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.
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.
My unpublished reply to Richards
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.