Image: Studio of Fedele Fischetti. Alexander cutting the Gordian knot. Oil on canvas. mid-1700s. I Once upon a time in ancient Anatolia stood the city of Gordium. Famed as a place of civilisation, commerce and learning – though not necessarily in that order, somewhere among its wide streets, fragrant tree-lined boulevards, and spacious plazas stood a white […]
Image: Julian Opie.Winter 42. Digital print, glass, plexiglass. 2012.
O’Keeffe’s talk brought together a discussion of the interface debate in SLA recently addressed in Han and Finneran (2013) with language learning theories underpinning data-driven learning tackled by Lynne Flowerdew (2015). Her slides are here. I start by looking at the background to the interface debate and the learning theories in turn, using O’Keeffe’s references (in her slides and below) plus some other reading.
text meanings are created through a combination of an open principle (slot-and-filler model where grammar positions are randomly filled with words) and an idiom principle (semi preconstructed phrases which are available to a speaker as single choices)
patterns are phraseological items which are neither single words nor empty grammatical structures, but a synthesis of the two
Hunston & Francis 1999
“an approach which starts from vocabulary items and then looks at their favoured associations and usage patterns” : our knowledge of words derives from previous experience, and “grammar is an outcome of this lexical structure” (Hoey)
characteristics of texts such as register and genre, or native-nonnative differences can be determined by investigating multiword units (MWUs) or “recurrent expressions, regardless of their idiomaticity, and regardless of their structural status.” (Biber et al., 1999)
Biber et al 1999
“an extension of collocational analysis specifically geared to investigating the interaction of lexemes and the grammatical structures associated with them.” (Stefanowitsch
and Gries, 2003) e.g. attraction/repulsion of certain lexical items for a given grammatical structure
usage-based research at the interface of lexis and grammar: constructions are “conventionalized pairings of form and function” (including morphemes, words, idioms and phrasal patterns) and stored as units in the brain
Image: Athanasius Kircher.Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae. [The Great Art of Light and Shadow.]. Silver point? 1646.
Teaching and Language Corpora (TaLC) Conference University of Cambridge, 18-21 July 2018 An audio-visual corpus of technology-mediated classroom language teaching: creating an open repository for CALL teacher education Abstract Historically, corpora have often been developed with an eye on practical applications, and as Boulton and Tyne (2014: 301) remind us, “in many cases, these applications […]
Image: Edward Hopper. Intermission. Oil on canvas. 1963.
Three passages of possible interest:
From Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World:
Identical twins-but not in piddling twos and threes as in the old viviparous days, when an egg would sometimes accidentally divide; actually by dozens, by scores at a time.
“Scores,” the Director repeated and flung out his arms, as though he were distributing largesse. “Scores.”
But one of the students was fool enough to ask where the advantage lay.
“My good boy!” The Director wheeled sharply round on him. “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?” He raised a hand; his expression was solemn. “Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!”
Major instruments of social stability.
Standard men and women; in uniform batches. The whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg. “Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!” The voice was almost tremulous with enthusiasm. “You really know where you are. For the first time in history.” He quoted the planetary motto. “Community, Identity, Stability.” Grand words. “If we could bokanovskify indefinitely the whole problem would be solved.” Solved by standard Gammas, unvarying Deltas, uniform Epsilons. Millions of identical twins. The principle of mass production at last applied to biology.
From Harris’s 1987 The Language Machine:
The equation ‘man = machine’ had long been preceded by the equation ‘machine = slave’. In Europe, that earlier equation sprang from social conditions already established in the civilisations of Greece and Rome. The social history of Western technology is largely the history of replacing slaves by machines, machines being on the whole more efficient, more docile and less expensive. When the mechanisation of cotton picking in the USA in the 1930s handed over to machines a form of labour traditionally the occupation of slaves, it merely repeated the economic lesson already taught in Gaul in the fourth century by the Roman engineer who demonstrated that a stepped series of water-powered millstones could grind more flour in a day than rotary quern grinding by slave labour could produce in a month. (It is worth noting that the slaves, both in the Graeco-Roman world and in the cotton fields of America, had originally been captives from foreign lands, and hence not members of the linguistic community.) The present-day replacement of factory works by robots continues essentially the same trend. The robots raise output, cut costs, and not go on strike; and the etymology of the word robot itself perpetuates the association between automation and slavery.
(Harris, 1987: 96)
From Philip Kerr’s recent 2018 blog post:
Cummings got his ideas from Robert Plomin , one of the world’s most cited living psychologists. Plomin, in a recent paper in Nature, ‘The New Genetics of Intelligence’ , argues that ‘intelligence is highly heritable and predicts important educational, occupational and health outcomes better than any other trait’. In an earlier paper, ‘Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement’, Plomin and his co-authors argued that ‘choosing to do A-levels and the choice of subjects show substantial genetic influence, as does performance after two years studying the chosen subjects’. Environment matters, says Plomin , but it’s possible that genes matter more.
All of which leads us to the field known as ‘educational genomics’. In an article of breathless enthusiasm entitled ‘How genetics could help future learners unlock hidden potential’ , University of Sussex psychologist, Darya Gaysina, describes educational genomics as the use of ‘detailed information about the human genome – DNA variants – to identify their contribution to particular traits that are related to education [… ] it is thought that one day, educational genomics could enable educational organisations to create tailor-made curriculum programmes based on a pupil’s DNA profile’. It could, she writes, ‘enable schools to accommodate a variety of different learning styles – both well-worn and modern – suited to the individual needs of the learner [and] help society to take a decisive step towards the creation of an education system that plays on the advantages of genetic background. Rather than the current system, that penalises those individuals who do not fit the educational mould’.
(Kerr, July 21, 2018)
Of course someone reading this might scoff derisively that there is no real connection between the content of each of these three passages – or rather that what connection there is is one that insinuates a rather hysterical and alarmist vision of the imminent future.
But there is another sense in that what links the content of the first and the third passage is precisely that notion of the human animal as a naturally-occurring machine-like organism set out in the second.
Even without having read Gaysina’s book, there are to my mind fundamental questions here that – the quote implies – have not even been considered let alone raised and answered.
Kerr’s conclusion raises a first point, explicitly referencing Huxley’s novel of 1931:
There is much about the science that seems problematic … but it isn’t the science that concerns me most. It’s the ethics. I don’t share Gaysina’s optimism that ‘every child in the future could be given the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential’. Her utopianism is my fear of Gattaca-like dystopias … When you already have reporting of educational genomics using terms like ‘dictate’, you have to fear for the future of Gaysina’s brave new world.
But a further point is the apparent conviction that there is nothing problematic in the idea of ‘achiev[ing] their maximum potential’ – for how are we to know in advance what an individual’s maximum potential actually is?
As far as I am aware, however great the advances in predictive technologies regarding, for example, in certain meteorological and geological events, there is no science that can look at a baby in a cradle and make a confident prediction on how that child’s life will develop – except, presumably, in the most general sense of probabilities based on the lives of the existing adult population (i.e. if you are born in a developed country, your lifespan is likely to be considerably higher than if you are born in the global south; then again, this is no guarantee that a child born in the former will outlive one born in the latter).
As potential regarding human life outcomes seems to be practically infinite, it seems hard to imagine quite what Gaysin meant by this other than an extremely vague sense of ‘good’.
In other words, it seems quite impossible to determine what exactly ‘potential’ should consist of or how and when it could be recognised, and if that is the case then how would we ever know whether or not the ‘potential’ has been truly unlocked?
By a similar token, the inclusion of other factors would seem to strain the claims made for a ‘Personalized Precision Education’ to breaking point and beyond for as according to Ben Williamson as cited by Kerr, Personalized Precision Education will also focus on
‘… the ways that individuals’ genotypes and environments interact, or how other “epigenetic” factors impact on whether and how genes become active’.
Even without a knowledge of the science let alone Gaysin’s evidence for the claim, skepticism does seem to be called for.
Still, I am open to be convinced if anyone can explain the issue more clearly.
Image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Unconscious Rivals. Oil on canvas. 1893. Although Gifford’s style of ‘journalese’ tends to overegg the pudding just a tad with some rather dramatic claims (e.g. online tutoring puts the learner back in the driving seat and The next set of winners are the tech savvy teachers) – it’s the kind of language I seem […]
The interview (and no doubt the book itself) is worth reading, but something that struck me as odd was the way practice – the key subject matter of the collection – was defined.
According to EFL Notes, Jones’s book defines practice as:
specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language.
I don’t have the context of the original quote for this as I haven’t either read or had access to the original, but it does seem a little on the vague side.
A first issue appears to be one of scale: as going to a class to learn English (French, Spanish, etc.) would be something done deliberately then we must be talking about something far below the institutional level or else outside the institution altogether. For example, I once knew someone who deliberately went to practice his Russian by standing on a street corner and asking for directions to the nearest Metro. Each time he was given instructions, he would return to the same spot and then ask someone again for directions to the very same station.
He managed this several times, apparently, until one almost too-helpful Muscovite insisted on not just taking him to the station, but getting him onto the train – at which point his experiment came to an end.
But what that anecdote does appear to illustrate is that “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language” may be – and in fact are – engaged in by learners independently and outside of classrooms on a regular basis.
Any would-be learner of English who has ever sat down to listen to the BBC World Service or a TED talk on YouTube or who has tried to read the news in English online could potentially be engaged in practice defined in this way.
So a second issue – or rather a potential issue – with the definition as cited by EFL Notes appears to be that practice (so defined) can apply to learning which occurs independently of any instruction or teaching. If, as according to one of Jones’s replies in the interview, it is the case that: “Teachers and researchers need evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills” then this suggests that independent learning activities may have been excluded (even though they should be included according to the definition – however perhaps autonomous learning is in fact dealt with.)
EFL Notes had apparently also pondered the looseness of the definition as his third question to Jones shows:
[EFL notes] The definition given in the book for practice is described as “broadly defined”. What would a more narrowly defined version say?
[Christian Jones:] A narrowly defined version of practice might view it something tied to a particular framework such as PPP. In fact, practice forms a part of many types of methodology. For example, in the TBLT literature, task repetition is undoubtedly a form of practice. A narrowly defined version might view it as something connected to learner output. In fact, we can and do talk of receptive and productive practice. A narrow version of practice might view it as connected only to skill building theories of second language acquisition but we can link it to several others, including the noticing hypothesis and input processing.
Jones’s answer here seems a little on the surprising side as it seems to be made on the fly, and evolve throughout the response. The result – for me at least – is somewhat perplexing. However, as perplexity is not without its uses, let’s take a closer look at the reply:
A narrowly defined version of practice might view it something tied to a particular framework such as PPP.
I hope I am not being uncharitable, but this appears to be saying that we can know when a stage or activity in a lesson is practice when the practitioner explicitly states it to be so or else believes it to be the case. So if a teacher is using the Presentation-Practice-Production model, then the second stage must involve Practice because that’s what the model dictates.
Anyone, of course, who has been involved in any kind of pre- or in-service teacher training in ELT, especially with CELTA or Trinity TESOL, will know that just because something is intended to be a practice stage does not necessarily mean that this is what will happen (The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley and all that.).
Then again, that is to assume that there is an unambiguous understanding of what Practice is or involves, but that is obviously still not explained in this part of the reply, narrowly or otherwise, except perhaps in the negative sense as being whatever isn’t involved in either the Presentation or Production stages is the Practice stage.
In this regard, it’s perhaps worth noting the following point raised by Scott Thornbury (video link above under Presentation-Practice-Production):
“… I think the PPP model does have a certain priming function. In other words, it raises learners’ awareness about certain features of the language and therefore they’re more likely – theoretically – to notice these in real language use when they engage with language either outside the classroom or in, uh, authentic use activities within the classroom.”
This is interesting for a number of reasons, but the one most relevant here is that Thornbury appears to be saying the value of PPP model is not that it involves practice as such, but that it potentially prepares students for practice at some later point.
Does a repetition of a task retrospectively transform the first attempt into practice? Does it still count as practice if it’s only performed once or is repetition necessary before an activity can be considered practice?
In fact, practice forms a part of many types of methodology. For example, in the TBLT literature, task repetition is undoubtedly a form of practice.
I have no objection to this part of the reply, but it does raise the obvious though important question as to exactly where and when the practice element is actually located.
Does a repetition of a task retrospectively transform the first attempt into practice? Does it still count as practice if it’s only performed once or is repetition necessary before an activity can be considered practice?
Or is it the case that any and all repetitions of the same task are to be understood as practice (e.g. Practice Task 1, 2, 3 … n) for what Thornbury just described as “language … outside the classroom” (i.e. ‘real’ use in the world as opposed to classroom use)?
And does this principle of “task repetition” as “undoubtedly a form of practice” assume that there is linear progress in that subsequent iterations of the same (or ‘the same’) task are believed to produce improvements on earlier ones?
This is presumably unanswerable unless you know what the criteria for success are – which is no easy feat in itself. For instance, if the success criteria are purely language related, wouldn’t that risk disincentivizing students from completing the task? Assuming this is a situation to be avoided in a task-based approach, it then becomes something of a challenge to distinguish between linguistic and non-linguistic success criteria.
The result in that case could be that it would be possible for one learner to improve their ability to complete the task, but not necessarily in their ability to use language more appropriately while doing so, while on the other hand another learner might improve in their use of the language yet still be unsuccessful in completing the task. This would be the case even if the task involved learners in: “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”.
I’m not saying that these problems are insurmountable or that they cannot be resolved through careful task design and administration – but what it does mean is that leaves the questions of what exactly practice is and when and where it happens unanswered.
It seems to be the case that what would make one task count as practice but another not is not the degree of success as such, but the quality of the reflection on the task performance.
Whether that reflection is guided by the teacher or conducted independently by the learner (or a combination of these), it suggests that ‘practice’ might be something quite different from what many (most importantly the learners) believe it to be. Especially important is that what makes something ‘practice’ here is a matter of perspective, not a matter of action.
A narrowly defined version might view it as something connected to learner output. In fact, we can and do talk of receptive and productive practice.
Again, this seems fairly uncontroversial – but only up to a point. For by including receptive practice alongside productive practice as something which involves outputs it becomes hard to see which classroom activities could then be excluded from being described as practice.
For instance, is explicit grammar instruction using the second language a form of practice or not?
Traditionally, the answer to this would be ‘No’.
But nevertheless, watching the teacher draw a timeline or other graphic on the board while listening to examples and explanations of the rule and taking notes must certainly count as a specific activity, an activity in the second language, potentially an activity which is systematic, of course deliberate, and undoubtedly an activity “with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”.
And if learners are invited to apply what they have learnt after such explicit instruction then it will also involve output.
So again, if receptive as well as productive practice are seen to include outputs, which aspects of the class are to be excluded? (Not counting such ‘idle’ moments as when, say, learners are chatting in L1 or checking their mobile phones while the teacher is writing up the aims of that day’s lesson at the very beginning of class as students are still filing in.)
It would be possible, I suppose, for a teacher to answer that question by limiting the sense of “learner output” to very specific sets of criteria within the framework of a particular task type. For example, by having students identify the difference between sentences using the past perfect and past simple causatives (i.e. We had painted the house. Vs We had the house painted.) – receptive practice – or having them produce the appropriate forms based on photo and word prompts – productive practice. Something along these lines perhaps:
Use the words below the photo to complete a sentence about what you can see.
we – have – paint
And of course, the problem immediately apparent here is the question of whether such tasks are properly speaking a form of language testing rather than a form of language practice (or even a form of language practice testing?).
(Incidentally and as an aside:
The problems with both the tasks given as examples just now are legion and not something I would either use or advocate using. While there is something of value in the receptive example – having learners consider the impact that word order has on the meaning between had painted the house and had the house painted – whatever that value is would likely seem compromised by the radical decontextualisation. For instance, in terms of actual usage, proficient speakers of English would surely be far more likely to use the contracted form of had in the past perfect version of the sentence – something impossible to do with had in the past simple (causative), i.e.
We’d painted the house.
*We’d the house painted.
In both cases, a far more useful demonstration might be to fit the sentences into a context. Even a relatively artificial one would do, e.g.
Match the correct response for each dialogue.
Was it expensive?
Really? How long did it take to do all that?
A:We had painted the house.
A: We had the house painted.
(Even in this version, We had painted the house still feels like it’s missing a phrase beginning by the time … or when … etc. Also, any ELT editor worth their salt would likely point out that both Was it expensive? and Really? How long did it take to do all that? are completely usable in both dialogues).
In the productive version, there are even more issues the most noticeable of which are:
1) learners would have to have already been carefully instructed about what to do with the task type to avoid them producing e.g. We have some paint. or We’ve been painting. which would both be perfectly acceptable descriptions of that photo. Therefore learners would have to be told to use either past perfect simple or past simple causative in advance (this would appear to make questionable the intended aim of the activity);
2) In this particular case, how are learners supposed to identify that the man in the photo is representative of the homeowner (in which case We had painted the house. must be the correct option) or representative of the painter and decorator employed by the homeowner (in which case We had the house painted. must be the answer)? After all, whether you are the homeowner or a contractor, in both cases you are likely to wear some kind of overalls – but then again the lack of overalls (as in the photo) is hardly proof that you are not a contractor, but a homeowner. In fact, the more you think about it, the more it becomes apparent that it would almost impossible to supply a photo or drawing which would unambiguously indicate a homeowner as opposed to a contractor (or vice versa). It hardly seems possible to imagine how this could be done in the absence of supplying far too many clues rather than too few – and if that is the case, what you thought you were practising (i.e. the correct application of one form over the other to a suitable context) might not be what you are actually practising (i.e. the correct formulation of a particular form).
Incidentally, the meaning of We had painted the house. andWe had the house painted. could refer to either painting in the sense of painting and decoration or painting as in the sense of using oils or watercolours.)
Moving on (my emphasis):
A narrow version of practice might view it as connected only to skill building theories of second language acquisition but we can link it to several others, including the noticing hypothesis and input processing.
I’m slightly baffled as to what exactly Jones is defining as practice as opposed to acquisition here.
Perhaps what he really means to say is that practice in second language learning is more or less indistinguishable from (and therefore interchangeable as a term with) second language acquisition.
But then again that seems not to be the case when in the same interview with EFL Notes he clearly states that (my emphasis):
Practice is a central part of second language teaching and learning in many contexts and yet remains somewhat under-researched. This seems something of a gap in the literature. Teachers and researchers need evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills.
The description Jones gives of practice here seems completely indistinguishable from similar descriptions of SLA made in other contexts an example of which would be Lourdes Ortega‘s opening plenary in Brighton IATEFL 2018, What is SLA research good for anyway?The thrust of Ortega’s plenary was to present a case for why teachers ought to take more notice of what SLA research has to say as indicated in her abstract:
In my nearly 20 years of being a second language acquisition (SLA) researcher, I have met many language teachers who told me learning about SLA really shifted their thinking about their teaching practice and their approach to teaching […] My goal is to provide tools for thinking about research and teaching as imperfectly and not always obviously compatible perspectives that can enrich the professional lives of language teachers and researchers alike – but only when a delicate balance between idealism and pragmatism is struck.
It might be worth also noting that Ortega authored one of the chapters in the 2007 Practice in a second language: perspectives from applied linguistics and cognitive psychology edited by Robert DeKeyser, which Jones explicitly references in the interview (“There has not been a volume focused on this area since Robert DeKeyser’s book” he tells EFL notes). Her chapter in that work, ‘Meaningful L2 practice in foreign language classrooms: A cognitive-interactionist SLA perspective’ begins:
For many years now classroom-based SLA researchers have concerned themselves with how L2 practice contributes to L2 learning. In doing so they have produced a rich body of empirical evidence suggestive of certain qualities in practice that inherently call for the engagement of L2 competence-expanding processes within instructed contexts. The approach to L2 practice that this chapter presents rests on a number of cognitive-interactionist SLA theories that view language learning as arising from the interaction of multiple inﬂuences which are both learner internal (e.g., attention to form) and learner-external (e.g., a task design that offers essential L2 input and feedback).
(Ortega, 2007: 180)
At further risk of sounding like even more or an ignoramus than I may well already appear to some readers, if Jones’s use of practice is more or less interchangeable with acquisition then in what sense can it be claimed that the area “remains somewhat under-researched” or that there appears to be “something of a gap in the literature”?
Maybe what is meant is that while there is plenty of literature on SLA there is not enough on how the findings from this literature can be practically applied to the classroom.
But then this in turn also seems a little odd because isn’t SLA already the branch of Applied Linguistics largely (even almost exclusively?) focussed on finding empirical evidence for the efficacy of language learning and teaching Approach X over Approaches Y and Z?
In other words, if SLA isn’t already about providing “evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills”, what is it about?
This isn’t the X-Files and the answers in this case no doubt really are out there – and yes, naturally, it would help a great deal if I was much more widely read in this area than I evidently am.
Even so, it does seem at least a little odd that practice should not only be defined rather vaguely in its own terms, but that it should also not be made evident how it differs from acquisition.
Image: V. R. Konovalov. Сталин с детьми. [Stalin with the children]. Oil on canvas. c. 1950.
Now, one prominent proponent of learning styles, Carol Black, has written a blog in defence of the idea. Black seems to think that the idea of matching teaching to learning styles is a ‘straw man’ i.e. nobody actually thinks that we should do this. However, it is not clear to me what she therefore thinks is the value of learning styles theories for teachers. But that does not seem to be the main point of the piece.
Instead, throughout her blog, Black reproduces a number of Tweets debunking learning styles that are all written by men. She comments:
“A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a prominent debunker, has shared some rather patronizing speculations as to why the vast majority of (mostly female) teachers persist in thinking their students have different learning styles (“I think learning styles theory is widely accepted because the idea is so appealing. It would be so nice if it were true.”) His paternal tone is especially disturbing since he makes his case by failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views from respected scientists and education researchers.”
Is this really about sexism? Are learning styles debunkers really just a bunch of men having a go at what they perceive to be the silly beliefs of women?
No. It is about science, and men and women can access scientific truths equally well.
Image: Lisa Milroy. Shoes. Oil on canvas. 1988. Dan Baines of Oxford House Prague recently guest-posted on Sandy Millin’s blog about his attempts at organising continuing professional development for the teachers within his school under a variety of constraints. Baines’s main focus (as both the title and Millin’s introduction suggest) was really about using photos […]