explain it.

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      3. I didn’t mean to say it had to do with”recognised”posters skipping the moderation stage; just that you might have not seen it when checking later because you were not logged in. But you were. So I’m stumped. But as I said, WordPress works… 😉

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  4. Glad to see your comment has gone up but a) rather”bemused”myself as to where the “bad tempered(ness) and disrespectful(ness)” may be found in your reply to Ur, and b) rather disappointed that (however understandable it may be) that you took the bait and became confrontational yourself (as opposed to merely argumentative, as you had been, appropriately, to that point. Just confirms the original (unfounded) claim in the writer’s mind. Still, I’ve made the same mistake myself so I sympathise with the urge!

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