Hi

Harold R. Keables

This blog has two aims.

1. To provide those doing a postgraduate course in Applied Linguistics and TESOL with a forum, where issues related to their studies are discussed and some extra materials provided. It is completely independent, and has no support or connections with any university. Let me make these preliminary remarks:

Academics teach and do research. Most of them prefer research to teaching and they haven’t been taught how to teach. So in tertiary education, teaching methodology matters little: it’s the student who counts. The students who go to the best universities are carefully selected, and a key criterion in the selection process is the student’s ability to study without spoon-feeding. A good student does her own studying and knows how to draw on the resources offered. When you sign up for a post-graduate course know that you are in charge and that you, and you alone, will determine the outcome. Your tutor is an expert, not, usually, a teacher. Your job is to use your tutor’s expertise, which means asking the right questions. Don’t ask “What should I do?”, or “Please suggest a topic”. Ask for comments on your own drafts, ask for guidance on reading; ask for clarification. Get into a dialogue with your tutor; shoot the breeze; get familiar; build a relationship, but remember: your tutor is your mentor in the Greek sense of the word, not your teacher.

2. To question the ELT Establishment

The increasing commercialisation of ELT and the corresponding weakening of genuinely educational concerns has resulted in most teachers being forced to teach in a way that shows scant regard for their worth, their training, their opinions, their job satisfaction, or the use of appropriate methods and materials. This is, in my opinion, a disgraceful state of affairs, and one which teachers need to become more aware of.

The biggest single obstacle to good ELT is the coursebook, which forces teachers to work within a framework where students are led through successive units of the book, spending too much time working on isolated linguistic structures and carefully-controlled vocabulary in a sequence which is externally predetermined and imposed on them by the textbook writer. These best-selling, globally-marketed coursebooks (and their attendant teacher books, workbooks, audio, video multimedia and web-based material) have huge promotional budgets aimed at persuading stakeholders in the ELT business that they represent the best practical way to teach English as a second or foreign language. Part of this budget is spent on sponsoring teaching conferences like TESOL International, IATEFL and all the national conferences, where the stars of the ELT world strut their stuff, and, loathe to bite the hand that feeds them, refrain from any serious criticism of the current teaching orthodoxy neatly packaged into shiny coursebooks.

In the last 50 years, studies into SLA have provided supporting evidence for the theory that SLA is a process whereby the learner’s interlanguage (a dynamic, idiosyncratic, evolving linguistic system approximating to the target language) develops as a result of attempts to communicate in the target language. The research suggests that interlanguage development progresses in stages and that it’s impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages. Thus, teachability is constrained by learnability and any coursebook-driven syllabus which attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners is futile: learning happens in spite of and not because of the course design.

So this blog sets out to question the establishment and the status quo by challenging the role of coursebooks, by being critical of the so-called experts and leaders of the ELT industry – the textbook writers, teacher trainers and examiners; and by promoting the ideas of all those who are trying to buck the trend.

Critical Thinking: A Few Thoughts

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Some random thoughts.

  • The basic concept of critical thinking is simple. It’s the art of taking charge of your own mind.
  • Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.
  • Critical thinkers are by nature skeptical. They approach texts with suspicion.

Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that undermine the logic of an argument.

1. Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim. Example:

Well-conceived (lexically-informed) coursebooks help learners learn better than badly-conceived (grammar-informed) coursebooks.

The conclusion that should be proved is already assumed in the claim.

2. Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it. Example:

Coursebooks present a well-organised sequence of classroom practice and a well-organised sequence of classroom practice is good.

The conclusion and the evidence used to prove it are basically the same idea. Specific evidence is needed to support either half of the sentence.

3. Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments. Example:

Universal grammar is wrong because Chomsky is rude about those he criticises.

Obviously fallacious but very common (BTW; I challenge anybody to find examples of ad homminen arguments on my blog).

4. Ad populum: An emotional appeal that speaks to positive or negative concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Example:

If you were less interested in proving yourself right by giving obscure academic references, you would appreciate what I’m trying to say.

Obviously fallacious, but a common ploy used in those replying to my criticisms of their work.

5. Red Herring: A diversionary tactic that avoids the key issues, often by avoiding opposing arguments rather than addressing them. Example:

What you say about my inability to put together a coherent argument in well-formed sentences may have some justification, but what’s important is that you resort to gratuitous insults.

The author switches the discussion away from the point in question and talks instead about another issue.

6. Straw Man: This move oversimplifies an opponent’s viewpoint and then attacks that hollow argument.

Example:

Jane says “In CELTA, I think we should look at alternatives to the current end of course exams, such as portfolios .”

John says “If you abandon the established and proven ways of objectively assessing students’ knowledge and competencies, then you undermine the high standards we’ve set for the course.”   

Jane didn’t suggest abandoning all assessment. John is not treating the argument fairly, or refuting Jane’s position.

7. Moral Equivalence: This fallacy compares minor misdeeds with major wrongs. Example

Your suggestion that I write badly and can’t put together a coherent argument is as deplorable as a fundamental attack on human rights. 

The author compares the relatively harmless actions of an  outspoken critic with a serious attack on decent values. This comparison is unfair and inaccurate.

When studying for an MA or when walking through life, one of the very best things you can do is keep your atenna up and, to mix metaphors, sniff out bullshit. Bullshit is everywhere, and lots of it is used to defend the status quo.

Thinking critically involves never believing what you’re told without question. Sniffing out fallacies is one of the best mental exercises there is and you should make it a habit. Whenever you read a text, particularly if it’s the work of anybody in authority (academic, political, whatever), first check for logical fallacies. Then, try to detect the assumptions which inform the argument: what does the argument rest on? While there are some excellent scholars and some excellent teachers with little academic inclination writing fantastic stuff that we would do well to take notice of, there are also a bunch of fools (more and more of them teaching in universities) talking crap. We need to hone our critical thinking in order to push ahead.

Materials Banks: an Alternative to Coursebooks

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Using a materials bank as an alternative to coursebooks doesn’t mean ripping off published materials. There is a wealth of materials available online which don’t infringe copyright laws. A few examples are listed below. I’m not endorsing  any of them,  except One Stop English,  just replying to the objection that if teachers don’t use a coursebook they risk breaking the law.

One Stop English

British Council

American English

ESL Gold

BBC

TEFL.net 

Using English 

I’m sure readers can suggest more and better sources than these. Any search on “Materials for teaching English as a second language” or something similar will give you dozens of websites to explore – as if you didn’t know!

Of course, this is just one way to find materials. You can also do searches for video and audio material, grammar stuff, reading  texts, case studies, simulations, games, quizzes, tests, etc.. too, and, respecting copyright laws, use them with learners, making worksheets where necessary. And there are obvious ways that teachers can share the materials they’ve made themselves, not just by blogging but by creating spaces on the internet where their materials are made available to teachers working in the same school or institution, the same city, and so on. The arrogant suggestion that these materials are amateurish and lacking the sophistication and expert knowledge displayed in coursebooks is insulting (sic) and evidently defensive.

It’s simply not true that there are no realistic alternatives to coursebooks. Neither is it true that finding and adapting materials is such an arduous process that it puts an unreasonable burden on teachers. Even at an individual level, teachers can find good materials quickly and easily these days. But, more importantly, any good ELT school or department can, with a relatively small initial outlay, help teachers assemble a good materials bank. All that’s needed is an appreciation of the benefits which accrue and the will to break free of the suffocating influence of the coursebook.

When I worked at ESADE Idiomas (a language school in Barcelona) before coursebooks took over everybody shared the materials they used, and there was a fantastic (chaotic and badly-organised, but nevertheless rich)  materials bank of cassettes, printed worksheets, video tapes, lesson plans, case studies, etc. in the teachers room. There were even, now I remember, multiple copies on cassette of the BBC news at 8am with a worksheet – made by Nick Greenwood, God bless his cotton socks – available before noon every day. When I arrived in 1982, the teachers room in ESADE Idiomas was without doubt the best workplace I’ve ever been in. It was just fantastic. There was such a lively interchange of ideas going on about all aspects of ELT, and probably the most important single element in this invigorating scenario was the free flow of materials among us. I’m quite sure that the arrival of coursebooks in the early 90s had a very negative effect on all that interchange of creative ideas.

So don’t  believe the coursebook writers when they tell you that they provide the best materials and that you’d be lost without them. Your teaching will, I fervently believe, improve enormously if you teach without relying on a coursebook.

A Bloggingly Good Blog

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Anthony Schmidt’s recent post My Favorite Coursebooks..  does what others who made limp objections to my general criticism of coursebooks failed to do: it gives a reasoned defence of two coursebooks.  It is, in my opinion, an excellent contribution to the discussion, and it alerted me to his blog, which I recommend to all.

Anthony’s blog has lots of good stuff, and I’m amazed to see that he has so few followers. Ruth Bard thinks he’s great and so does the incomparable Mura, so get over there and click on follow.

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Challenging the Coursebook: Part 2

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My presentation in Part 1 argued that ELT should break the bad habit of relying on coursebooks. In response to comments, I offer here a bit more about interlanguage. My thanks to Alessandro Grimaldi for his paper which I’ve used to help me write this.

U-shaped learning behaviour is one of the patterns observed in the development of interlanguages. I should say at once that “interlanguage” is a theoretical construct, not a fact. While interlanguage as a construct has proved useful in developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct itself needs developing, and the theory which it is part of  is incomplete, and possibly false. Any good theory must allow that empirical observations can be made which will falsify it, but, so far, interlanguage theory has stood up to a number of such challenges quite well. Part of the support for the theory comes from observations of U-shaped behaviour in SLA, which indicate that learners’ interlanguage development is not linear. The same data can be used to show that the approach taken by all coursebooks which present and practice a sequence of discrete, formal aspects of the English language, on the assumption that these will be learned in the linear order that they’re presented, is wrong      

An example of U-shaped behaviour is this:

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 The example here is from a study in the 70s. Another example comes from morphological development, specifically, the development of English irregular past forms, such as came, went, broke, which are supplanted by rule-governed, but deviant past forms: comed, goed, breaked. In time, these new forms are themselves replaced by the irregular forms that appeared in the initial stage.

There are examples of lexis such as this:

 

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which indicates that the U-shaped learning curve is observed in learning the lexicon, too. Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, not just their canonical meaning. While learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. The suggestion of cognitive theory of SLA is that only by passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, can they climb back up the U-shaped curve. To add to the example of “feet” above, there’s the example of the noun ‘shop.’ Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I bought a pastry at the coffee shop yesterday.” Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).

The re-organisation of new information as learners move along the U-shaped curve is a characteristic of interlanguage development. Associated with this restructuring is the construct of automaticity. Language acquisition can be seen as a complex cognitive skill where as your skill level in a domain increases, the amount of attention you need to perform generally decreases . The basis of processing theories of SLA is that we have limited resources when it comes to processing information and so the more we can make the process automatic, the more processing capacity we free up for other work.  Active attention requires more mental work, and thus, developing the skill of fluent language use involves making more and more of it automatic, so that no active attention is required. This is what I was referring to in my presentation when I compared learning a language to learning to drive a car. Through practice, language skills go  from a ‘controlled process’ in which great attention and conscious effort is needed to an ‘automatic process’. Such a process is mediated through constant restructuring of the interlanguage along the U-shaped development curve.

Automaticity can be said to occur when associative connections between a certain kind of input and some output pattern occurs.  For instance, in this exchange:

Speaker 1: Morning.

Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?

Speaker 1: Fine, and you?

Speaker 2: Fine.

the speakers, in most situations, don’t actively think about what they’re saying. In the same way, second language learners’ learn new language through use of controlled processes, which become automatic, and in turn free up controlled processes which can then be directed to new forms. Segalowitz applies this idea to a wide variety of skills when he says:

”Automatizing certain aspects of performance in order to free up attentional resources is fundamental to skilled performance in a number of areas because it allows performers to allocate their limited capacities to where they are most needed. That is, to a large extent, fluent performance in such areas as music or reading (e.g. performing particular runs or arpeggios on the piano; word recognition) involves being able to carry out certain activities with little or no investment of psychological resources (memory capacity, limited attentional capacity).”

We must now add to the hypothesis that learners are constantly restructuring their language as they move through the stages of the U-shaped learning curve the hypothesis of a fixed order of acquisition of parts of English, which I referred to in my presentation. I won’t repeat all that again, but I should make it clear that we don’t know very much about this fixed order – and even if we did, this wouldn’t mean that we were in a position to prescribe an order ofr presentation of structures or lexis in a syllabus. The research into SLA so far has only scratched the surface: most of the work remains to be done. But at least we know enough to say that learners don’t learn English in the way assumed by a coursebook series such as Headway. My argument is that coursebooks demonstrate a common underlying view of how language should be presented and practiced. This view rests on 4 false assumptions about proceduralisation, accumulation, teachability, and the product syllabus.

Needless to say, but say it I must, my arguments are no more than that, and I invite rational discussion of them. In his most recent response to these arguments Dellar says coursebooks are different from each other and teachers use coursebooks in different ways. This fails to address the issues. Much more interesting is Laura’s question “What can realistically be done as an alternative to using textbooks?” I’ll try to answer that very soon.

Carlucci, L. and Case, J.  (2013)  On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning. Topics.

Dellar Defends the Coursebook

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Following my post on Challenging the Coursebook, there was an exchange of tweets led by Hugh Dellar, who said the following

  • “the talk seems based on number of bold claims and misconceptions. doesn’t he realise teachers mediate coursebooks?”
  • “of course teachers influence coursebook design yes. And if they showed less enthusiasm for grammar it’d all change.”
  • “if teachers were to stop buying grammar-dominated books tomorrow, publishers would stop publishing them.”
  • “Talk to publishing folk & see how in thrall they are to teachers’ demands and expectations.”

The gist here seems to be that teachers like coursebooks and coursebooks are based on the presentation and practice of discrete bits of grammar because that’s what teachers want.

Dellar has elsewhere defended the use of coursebooks with such arguments as

  • People teaching in very poor parts of the world would just love to have coursebooks
  • Coursebooks are well-researched
  • Coursebooks help teachers do their jobs

none of which addresses the criticisms I made of them. So let me go over the ground again.

Carl-Richards-false-assumption-sketch

My argument against coursebooks is, first, that they are based on 3 false assumptions:

  1. Declarative knowledge is converted to procedural knowledge by the presentation and practice of discrete items of grammar.
  2. SLA is a process of learning these discrete items one by one in an accumulative way.
  3. Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. .

In my presentation, I indicated why these assumptions are false, so I won’t repeat the reasons here, but perhaps it’s worth saying again that the reasons are based on the best model we have so far of SLA: the development of learners’ interlanguages. “Interlanguage” is a rich, complex, much studied construct in SLA, and it refers to learners’ mostly implicit, evolving representations of the target language. In the development of interlanguages there is an order of acquisition, a route (from a basic to a more sophisticated representation of the L2) which is impervious to instruction and which is completely at odds with the order in which coursebooks present the formal properties of the language. All the “items” artificially separated in coursebooks are, in fact, inextricably linked parts of language, and they’re learned by a complex route (involving “U-shaped”, circular, regressive, and other moves) which has NOTHING in common with the linear, one-by-one process assumed by coursebooks.

Product Process

The second part of my argument was that coursebooks embody what Breen (1987) calls a “product syllabus”, and that a product syllabus is a bad way to structure a course. Again, I refer you to my presentation for a summary of what’s wrong with a product syllabus and why a process syllabus is better.

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And so we come back to the apologists who want to defend coursebooks. Absolutely nothing Dellar says answers the criticisms I’ve made of them. He says that not all coursebooks are the same, but he says not one word to refute my suggestion that false assumptions unify them, or that a product syllabus is defective. Dellar’s claim that he has replaced the grammar-based coursebook with one which embraces the principles of some ill-defined lexical approach fails to deal with the fact that if a teacher uses a coursebook to lead learners through a pre-determined series of steps, learners will not learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. Whatever results learners might get from being led through a course based on Dellar’s ironically-named magnum opus “Outcomes”, replete with its endless fill-in-the-gap exercises and lexical chunks, they will not be those simplistically assumed by its author, because language learning is not what Dellar assumes it to be.

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My argument is that the whole venture is fundamentally flawed: the ELT industry has imposed coursebooks on teachers, to the detriment of good teaching. In order to reply to this argument, Dellar must confront the three false assumptions on which coursebook use is based: he must confront the evidence of how SLA actually happens. That coursebooks are the dream of teachers working in Ethiopia; that coursebooks are cherished by millions of teachers who just really love them; that the Headway team have succeeded in keeping their products fresh and lively; that Outcome includes recordings of people who don’t have RP accents; that coursebooks are mediated by teachers; that coursebooks rule and that’s the way it is, so get real; none of these spurious statements carries any weight for those who base their teaching practice on critical thinking and rational argument.

In reply to my suggestion that he write up his criticisms of my presentation in something more coherent and cohesive than a series of tweets, Dellar replied “Life’s too short. I’ve got a coursebook to write.” And there it is: Dellar’s too busy peddling his wares to bother with principled criticism.

Challenging The Course Book

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Here’s a version of the presentation I gave at the InnovateELT conference. Click here.

I’m sorry to have missed a lot of it, but I was there long enough to appreciate the energy and warmth of the event. It was fresh, buzzing, and exactly the right scale. Great – innovative! – idea to have the “speed dating” session at the end where 6 presenters zoomed round groups who quizzed them. I tip my hat to the organisers and to the perfect support staff. Now THAT’s the way conferences should be run!

 

Text Analysis

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In response to Scott Thornbury’s post “P is for Power” which appeared recently on his blog, one commentator admonishes Scott for including a  quote which makes “a gratuitously insulting and entirely unjustified comment about IATEFL.” Here’s what he says:

IATEFL first: well lets’s start with the fact that anyone, anywhere in the world can attend IATEFL for free, online. Shoddy? I don;t think so. And that many of the talks are given by people who are not representing or have anything to do with publishers or any concept of greed; that two of this year’s outstanding plenaries were given about situations where that kind of power (though there are others, of course) is not in evidence; that IATEFL is run by a bunch of principled, engaged and committed educators, volunteers for Heaven’s sake, who think it is is their obligation to make their organisation as pluralistic as possible. Yes, there are publishers and exam boards everywhere, but without their money and support IATEFL could not even begin to think of organising conferences where people like Nicola and Russ most deservedly have a chance to communicate their research and feelings to the whole profession – and however well- or badly-informed the comment have been about that, the fact is that a loud discussion is taking place and that’s good – and without IATEFL it wouldn’t have happened. Hand on heart I really admire IATEFL and the effort it makes to be inclusive, egalitarian and fair impress me. It’s easy to try and tar the organisation with unsubstantiated accusations of greed and shoddiness, but as a proud member of the organisation (I declare my interest) I don’t think it holds up.

I showed this text to my daughter. Her opinion was that, given the quality of the text, its author was obviously educationally challenged, and her advice was that whoever had the onerous task of looking after him should enrol him in some remedial course where he could learn the rudiments of sentence structure and written discourse.  She was surprised to hear that the text was written by a professional writer; astonished at the additional information that people actually bought his books; and she fell off her chair when I told her that his book “How to Teach Writing” was required reading in all CELTA courses run in Whoofingham on the Weed.

Let’s take a closer look.

textanalysis

The first argument is: IATEFL offered free online coverage of the conference, so it wasn’t shoddy.  Doesn’t work, does it?

The next sentence is a complete mess, but we can isolate 3 bits:

many of the talks are given by people who are not representing or have anything to do with publishers or any concept of greed. I think this means that some talks were given by people who weren’t associated with publishers, and some by people who weren’t greedy, but perhaps it means that many talks were given by people who were neither associated with publishers nor greedy. Anyway, it carries no force as an argument.

two of this year’s outstanding plenaries were given about situations where that kind of power (though there are others, of course) is not in evidence.  Since we don’t know what “that kind of power”  or the “others” refer to, it’s anybody’s guess what he’s talking about.

IATEFL is run by a bunch of principled, engaged and committed educators, volunteers for Heaven’s sake, who think it is is their obligation to make their organisation as pluralistic as possible.  This is pure assertion, and carries no weight as an argument.

The next sentence gets off to a promising start, but after that it collapses once again into chaos. To be fair, it does just about manage to make the point that the conference relies on sponsors.

Having declared his admiration for IATEFL and said how impressed he is by its efforts to be “inclusive, egalitarian and fair”, the writer concludes with yet another sentence which, grammatically speaking, falls at the last fence.

It’s easy to try and tar the organisation with unsubstantiated accusations of greed and shoddiness, but as a proud member of the organisation (I declare my interest) I don’t think it holds up. He means I don’t think they hold up. 

What’s notable is that the final sweeping remark attempts to majestically tie up an argument which has never been made. And this is the key to a critique of the text: it’s not just verging on illiterate, more importantly, the strangled arguments gasping for expression rely almost entirely on appeals to overworked sentiment. There’s no need to argue your case, it’s enough to really really really believe in it. In a talk at the IATEFL conference the author yelled “Why do I say this? Because I believe it.” In the text examined here, if he puts his hand on his heart and tells us he really admires IATEFL, well he must be right. If, as a proud member of IATEFL, he doesn’t think the accusations hold up, well then they don’t.  As if in some ridiculous,  Americanised, heart-on-sleeve parody of Dickensian school teachers, the discourse equates bossy sincerity with moral high ground. Running through all the dross of this text is the absurd assumption that with position comes overweening moral authority; power bestows authority to sentiments so that their expression acts as a kind of categorical imperative. I, as a senior, well-recognised, much-garlanded figure in my field, have deep, heartfelt  feelings on this matter. I honestly, sincerely, completely believe I’m right about this. Ergo, I’m right about this.