This is my second NILE MA module, Materials Development for Language Education, abbreviated to MAT. I have previously complete the Trainer Development module. You can see my related blog posts here.
Here are various bits and pieces from week two of the course, things which I wanted to remember, notes I’ve made while reading, and on-going tasks we’ve been asked to provide. The notes are there for me and they don’t cover every section of the course, but you may find something useful in there, or something you’d like to investigate further. Please note: this is not intended as a subsistute for doing this reading or this course yourself – it’s very subjective and based on my interests adn the things which stood out to me. Any one section from it could easily be a post in itself, but I want to keep it all together, and you don’t want me to share hundreds of posts 😉 I’ll post one of these in each of the three weeks of the online course. Here is the post for week one.
Unit 3: Cognitive Demand
My answers to a sentence completion task:
- When I give my learners material that is too difficult for them, they get depressed and demotivated. Some of them give up. If I’m lucky, they ask for help, but only once they’ve already struggled for a while.
- When I give my learners work that is too easy, they either (a) get complacent, (b) get bored, or (c) mess about, the last one particularly so if they’re young learners or teens.
- Somebody once said “Every class is a mixed ability class”. My class is a mixed ability class! (Because I completely agree with that statement – not thinking about any one particular class)
- When it comes to working things out for themselves, most of my learners are able and willing to try, especially if they’re older. For young learners, young teens, lower levels, those with prior history of problems with education (particularly connected to dyslexia and other working memory problems), this may be more challenging though.
- For my learners, critical thinking is something I don’t specifically talk about – I’ve learnt more about it over the past few years, but have mostly worked with very low levels over the last couple of years, so it’s been a challenge to incorporate it.
How cognitive demand affects learners
These notes are based on videos we watched on the NILE platform.
If the cognitive demand is too high/the materials are too difficult, there are high levels of frustration which means there’s no learning and demotivation. The effects include learners speaking L1, getting anxious and stressed, a drop in confidence. With adults who are paying for their lessons, they might be particularly frustrated.
If materials are too easy, learners are not challenged or engaged. Again, they’re not learning. Sometimes it can be a confidence builder if learners feel they have achieved something, but only when used in moderation. It can seem patronising for learners, as well as boring. Parents and learners might be annoyed that they’re not learning.
In mixed-ability classes (all classes!), materials which can be used flexibly and/or which include suggestions for differentiation in the teachers’ notes can be particularly useful. Tasks which can appeal to a range of levels work well: scaffolding for lower levels, and providing extension tasks for higher levels. Tom Sarney gave the example of reading questions which start easy and get more cognitively challenging, and Carole Robinson suggested providing a glossary or images to help learners understand a text.
Materials requiring learners to work things out for themselves can be good if it provides learners with a push, but if they work things out too easily then it might not be motivating for them. Claudia Rey mentions working within the ZPD, helping learners to work things out for themselves with a little guidance. For teens, it’s helpful to push learners to work independently – this doesn’t just help them with their English, but with life skills too. Tom Sarney mentions an enquiry-based approach. Adults may be more likely to want to work independently in their studies, though we may need to give them the tools to do this.
Critical thinking is important at all age groups and levels, not least because it’s in such demand in work. The challenge is the balance between language skills and critical thinking. In some contexts, there may be resistance to critical thinking activities. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a useful way to incorporate a range of different thinking skills. With young learners and teens, you need to develop these skills. With adults, you can consider critical thinking skills to help you make materials more interesting.
We could learn from video game designers, who need to create the correct level of challenge to keep us playing.
Questions in language learning materials
These are my ideas about characteristics of good questions in language learning materials:
- They need to be answerable! Or lead to some form of meaningful discussion about possible answers if they’re questions which are more philosophical in nature.
- The language of the questions should be at or below the current language level of the students.
- The language learners need to use to answer the questions should be available to them, for example language they have previously been introduced to. If they need new language to answer the questions, it shouldn’t get in the way of smooth communication.
- Discussion questions should motivate a genuine exchange of information, rather than being pure display questions.
- Comprehension questions should require responses spaced throughout the text, rather than being bunched too closely together. They should also not be answered by information in the first sentence or two.
- You should include a wide range of different types of questions.
We were asked to look at a double-page spread in a coursebook, find the questions, and identify the reasons for them.
I looked at the sample unit for the student’s book of English File Intermediate third edition on the OUP website. These are the questions I found on pp. 4-5, and the reasons I think they’re there: (Note: I only selected things which were phrased as grammatical questions – there were lots of other things for learners to do)
- Vocabulary: Can you think of…ONE red fruit, ONE yellow fruit, ONE green fruit? (etc. – a quiz with 6 questions)
To engage learners in the topic.
To assess prior knowledge.
- Vocabulary: Listen to these common adjectives to describe food. Do you know what they mean?
To assess prior knowledge.
- Pronunciation: Look at the eight sound pictures. What are the words and sounds?
To assess prior knowledge.
To stimulate learnes to remember (if they’ve used a previous book in the series)
- Pronunciation: What part of the symbol tells you that a sound is long?
To assess prior knowledge.
To guide learners to notice.
To guide them to form hypotheses.
- Listening and speaking: questionnaire with 5 questions (I’ll call these 5a when referring back to it)
(before listening) To engage learners in the topic (they’re about to listen to people answer the same questions)
(before listening) To activate schemata related to the listening they’re about to do.
(after listening) To stimulate language use. (they answer the questions themselves)
(after listening) To encourage personalisation.
(after listening) What do you have in common? (I’ll call this 5b) To improve group dynamics, as learners learn more about each other and find out what they might have in common.
- Reading: Are the foods in the list carbohydrates or proteins?
To assess prior knowledge.
- Reading: What kind of food do you think it is better to eat…for lunch if you have an important exam or meeting? (etc. – this is one of 4 endings to the question)
To engage learners in the topic.
To encourage personalisation.
To stimulate language use.
To share ideas.
To stimulate learners to remember (vocabulary covered previously could be re-used here)
- Reading: Look at the title of the article. What do you think it means?
To engage learners in the topic.
To stimulate learners to think.
To activate schemata related to the reading they’re about to do.
- Reading: Find adjectives in the article for the verbs and nouns in the list. What’s the different between the two adjectives made from stress?
To guide learners to notice.
To guide them to form hypotheses.
- Reading: Three questions following the text, for example How often do you eat chocolate? Does it make you feel happier?
To encourage personalisation.
To stimulate language use.
To stimulate learners to remember (vocabulary covered previously could be re-used here)
(final question only) To stimulate learners to think more deeply
This was an interesting process to go through!
We were referred to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Diana Freeman’s Taxonomy of Reading Comprehension Questions, and the idea of moving from conrete to abstract questions Mike Gershon as ways of checking that you have included a range of questions in your work. (Mike Gershon has a resource called ‘The Bloom Buster‘ with hundreds of question stems.)
I find Bloom’s Taxonomy to be pretty abstract, and often struggle to work out which category particular questions or activities might fall under. I feel like it could potentially be pretty overwhelming when used as a way of generating questions too, though The Bloom Buster I’ve just mentioned could be a useful tool if you’re feeling writer’s block. Diana Freeman’s taxonomy is the most useful of these categorisations for me, as it’s specifically connected to EFL, and the three main categories of content, language, and affect seem like they are the most useful way of breaking down questions I’m likely to be working with. The way they are sub-divided incorporates some of the complexity of models like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but in a way which I find to be much more accessible. Of the ones we’ve been introduced to, this is the model I’m most likely to use when checking questions/instructions I have produced or looking for inspiration for my materials. The downside is that it’s specifically aimed at reading comprehension, though I think the main categories could be adapted to other areas of materials.
Looking at the same coursebook double-page from English File as before and attempting to use Freeman’s taxonomy, I think I can see the following types of questions:
- (not sure – doesn’t really map onto this taxonomy – probably a Language question?)
- Language: Lexical
- Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
- Language: Form (? might not be possible to map onto this taxonomy)
- 5a: Content: Textually explicit (if memory serves! I don’t have access to the transcript/audio now)
5b: Affect: Personal response
- Language: Re-organisation (matching)
- Affect: Personal response
- Content: Inferential
- Language: Lexical
- Affect: Personal response
Based on the prompts we were given about problems with questions, these are my tips for writing good questions, some of which are still the same as when I started this section, and some of which are more specific 🙂
- Use display questions with caution – don’t overdo them.
- Aim to convert closed questions into open questions when appropriate, to increase thinking and language output.
- Limit memory testing questions to testing memory! If you want to teach and you want learners to learn, use a wider range of question types.
- Make questions specific, so it’s clear what kind of answer is appropriate.
- Keep question wording/structure simple, so that learners have cognitive space left to give complex answers, rather than struggling to understand the question. (this refers back to the language level in my ideas)
- Make sure that if a range of answers are possible, you don’t rely on learners getting one specific answer for the next stage of the materials. Avoid ‘guess what I’m thinking’. (this refers back to ‘make sure they are answerable’ in my ideas at the start)
- Have a clear pedagogical purpose in mind for questions you include in materials.
- Check that questions require genuine understanding, not just lifting of information.
These are my ideas for what makes for clear instructions in materials:
- Use imperatives.
- Keep sentences short and language simple.
- Have one idea per sentence in the rubric, or, if necessary two which are linked by a simple conjunction, like ‘and’.
- Break down stages of activities into separate instructions or parts of the task as needed. (Stage instructions.)
- Include all of the instructions that a learner would need to complete the task. Don’t leave them guessing or struggling to work out exactly what is needed. For example, tell them where to write the answers.
- Include parameters where appropriate, for example time limits or an indication of the number of items learners should think of.
- Wherever possible/appropriate, supplement instructions with a worked example of what learners are expected to do.
- Design : Make sure that instructions stand out from the rest of the text.
- Design: Avoid having instructions run over to a new line wherever possible – this can make it easier for learners with dyslexia to follow.
There were a few extra points in the materials we were given on the module, but this was a pretty good start. I’m afraid you’ll have to do the course to get the full list!
Think globally, act locally
We watched this talk by Alan Pulverness.
Before watching: When and why do you usually adapt materials?
I adapt materials all the time – I rarely use materials exactly as they are in class, even if that’s what I planned to do when I started the lesson. I adapt them for a wide range of reasons (in no particular order):
- To be more engaging for learners (I hope!)
- To make them longer/shorter
- To add/decrease challenge for the learners
- To change the presentation style, for example pulling out images to work with them separately without the text to distract the learners
- To localise them, for example adding references to Polish culture
- To match my teaching style
- To change the structure of the lesson, for example reordering the stages to fit my learners’ needs more appropriately
Before watching: What kinds of adaptations do you make?
I might adapt/add to/change:
- The layout
- The presentation
- The content
- The questions asked
- The task
- The amount of support provided
- The examples given
- The language covered
- The instructions
And probably more!
While watching: Why adapt materials?
Materials adaptation can span a range of procedures from adding carefully contextualised role plays with the objective of providing more opportunities to communicate to not finishing a pronunciation drill because of time constraints.Islam and Mares (2003)
…to make material more suitable for the circumstances in which it is used; to compensate for any intrinsic deficiences in the materials.McGrath (2002)
From conscious (designing extras) to less conscious (making decisions in the lessons), we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. No coursebook is ever perfect.
What are the limits of the course book? These are possible answers according to Alan Pulverness:
- Fail to provide: choice, variety, topicality, phonology
- Not provide enough of: practice, assessment, productive skills work
- Course books expected to provide: texts, language information, visuals, structure
- Should be provided by the teacher: warm-up, presentation, practice, consolidation
- Could be provided by the learners…
Clarke (1989) in an ELT Journal article called something like ‘Why leave it all to the teacher?’, says that the learner can play a role in adapting materials too:
- Learner commitment: enlist them to take a fuller part in the lesson
- Learner as materials writer and collaborator: as consolidation or extension exercises, use in revision, maybe with other groups
- Learner as problem solver: give learners a materials design task as a problem which they can solve, for example adapting it for stronger or weaker students (not sure I agree that this is a good idea)
- Learner as knower: put them in a position of authority for example about a particular area of language
- Learner as evaluator and assessor: can peer review, suggest further adaptations
Alan suggested some ways that learners could adapt materials:
- selecting texts
- extending texts
- creating tasks
- constructing activities
- constructing texts
He told us about some research by Yan (2007) published in HLT Magazine about trainee teachers and their adaptation of materials. They did this for a range of reasons:
- Integrating traditional and communicative methods.
- Catering for students’ needs.
- Integrating listening and speaking skills into lessons based on reading.
- Meeting teachers’ own preferences and needs.
Cunningsworth (1995) gives the following reasons for adapting materials in Choosing your coursebook [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link]:
- Classroom dynamics
- Learner personalities
- Syllabus constraints
- Availability of resources
- Learners’ motivations and expectations
Alan gives the following suggestions for when you might want to adapt materials:
- To provide more systematic grammar coverage
- To provide more practice activities
- TO make texts more accessible
- To provide more challenge / more support
- To make tasks more meaningful
- To devote more attention to phonology
- To replace inappropaite content
- To provide greater visual impact
- To provide more authentic language input
- To provide variety, topicality, engagement
Islam and Mares (2003) give these reasons for adaptation:
- To add real choice
- To cater for different sensory learning styles (!)
- To provide more learner autonomy
- To encourage greater use of Higher Order Thinking Skills (according to Bloom’s taxonomy)
- To make language input more accessible
- To make language input more engaging
Alan lists various problems with materials:
- Mismatch with curriculum goals
- The textbook as de facto syllabus
- More material than time available
- Dependence on technology / supplementary components
- Written for the widest possible audience
- Culturally inappropriate
While watching: So what can we do about it?
This was Alan Pulverness’s summary:
- Extension: How can I augment it?
- Modification: How can I change it?
- Supplementation: What can I bring to it?
- Substitution: What can I replace it with?
Alan Maley (1998) suggests the following:
McGrath (2002) has the following principles motivating change:
- Extrapolation (taking what’s there, following the logic and adding more)
Check that your adaptations are:
- Principled rather than ad hoc, when possible
- Informed by evaluation
- Responsive to learners’ needs (and wants)
- Proactive or reactive (what fits in this situation?)
While watching: What can you adapt?
- Classroom management
- Modes of interaction
- Learning styles
- Cultural references
- Linguistic demands
- Cognitive demands
While watching: How do you approach materials adaptation?
Ideally, there should be some kind of flow…
- Textbook evaluation.
- Identify strengths and shortcomings.
- Consider principles for adaptation.
- Decide on specific adaptations.
While watching: Caveats
- Don’t adapt or replace too much! Otherwise you become a materials designer [I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to overwork, stress, a loss of continuity, learners/stakeholders who are frustrated at wasting money on materials they never use…]
- Make sure that adaptation is principled.
- Avoid replacing one routine approach with another – be creative.
- Don’t be self-indulgent – be self-critical.
- Be congruent…
Effective adaptation is a matter of achieving ‘congruence’…The good teacher is constantly striving for ‘congruence’ among several related variables: teaching materials, methodologies, students, course objectives, the target language and its context, and the teacher’s own personality and teaching style.McDonough and Shaw (2003)
i.e. take into account all of the variables when deciding on adapting your materials…no easy job!
Advice to a new or inexperienced teacher who is unsure how to adapt coursebooks
This is a short email I wrote as a forum task:
Dear new teacher,
You’ve been given a course book which doesn’t work for your students. What should you do? Ask yourself:
– Look at the pages. What do my learners most need to practise/learn?
– What should therefore be the main lesson aim?
– How will I prove learners have improved their performance connected to the lesson aim?
– What activities on the page could I use unaltered? What small tweaks could I make to engage, support or challenge learnes more?
– How long are those activities likely to take? What stage of the lesson are they best suited for?
– What other stages are needed to ‘glue’ the course book activities together? For example, do you need to add preparation before speaking? Or extra language clarification? Or feed in functional language before pair work? Is there anything on the page you could adapt or re-write to help with this?
– Look at your plan so far. Does the lesson flow? Is there a clear context tying activities together? How will you introduce the context? Using the coursebook, or supplementing from elsewhere?
– Look at the whole lesson. Is there enough practice of the language or skill the aim focusses on? Can you exploit the activities you’ve already selected in other ways to add practice? For example, adding post-listening activities to focus on connected speech.
– Go back to the aim. Does the plan really fulfil it? Will you definitely know that learners have improved?
– After the lesson, ask to what extent did the adaptations I made benefit my learners?
By repeating this process of experimenting and reflecting, you will get better and better at adapting coursebooks successfully. When you’re ready, you can also research the theory behind coursebook adaptation, but until then, good luck!
In the feedback on an assignment I did, our tutor referred be to the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson on differentiation, and particularly this interview with her.
These were quotes which I found particular interesting.
Differentiated instruction assumes a more positive mindset: Let’s assume they can all do good work, and let’s attend to the ways that they need us to teach them in order to get there.Carol Ann Tomlinson
It’s really important for kids to come together and understand and appreciate their differences, and to be willing to help one another succeed—as opposed to the cut-throat competition that sometimes goes on in schools.Carol Ann Tomlinson
If what you differentiate is boring enough to choke a horse, you’ve just got different versions of boredom.Carol Ann Tomlinson
These are some of the principles of differentiated learning which Carol Ann mentions:
- Respectful tasks: “everybody’s work needs to be equally engaging, equally appealing, and equally important” with every students having to “think to do their work”.
- Flexible grouping: systematically moving kids into different groupings, so they can see “how they can contribute in a variety of contexts”, not just arbitrary groupings or at the same skill level. Examples of grouping types given are:
- similar readiness groups
- varied readiness groups
- mixed learning-profile groups
- interest groups
- mixed interest groups
- student-choice groups
- Teaching up: start with “high-end curriculum and expectations” then “differentiate to provide scaffolding, to lift the kids up”, rather than starting with “grade-level material and then dumb it down for some and raise it up for others”.
- Ongoing assessment: “continually checking in on who’s where with the knowledge and understanding I’m trying to teach”, not just through formal quizzes and tests, but also by “systematically watching kids, taking good notes, checking work regularly and closely, and asking good questions”
I’m sure there are more! Her book The Differentiated Classroom, looks like a good place to go if you’d like to find out more [Amazon affiliate link].
Unit 4: Language input and output
How do you feel about the way grammar is dealt with in the books you use?
It’s good enough, though formulaic in many ways. Learners will only pick up the grammar when they are ready to, regardless of the order in which it’s introduced in the books, though having grammar in materials can help them with this. The rules vary in quality, truthfulness (i.e. how fully applicable they are to any example of that language point), complexity and accessibility – for example using lots of metalanguage in a book aimed at beginner 10-12 year olds. There are generally plenty of different types controlled practice, and some freer practice and/or personalisation opportunities. Over the time that I’ve been using coursebooks, I’ve noticed that it’s generally become much better contextualised, and there is a shift in some books to move slightly away from a fully traditional grammar syllabus, such as in the Outcomes books.
How do you feel about the grammar syllabus in one coursebook you use?
I don’t have any particular feelings about the grammar syllabus. If I’ve chosen to use a coursebook, it’s because I think that the grammar syllabus has the potential to work wirth my students.
Can you think of some different approaches to teaching grammar?
Task-based learning – working on grammar as the need arises.
Grammar reference tools
We looked at three different grammar reference tools which we might want to refer to when developing materials. The pros and cons are related to materials development and are my responses.
The core inventory table is available as a single page, and therefore very easy to refer to.
The appendices map a range of different areas: written and spoken text types (p36-37), functions/notions (p38), discourse features (p39), grammatical forms (p39-41), lexis (p42), topics (p42). These are all potentially useful reference points.
p43 onwards contains a comprehensive list of exponents which were considered core, and which appeared less often – this would be a great starting point for example sentences in materials. There are also some short texts showing how some features can be used in context, for example ‘describing places’ at A2 on p47.
It summarises common practice in the industry in a descriptive way, so materials created could be slotted into industry standards.
It shows the “extent of agreement between the different types of sources” and “the broad agreement” across the profession regarding consensus on when particular language points might be introduced to learners, so a materials writer would be more likely to introduce level-appropriate language points, if creating a grammar syllabus is an important factor for them in materials design. (quotes from p18)
The scenario on p14-15 shows an interesting structure for considering how to approach planning lessons and/or materials for a given situation, in this case a business meeting. There are more scenarios from p26-35. Each scenario shows an overview (what is needed to succeed in this situation) and implementation (one way in which this might be transferred to the learning process).
It is aware of its own limitations (p20), emphasising that it can act as a point of reference but that needs analysis should “give the basis for actual teaching”:
It implies a somewhat linear study of grammar, vocabulary, topics, etc. though it does specify that “the language point appears at the level(s) at which it is considered of most relevance to the learner in the classroom.” (p11)
There is some overlap in levels. A2 covers elementary and pre-intermediate. Elementary is included in A1 and A2.
Although there is a lot of consensus in levels A1-B2, there is less consensus for C1. The consensus which does exist throughout may well have been influenced by previous editions of similar documents (such as the Threshold Level, 1976), meaning it’s potentially somewhat self-perpetuating: learners are taught those items at those levels because people have previously decided that’s what they should learn, and they decide what they should learn based on what is taught to them at those levels.
C2 is not included – consensus was only shown regarding preparation for the CPE exam. (p20)
It’s based on a range of sources, but this doesn’t included learner language (I think).
Some items appear in multiple places on the summary page on p10-11, such as collocation and colloquial language (B1, B2, C1) or leisure activities (A1, A2, B1) – this makes it seem very generic.
There are numbers throughout the list of exponents, but no clear information about what those numbers actually refer to (at least, not that I could find!)
It’s very comprehensive.
It includes definitions and examples of each item to make it easy to understand what grammar feature is being referred to.
It was compiled from learner data. There are learner examples, both corrected and uncorrected, for every item. The learner examples are taken from a range of different language backgrounds, and include information about when they were collected and what level the learner was.
It can be searched and filtered by level.
It allows you to see progression across levels in terms of how a single grammatical item might be used.
The levels are colour-coded, making them easy to pick out from a longer list.
The grammar spotlight posts analyse the database in an interesting way to show what kinds of language learners are likely to use at different levels, including how this might differ depending on their language background, if relevant.
Lists can be downloaded.
It could be quite overwhelming to navigate due to the amount of information included.
There’s potentially far too much information for any single level. For example, filtering by A1 gives 109 items, so it might be hard to select which could be the most useful to include in materials.
It only covers grammar items, or very fixed lexical expressions containing grammatical words, for example ‘might as well’. (The English Vocabulary Profile also exists – we’re focussing on grammar in this unit of the course though)
The data was compiled from exam scripts, so the conditions learners produced the language in was controlled. I think they may also be written scripts (though I’m happy to be corrected) so it doesn’t feature examples produced when speaking.
It breaks down levels more than the CEFR does, including pre-A1. It also includes A2+, B1+ and B2+, which the other two resources we’ve looked at don’t.
It can be filtered by language skills, rather than only grammar or vocabulary.
It can be filtered for academic learners, adult learners, professional learners or young learners (6-14) for skills. Grammar and vocabulary have fewer options in this case.
The GSE allows finer grade filtering than the CEFR due to its use of numbers.
Lists can be downloaded.
There are resources linked to some of the grammar can do statements, which might provide inspiration for materials design.
Grammar can do statements come with a sample structure, examples, and related learning objectives which are functional, for example “Can form questions with ‘what’ and ‘who’ and answer them.” is connected to 20 different possible learning objectives.
It has a text analyzer you could check your writing with, which could be useful for rewriting or selecting what to include in a glossary.
It could be quite overwhelming as there is so much possible information.
It could imply a very linear ‘first learn this, now learn this, now learn this’ approach (I’m sure there’s a proper term for this, but can’t think of it now!) which might seem somewhat mechanical.
I think if I’m writing materials for a specific level, and especially if I decide that having a grammar component is important, I would potentially use the BC/EAQUALS core profile as a starting point, then supplement it by referring to the other two databases, comparing what I found in each to help me decide on my grammar syllabus. This would obviously also be connected to a needs analysis and my own predictions of what language learners might need in given situations.
What is practice?
- Why do language learners need to practise?
Without practice, learners will never activate their knowledge. They also need the opportunity to experiment, and to get feedback on their efforts. The more practice they do, especially if it is accompanied by useful feedback, the more likely they are to remember language they are trying to learn. Without feedback, they may remember this incorrectly though.
- What are some elements of an effective practice task?
It has a clear pedagogical purpose.
The instructions are clear and achievable.
It practises what it is supposed to practice. Anything else it practises is within the learner’s skillset.
There are clear opportunities for feedback, and the feedback provided will enable learning.
- What is the difference between an activity for practising language and testing it?
Activities for practising language include feedback on performance, and the opportunity to repeat the activity again. Learners would ideally get support while they are completing the activity if they need it. Activities for testing language are far less likely to include feedback. Support is not available during the activity, and it’s much less likely that repetition will be built in.
Review and recycling
What do we mean by recycling language?
Reusing it in different contexts within materials so learners get multiple exposures to the language. Encouraging learners to recall and reuse language in later practice activities covering a range of contexts.
What are the benefits of recycling?
- Learners get more exposure to the language, making it more likely they will be able to recall it later.
- Learners see the language in a range of contexts, building up their awareness of possible collocations and co-text.
- They are able to get feedback on attempts to use the language in a range of different ways.
How do we incorporate recycling into our materials?
- Building in a spiral syllabus.
- Including revision activities.
- Providing opportunities for learners to reuse language in later tasks.
[I feel like I should definitely have more ideas than this, but I’m out!]
Yep, there were a lot more ideas in the unit, though some kind of overlapped with what I said.
Quotations about teaching grammar and my reactions to them
Despite the advent of the Communicative Approach over recent years, and despite the daily evidence offered by learners that the difficulties they encounter in using another language to encode their own meanings to do with lexis and (in the spoken mode) with phonology, the dominance of grammar in teaching materials remains high, to the point of obsession.Stranks in Tomlinson 2003 p. 329
I agree with this. Most teaching materials I’ve used seem to prioritise grammar, with the grammar syllabus forming the core of the book. There is a fair amount of discussion about this within the teaching and materials writing community as far as I’m aware, but it’s a challenge to shift away from this due to the expectations of many different stakeholders. Some minor attempts have been made, such as the local coursebook Bruno Leys spoke about at IATEFL 2021.
input + output (interaction) + affect + cognition > meaningful purposeful interaction > language acquisitionMishan and Timmis 2015 p. 25
That seems like a reasonable sequence of events and set of parts in the formula. The challenge for a materials writer is making sure that affect, cognition and meaningful purposeful interaction are all referenced in the activities.
Many people involved in ELT – and that includes learners – have considerable difficulty accepting exercises which do not have clearly demarcated right or wrong answers. Unfortunately, however, language – and that includes grammar – is frequently not a matter of correct or incorrect, but possible or not possible.Stranks in Tomlinson 2003 p. 337
I think some learners may have trouble with understanding that grammar is not always correct or incorrect – they struggle with the idea of language as choice. To some extent, I think this is due to them having done lots of activities in the past which are correct/incorrect, and therefore relatively easy to administer and mark. Our challenge as teachers and materials writers is to help learners to move away from this, and to feel comfortable with the uncertainty of language, while still building their confidence in their own ability to understand and produce ‘acceptable’ language in a given situation.
Why is ‘grammar’ equated so much with verbs?Buckmaster 2001
(I’m really happy that this source exists – I’ve never seen it before. It seems to build on ideas from The English Verb by Michael Lewis, one of the books which has most influenced my thinking about language.)
Tense, aspect and voice seem to be a huge part of the way which languages carry meaning, and each language seems to have a different way of approaching their verb system to a greater or lesser extent. These systems rarely map cleanly onto each other, making it challenging to directly transfer knowledge of one language to another language. The verb system also influences the way in which we perceive actions and how they might be divided up: for example, in English we might perceive actions as factual, remote, before but connected to a later event, or in progress, whereas in Polish we might perceive actions as complete or incomplete. Because of these differences, we therefore focus a lot of our grammar teaching on verb forms to help learners to see how the languages differ. This is not true to the same extent in other areas of grammar, or it can be much easier to clarify how differences work between languages, for example in the system of comparatives, or the use of adverbs.
The exercise format should reflect the objective of the exercise […]. Worksheets which do not necessitate language production or which closely control what students produce will have at best an indirect effect on their ability to produce language fluently in less controlled situations.McGrath 2002 p.94
To some extent this is true, but control over production can be useful in the early stages of understanding a new language point, or attempting to produce the form correctly. There should be a range of different types of practice activities, including ones which encourage learners to “produce language fluently in less controlled situations”.
Research on methodology is inconclusive, and has not shown detectable, lasting and wide-ranging effects for implicit versus explicit instruction, for inductive versus deductive learning or separated-out study of structure versus incidental focus on form during communicative activity.Swan 2006 quoted in Mishan and Timmis 2015 p.153
This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be very difficult to tease out any of these variables in long-term research. Each of learn differently and have so many different opportunities to get input. Ultimately each person has to find what works for them, and that may be different for different people. What we really need is instructions and activities which engage learners and keep them coming back. For some learners that might be listening to somebody else explain language and processing that explanation for themselves, for others it might be picking things up as they go along. For some it might be experimenting with language in real life, for others it might be completing practice activities and getting a confidence boost when they realise they’re right. Each to their own! As materials designers, we need to include a range of activities and types of instruction to appeal to a range of learners, and to cover our bases when it comes to SLA research.
Beliefs about materials for teaching grammar or functions
These are some of my own beliefs about materials for teaching grammar or functions. The ‘But…?’ part is possible arguments others might have against these beliefs, not necessarily reflecting what I think. I haven’t included the counter-arguments as that would make it very long! The principles are numbered so I can refer back to them in the section below, rather than to imply any particular order – I think they’re all equally important.
- Language should be clearly contextualised, and the context should be exploited to support understanding.
Why? Decontextualised grammar or functions involve learners trying to figure out when or where the structures might be applicable. By providing a context, you are already helping them to see how the language can be used in longer discourse, rather than only seeing individual sentences.
What does it entail? The context needs to be understood before any study of the language can be effective. This can be done in two main ways: by providing the context, through supplying a reading or listening text, or by creating a space for the language to potentially be produced, through a speaking or writing task. In the former case, you can work with the text for comprehension, then highlight the language. In the latter, learners can focus on the task, then teachers can help them to notice gaps in their language and how to fill them. The context also shouldn’t be abandoned or lost once the language study starts – there should be references back to the context, and it should continue to be a part of the activity sequence.
But…? How do you deal with the fact that grammar or functions can appear in a wide range of different contexts? How do you balance understanding the context and understanding the language?
- Learners should be engaged in the language clarification process.
Why? I believe that learners are likely to switch off or miss key information in pure lecture-style/text input language clarification. By providing opportunities for some level of interaction, they are more likely to process the input they are being given regarding the language.
What does it entail? This could be done at a low level by creating gaps or options in rules. At a deeper level, it can be done through more detailed guided discovery, asking questions to help learners to find the rules themselves. At the deepest level, it could be through asking learners to formulate rules for themselves, as Danny Norrington-Davies suggests in From Rules to Reasons [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link].
But…? Just because learners have participated in formulating a rule for the use of particular language, how can you guarantee that they actually know it or will remember it? If they are formulating their own rules, how do you check that the rules are ‘correct’ or applicable to other contexts? How much support do learners need to be able to create rules themselves? How do you make sure this process is engaging rather than intimidating or off-putting?
- There should be plenty of opportunities for learners to practise the language and to get feedback on this practice.
Why? Without practice, input is just information. It won’t be transferred into long-term memory, nor will it become automaticized as part of the skill of understanding or using English. But practice without feedback is just testing – they need to happen together.
What does it entail? Practice opportunities should be varied, including opportunities for a focus on different areas of the language (meaning/use, form, pronunciation), different levels of control and support (controlled, semi-controlled, freer – not necessarily in that order!), different activity types (spoken, written, games, etc.), different interaction patterns (individual, pairs, groups, teams, whole class). Obviously not all of these can be included for every grammar item or function mentioned in the materials, but there should be suggestions for how activities could be tweaked in the teacher’s notes, and a range of activities across the materials. Feedback suggestions should be built into the teacher’s notes, with ideas for how to make the most of the learning opportunities available in feedback stages, rather than simply giving information about what was and wasn’t correct and moving on.
But…? How do you decide what practice activities to include in the main materials, what to suggest in teacher’s notes/other supplementary materials, and what to leave out? How much space and time is available in the materials to include all of these different practice opportunities?
- Language should be revised and recycled.
Why? Once is never enough! Learners need multiple exposures to new language, both receptively and productively, for it to be available to them for understanding and use. Multiple exposures also mean building up a better awareness of when it is and isn’t possible/appropriate to use a given grammatical structure or functional exponent.
What does it entail? Including opportunities for revision or recycling in materials, using a range of different techniques. Some of the ones mentioned on the course include end of unit reviews, self-assessment activities, writing personalised questions, useful language boxes, task repetition and revisiting texts.
But…? There is a limited amount of space in materials and a lot of language ground to cover – how do you balance these two issues? Is recycling and revision the responsibility of the teacher or the materials writer, since different students will have different needs?
Evaluating digital activities
We were asked to think of a grammar or functional area that we are likely to teach or write materials for soon, find three different resources, and evaluate the activities according to the beliefs we noted.
I selected ‘English for travel’ as this is an area I’m interested in writing for, and decided to particularly focus on checking into hotels. I did a Google search for English for tourism: checking in at hotels and found three resources from different websites of varying quality and for different audiences. The numbers refer to the principles in the section above in this post.
The first resource is two gapfill pages from Learn English Feel Good, which I’ve never come across before. It’s designed for self-study, and I think it would probably be best for intermediate due to the types of phrases included. There are two pages with short gapped written conversations between a hotel clerk and a tourist. The first conversation has somebody turning up at the hotel and selecting a room during the conversation. The second conversation has somebody with a reservation who wants to see the room before they pay.
The phrases are used within a conversation. There is not other support for understanding the context, for example pictures or a video.
- Engaged in understanding the language clarification
Each sentence is a 3-option multiple choice activity – learners could guess if they don’t already know the phrase. There is no language clarification at all, much less any which might involve cognitive processing of the meaning of the phrases.
- Practice opportunities
There is only one practice activity, and it is the same format for both conversations. Learners could do it as many times as they want to, but they would have to create their own supplementary activities, for exampe by looking at the phrases, hiding the window, and trying to write the phrases elsewhere. Learners are probably unlikely to know this kind of activity or do it if they do know it. The feedback only says whether something is right or wrong, not why, so learning is likely to be minimal – learners can just try again until they get it right, but won’t necessarily know why.
- Revision / recycling
This is not present in the materials.
The second resource is a podcast from British Council Premier Skills English. It’s designed for self-study, but could be used by teachers as the basis of a lesson plan. It would probably work best for pre-intermediate and above as it’s fairly straightforward but there’s quite a lot of input. It’s the first in a series of four podcasts on the topic of English and Tourism. There is a transcript to accompany the podcast, as well as a vocabulary activity and a description of some key phrases and how they’re used, divided up to correspond with the four sections of the podcast: introductions, problems at reception, resolving problems, and costs and changes. There’s then a gapfill to practise the key phrases, a quiz, and a hotel review writing task which learners can respond to by writing in the comments.
The phrases are used in a clear context: a conversation between a customer and a hotel receptionist. The conversations are somewhat buried in the rest of the podcast, but they clearly follow the football theme of the website, and listeners are likely to be familar with the format of the podcast. The context is introduced clearly, including listeners being told that the role play will be in four sections. After each section, the language is dicussed. There is a question to answer when listening to each part of the roleplay to help learners focus on comprehension. The context is very rich, and contains a lot of potentially useful language. It is referred back to in the clarification.
- Engaged in understanding the language clarification
The language clarification is all described, with no pause or questions for learners to think about their own answers. Learners are passive during the language clarification process. They can hear the clarification in the podcast, read it in the transcript, and read a slightly different version of it on the webpage.
- Practice opportunities
There are no practice opportunities in the podcast, and the written task of describing a hotel stay is connected to the vocabulary rather than the functional language of checking in. There are two written practice activities on the webpage. The first is a gapfill, with each sentence missing one word from each sentence, though sometimes these are functional language, and sometimes they’re vocabulary. The second is a quiz, but you could only see if it you log in. I imagine it’s possibly multiple choice, but I don’t know.
- Revision / recycling
The hotel review allows revision of the vocabulary, and learners could read each others’ reviews to see the vocabulary used in multiple contexts. They could listen to the podcast or read the information as many times as they want to, but there are no opportunities for retrieval practice.
The third resource is a lesson plan from One Stop English and is available at elementary and intermediate – I looked at the elementary plan. It’s a complete lesson plan with teacher’s notes, and also covers checking in at an airport. The plan is aimed at learners who are 16+ years old and should take 90 minutes. There is a warm up to elicit vocabulary, a mime to introduce the topic and elicit more collocations, whiteboard work to focus on the vocabulary in more depth, revision of numbers, eliciting questions hotel reception staff might ask (the first stage of the actual functional language), a running dictation of a conversation / an ordering task (depending on the teacher’s choice), dialogue practice with the option of changing the dialogues, and a role play.
By the time the phrases are introduced, the context of checking into a hotel is clear. They are within a short dialogue, and a sample answer is provided with a longer version of the conversation (in one of the pdfs – slightly confusingly, there are two very similar pdfs!) There’s no clear language clarification in the notes, so it’s not clear whether the context would be referred to again for this, though the dialogues are reused in stage 7.
- Engaged in understanding the language clarification
Before they see the dialogue, the learners are given the opportunity to come up with their own possible questions, meaning they will be processing the meaning themselves. It’s not clear from the teacher’s notes in stage 5, but presumably the assumption is that the teacher will upgrade any language they produce to ensure that the questions are correctly formed. The ordering task involves the learners in processing the meaning, although again there doesn’t seem to be any feedback or meaning checking included in the teacher’s notes to ensure that the learners have got it right.
- Practice opportunities
The main opportunity to practice comes in the dialogue (stage 7), with learners repeating the task multiple times and reducing the amount that they look at the dialogue as they go through. They also change roles. There is then a freer practice activity (stage 8) consisting of a role play with learners switching roles multiple times. To some extent the running dictation (stage 6) is also a form of practice, as they say and/or write the phrases, though if they don’t know what the phrases mean this stage may not be particularly useful in fixing the language in learners’ memory. There is an extension activity for stronger students related to including requests in the check in conversation.
- Revision / recycling
There are lots of opportunities for the learners to revise the language through the task repetition in the dialogue and the role play.
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (1)
These are my notes notes based on a chapter by Tomlinson (2013) in the book Applied Linguistics and Materials Development [Amazon affiliate link]. He also edited the book and it was published by Bloomsbury.
Some terms defined at the start of the chapter (p11):
- Second language acquisition: “the process by which people acquire and/or learn any language in addition to their first language. It is also the name of the academic discipline which studies that process.”
- Acquisition: different definitions depending on the researcher: “the informal, subconscious process of gaining a language from exposure and use”; Tomlinson (2007a, p.2) “the initial stage of gaining basic communicative competence in a language”
- Learning: “the deliberate, conscious study of a language in order to be able to use it”
- Development: Tomlinson (2007a, p.2) “the subsequent stage [after acquisition as defined above] of gaining the ability to use the language successfully in a wide range of media and genres for a wide variety of purposes”
Most researchers seem to agree that learning is insufficient and needs to be at least supplemented by acquisition.Tomlinson (2013: 11)
What we know about the process of SLA
It is facilitated by (headings lifted directly from the chapter):
- A rich and meaningful exposure to language in use
Rich = “contains a lot of implicit information about how the language is actually used to achieve communicative effect and that it provides natural recycling of language features (Nation, 2011)” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
Meaningful = “relevant to the learner and the learner is able to understand enough of it to gain meaning from it” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
- Affective and cognitive engagement
“Learners who are stimulated to laugh, smile, feel joy, feel excited and feel empathetic are much more likely to acquire communicative competence […]” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
“Positive emotions seem most likely to stimulate deep processing (Craik & Lockhard, 1972) and therefore to faciliate language acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
“Negative emotions […] are much more facilitative than no emotional responses at all.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
“Self-confidence and self-esteem are also important aspects of affective engagement, as is feeling positive about the learning environment.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
“If they do [use high level mental skills], they are much more likely to achieve deep processing and to eventually acquire language and develop language skills […]” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
“Put very simply, in order for learners to acquire a second language they need to think and feel in the process of acquiring it.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 12)
- Making use of those mental resources typically used in communication in the L1
Examples include our inner voice, visual imaging, motor imaging (“to recreate movements which are described”) – collectively “multidimensional mental representation” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
“L2 learners rarely make use of these mental resources at all. [For a range of reasons, they engage in] linguistic micro-processing which takes up all the brain’s processing capacity.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
Tomlinson and Avila (2007b) has suggestions for activities to help with this.
- Noticing how the L2 is used
“Noticing linguistic features in the input is an important facilitator of language acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
“One way of doing this is to draw the learner’s attention to language features in use either through direction of through making the understanding of that feature important for task completion. This does not lead to instant acquisition of the feature but it does contribute to and can accelerate its eventual acquisition.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
Two approaches are suggested to help learners achieve what Pienneman (1985) calls “psychological readiness”: learners “respond personally to the content of an engaging written or spoken text and then go back to make discoveries about the form and function of a particular feature of that text” / “a form-focused approach […] in which learners first focus on the meaning of a text and later focus on the form and function of a specific linguistic feature (through instruction and or consciousness raising)” (Tomlinson, 2013: 13)
- Being given opportunities for contextualised and purposeful communication in the L2
Output = “producing language for communication” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
“It can provide learners with contextual feedback, it helps to automatize language, it constitutes auto-input and it can elicit further comprehensible input too.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14) [I’m not sure what ‘auto-input’ is.]
Pushed output = “communicating something which is not easy to express” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
“[Pushed output] can be particularly beneficial as it stretches the learner’s capabilities by making them make full use of their acquired language and of their strategic competence, as as providing opportunities for new but comprehensible input from their interlocutors who are helping them to negotiate meaning.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
“This would suggest that setting learners achievable communicative challenges is likely to be more useful than providing easy practice.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
- Being encouraged to interact
“It helps to make input more comprehensible, it provides meaningful feedback and it pushes learners to modify their output.” especially when communication breaks down (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
“Such communication is contextualised and purposeful, it is relevant and salient, it is generally comprehensible and it promotes meta-talk about the L2.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
- Being allowed to focus on meaning
“Learners are more likely to acquire forms if their primary focus is on meaning rather than form.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
“However it does seem that more attention to form is needed as the learner progresses to advanced levels.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14)
Possible approaches suggested are an “experiential approach”: “learners first experience an engaging text holistically, respond to it personally and then return to the text to focus discretely on a salient feature of language use”, what Long (1996) calls a “form-focused” approach, rather than a “forms-focused” approach (on a “predetermined, discrete form”); “language awareness approaches”: “learners first experience a form in use and are then helped to make their own discoveries about it”; “consciousness raising approaches”: “learners are guided towards finding out how a form is used” (Tomlinson, 2013: 14-15)
- Other generally accepted features (all taken from Tomlinson, 2013: 15):
- being relaxed
- being motivated to participate and to learn
- being help to develop an emerging interlanguage which gradually moves closer to the target language
- developing hypotheses about how the language is used for communciation
- being catered for as an individual
- making full use of non-linguistic means of communicating
- being ready to acquire a focused feature “which can be powerfully influenced by materials which create a need to ‘know’ a language feature in order to complete a motivating task and by materials which help learners to notice a particular feature being used” (Tomlinson, 2013: 15)
- On the same page, Tomlinson also says there are other features which he discusses in other literature (Tomlinson 2008, 2010, 2011a):
- Allowing for the inevitable delayed effect of instructions
- Positive attitudes
- A silent period at the beginning of instruction
SLA and published materials
So many areas to consider! In the next part of the chapter, Tomlinson analyses a number of global coursebooks to see how their practice matches up to this theory.
I found that none of the coursebooks focus on meaning, that they are all forms-focussed and that the majority of their activities are language item practice activities. Some of the coursebooks provide some opportunities for noticing and most make some attempt at personalization. None of them, however, offer a choice of content, route or activities.Tomlinson (2013: 16)
The mismatch between SLA theory and practice is demonstrated in a number of ways on p16-17. By implication, any materials which want to match up to SLA theory should:
- Include more use of literature
- Use longer and more complex texts
- Include activities which focus on use, rather than practice
- Choose topics and activities which stimulate affective responses
- Ask learners to think for themselves and be creative
- Aim to vary approach, not only using conventional practice activities like T/F, matching, gap fills, sentence completion, role play, working in pairs to compare ideas
- Recycle language in use
- Encourage learners to speak or write at length
- Encourage learners to interact for a communicative purpose and at length
- Focus on form, not on forms
Some ideas for ways to vary materials from p17 which I might want to include in materials I create for this module are:
- Visual imaging tasks
- Inner speech tasks
- Extensive / creative writing with an audience and a purpose
- Tasks offering choice
- Different versions of texts for learners to choose form
- Thinking tasks
- A meaning focus
On p17-18 Tomlinson lists various reasons why this mismatch between SLA theory and materials might exist, the biggest of which I think is the “massive mismatch between typical examination tasks and SLA principles”.
Unanswered questions in SLA research
One question he asked is “Is there a natural sequence in langauge acquisition?” (Tomlinson, 2013: 19) This answer appeals to me:
One plausible explanation for similarities in sequences of acquisition is offered by MacWhinney (1987; 2005). His competition model claims that what learners can pay attention to at any one time is limited and that they filter out features of language when they listen to a second language. Learners gradually get better at processing sentences and mental resources are freed up to focus on more complex features of the input. […] What is essential for communication is learned before what is perceived as redundant.”Tomlinson, 2013: 19
Another area discussed was text enhancement (TE) “(e.g. colour coding, boldfacing, audio repetition) as a means of drawing [learners’] attention to salient features of their input”, as proposed by Sharwood Smith (1993) (Tomlinson, 2013: 19). “Lee (2007) found that only when input has been understood can learners attend to form.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 20)
I foudn it very interesting that three of the questions included in Tomlinson’s list demonstrate that three things which feature in a lot of materials and which I personally find to be useful don’t necessarily have any SLA research behind them:
- Do controlled practice activities facilitate acquisition?
- Does memorization facilitate language acquisition?
- Do repetition derills facilitate language acquisition? (Tomlinson, 2013: 20)
It would seem that many coursebook procedures have become accepted as dogma to be followed, even though there is little research or even anecdotal evidence to support them.Tomlinson, 2013: 20
Suggestions for applying SLA theory to ELT materials development
- Task-based materials “provide the learners with a purpose and an outcome […] which can only be achieved through interaction in the L2.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 21)
- In problem-based approaches “learners communicate with each other in order to solve a problem.” (Tomlinson, 2013: 21)
There is an example from task-based materials of instructions Tomlinson wrote for learners, where the first time they listen and visualise what they’ll do, and the second time they listen and do (making use of mental resources…)
- Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approaches “help learners to acquire an L2 by teaching them a subject, topic or skill they are interested in through the medium of the L2) (Tomlinson, 2013: 22)
Some examples of wording I think might be useful from CLIL instructions Tomlinson wrote:
Visualize your idea in action and talk to yourself about its potential applications.
In your group help each other to understand any ideas which were not completely clear.
Reflect on your presentation. Decide how you would make your presentation even more effective if you had to give the presentation to another company.Tomlinson, 2013: 22-23
- Text-driven approach (Tomlinson, 2003): “Text-driven materials are determined by potentially engaging written and/or spoken texts rather than by language teaching points. The learners’ interactions with the texts drive personal response activities, thinking activiites, communication activities, creative writing activities and language awareness activities, as well as often inviting supplementation with other locally appropriate texts.” The table below outlintes a “flexible text-driven framework” (Tomlinson, 2013: 24, based on Tomlinson and Masuhara, 2004)
This was a very useful summary of SLA theory, and has really got me thinking about the materials I have created in the past and might create in the future, and how they (don’t!) match up to this theory.
My answers to some of Tomlinson’s 2013 questions
Is SLA primarily implicit or explicit?
I’ve learnt lots of languages in lots of ways, but I’ve always felt that until I was actually using the language myself and getting lots of exposure, I wasn’t making progress. In Polish, I’ve done almost no explicit study and I’ve never had lessons, but have reached B2 level over a period of 6 years. I had a largely silent period for the first year, and I have only done explicit study when I felt that I was ready to learn a particular feature, for example looking up how to form conditionals or comparatives in a grammar book. I’ve never completed a grammar exercise. In Mandarin, I’ve done only explicit study over a period of about 10 years, but can say almost nothing and am possibly at A1 level, but probably still pre-A1. Based on this experience, I would say that SLA is primarily implicit, but that explicit study can provide a boost which helps with noticing and to make leaps in progress.
Is there a natural sequence in language acquisition?
Yes, I think there is, though I really like the explanation given by MacWhinney for why this might be. Again, having learnt various different languages, I tend to find I learn different structures at similar levels. For example, comparatives and superlatives at about A2, conditionals come at B1 – though I can’t produce them until B2 and higher. This is because of their importance in what I’m trying to communicate (I don’t really need them earlier, and/or I don’t have enough other language to think of trying to build them myself). I’ve noticed a similar process in the first language acquisition of friends’ children, and in the problems learners have at different levels.
Are the factors which determine the effectiveness of language acquisition variable?
I think that individual learners will learn in different ways for a huge range of reasons, including educational background, culture and engagement. I think these factors might be variable between learners, but not within an individual learner, if that makes sense!
Does text enhancement facilitate language acquisition?
I find it quite distracting as a learner, and find it much more useful to notice features of a text myself, focussing on the areas which I feel are important for me at that point in my study, or on something which I find interesting about a text. I think it might help some learners to find their way around a text when it comes to a specific focus on the language, but I believe it’s better for learners to enhance the text themselves than for it to be provided by the writers.
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (2)
These are my notes based on Tomlinson’s 2008 chapter ‘Language Acquisition and Language Learning Materials’ in English Language Learning Materials (Contiuum 2008) [Amazon affiliate link].
One of my arguments is that many ELT materials (especially global coursebooks) currently make a significant contribution to the failure of many learners of English as a second, foreign or other language to even acquire basic competence in English and to the failure of most of them to develop the ability to use it successfully. They do so by focusing on the teaching of linguistic items rather than on the provision of opportunities for acquisition and development. And they do this because that’s what teachers are expected and required to do by administrators, by parents, by publishers, and by learners too.Tomlinson (2008: 3)
That’s quite some statement!
He goes on to share a slightly different list to the one in his later chapter (above) of what is required to facilitate language acquisition, “a rich experience of language in use” whereby:
- “the language experience needs to be contextualized and comprehensible
- the learner needs to be motivated, relaxed, positive and engaged
- the language and discourse features available for potential acquisition need to be salient, meaningful and frequently encountered
- the learner needs to achieve deep and multi-dimensional processing of the language” (Tomlinson 2008: 4)
He suggests the use of extensive reading and extensive listening to provide exposure to language.
It is my belief that helping learners to notice features of the authentic language they are exposed to can facilitate and accelerate language acquisition. […] This is particular true if the learners are stimulated and guided to make discoveries for themselves […] and to thus increase their awareness of how the target language is used to achieve fluency, accuracy, appropriacy and effect.Tomlinson, 2008: 4
It is also my belief that helping learners to participate in meaningful communication in which they are using language to achieve intended outcomes is essential for the development of communicative competence. […] Practice activities which have been designed to give the learner frequent opportunities to get something right make very little contribution to language acquisition because they don’t add anything new and they make no contribution at all to language development because they focus on accurate outputs rather than successful outcomes. What the materials need to do is to provide lots of opportunities for the learners to actually use language to achieve intentions and lots of opportunities for them to gain feedback on the effectiveness of their attempts at communication.Tomlinson, 2008: 5
There is a long list of conjectures Tomlinson has arrived at from his experience as a language teacher (2008: 5-6). Ones which particularly stood out to me were:
- Learners gain from sometimes being allowed to hide and from not always being put under a spotlight. [makes me think of this]
- Those learners who participate mentally in group activities often gain more than those participate vocally.
- Reading should be delayed in the L2 until the learners have a sufficiently large vocabulary to be able to read experientially rather than studially and then extensive reading should be introduced before intensive reading. [Not sure I agree with this – I think that reading is one of the ways they will gain this vocabulary, and you can start with short texts. Extensive reading is definitely highly beneficial though.]
- Learners should be encouraged and helped to represent language multi-dimensionally. [makes me think of this]
Tomlinson implies that the following are desirable for ELT materials to promote language acquisition and development (2008: 6):
- Using different genres, text types and multimedia to provide a rich experience
- Provide an “aesthetically positive experience” through illustration and design
- Help learners to make discoveries for themselves
- Help learners to become independent learners
- Provide opportunities for extensive listening/reading
- Help learnres to personalise and localise their language learning
Some of the problems he mentions connected to the fact that many ELT books are selected by adminstrators, and none by teachers, are (2008:7):
- Colourful photographs in the top right-hand corner to pass the flick test
- As many words as possible on a page “to achieve optimal coverage at an acceptable price”
- Uniform unit length and format = makes timetabling, teacher allocation and teacher prep easier
- Tasks replicating conventional test types = facilitates exam prep
Many of them [educational publishers] try to add as much educational value to their products as possible but for all of them the main objective it to make money. […] What this situation means for writers of commercial ELT materials is that they can at best try to achieve a compromise between their principles and the requirements of the publisher.Tomlinson, 2008: 7
Other generalizations he makes about problems with many coursebooks are (Tomlinson, 2008: 8):
- Underestimating learners’ language level and cognitive ability, especially the treatment of low-level English learners as intellectually low-level learners.
- Simplifying language presentation and therefore impoverishing the learning experience.
- Using PPP > creating an illusion of language learning, results in shallow processing [I think this might have changed a little in more modern materials, though I’m not sure processing is necessarily deeper]
- Ensuring most activities are easily accomplished > memorisation, script repetition, simple substitution / transformation
- Trying to teach language features during listening/reading activities, and therefore confusing language learning and skills development [again, I think this might have changed somewhat now]
- Bland, safe, harmonious texts and activities which don’t stimulate thinking and feeling [there’s more of an attempt to include critical thinking in materials now, but I’m not sure this has moved on much beyond what Tomlinson stated]
- “Not nearly enough experience of language in fully contextualized use”
- Focussing on comprehension over enjoyment in listening and reading [at least, that’s how I read it…a little unclear to me!]
- Not exploiting what’s available outside the classroom
- Decoding OR encoding, not multidimensional activities “involving the use of the full resources of the brain”
He describes some examples of locally produced materials which he feels have been developed in more principled ways, while acknowledging the need for “due consideration being given, of course, to the face validity and conformity to market expectation which is necessary to ensure profitability”. (Tomlinson, 2008: 9)
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and Materials Development (2)
These are my notes based on’Second language acquisition research and language-teaching materials’ by Rod Ellis (2010) in Harwood, N. (ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice (CUP, 2010).
Some definitions to start (Ellis, 2010: 33):
- An “unfocused task” elicits general samples of language use, “although it may be possible to predict a cluster of features that learners are likely to need when they perform a task.” (Ellis, 2010: 36)
- A “focused task” elicits use of a specific linguistic feature, often a grammatical structure
- In any task, “the primary focus must be on meaning and achieving a communicative outcome”
- Task-supported language teaching: “focused tasks support a structural syllabus”
- Task-based language teaching: “the syllabus is specified only in terms of the tasks to be performed”
- “Interpretation activities”: “aim to teach grammar by inducing learners to process the target structure through input rather than by eliciting production”, with the example given of bolding a target feature in a written text
- “Structured input activities”: “force processing of the targeted feature by requiring a response from the learner”, with the example given of choosing a picture that correctly matches a sentence learners hear
- A “consciousness-raising (CR) task”: assisting learners to discover how a grammatical feature works for themselves, focussing on understanding rather than the ability to use it.
Despite this activity and our growing understanding about what learning an L2 entails, doubts exist as to whether the findings of SLA are sufficiently robust to warrant applications to lagnauge pedagogy. […] The fact tha tmost teacher education programs include an SLA component is testiomny to the conviction that it has relevance to language pedagogy.Ellis, 2010: 34
SLA and “tasks”
Ellis (2003) identifies various criteria for a task of which the main ones are (quoted in Ellis, 2010: 35):
- There is a primary focus on meaning.
- The students choose the linguistic and nonlinguistic resources needed to complete the task.
- The task should lead to real-world processes of language use.
- Successful performance of the task is determined by examining whether students have achieved the intended communicative outcome.
2 cannot be met if there is a model which learners are given and they substitute items in it.
3 requires some kind of gap (information / opinion / etc.) to lead to a negotiation of meaning.
4 must be met for it to be a task, and not a “contextualised grammar activity” (Ellis, 2010: 35) – Ellis gives examples of both on p36-37.
Focused tasks are different to contextualised grammar activities because the latter specifies the target feature to be used, whereas the former doesn’t. They have two aims, to “stimulate communicative language use” and to “target the use of a particular, predetermined target feature and provide an opportunity to practice this in a communicative context”. Ellis notes that learners may not use the targeted structure in focused tasks: “success depended on whether the target structure was one that the students were already in the process of acquiring.” (Ellis, 2010: 37) A dictogloss is an example of a focused task.
The rationale for using tasks according to a number of SLA researchers is that (Ellis, 2010: 39):
- “Learners will only succeed in developing full control over their linguistic knowlege if they experience trying to use it under real operating conditions.”
- “True interlanguage development (i.e., the process of acquiring new linguistic knowledge and restructuring existing knowledge) can only take place when acquisition happens incidentally, as a product of the effort to communicate.”
[I’ve never experienced TBL as a learner, but I definitely feel like both of these statements are reflected in my experience of when I feel I have made the most progress as a language learner, experimenting with the language and finding out the limits of what I can produce.]
Task-supported language teaching features tasks as the final step in PPP, acting as ‘text-creation’ tasks which follow on from ‘text-manipulation’ exercises (Ellis, 2010: 39). The idea is that you move from teaching grammar explicitly (declarative knowledge) to exercises (proceduralizing the knowledge) to tasks (automatizing the knowledge through real-life communicative behaviour). The problem is it implies language learning is sequential and ignores the time-lapse involved in language acquisition. It also encourages learners to focus on form, not meaning, during the task, so it ceases to be a task in the definition Ellis gave.
Task-based language teaching
Task-based language teaching features tasks as “the organizing principle for a course” (Ellis, 2010: 40). Attention to form can be pre-emptive (asking questions about form) or reactive (corrective feedback). It can also be done through posttask activities. There are various forms in which tasks can appear (Ellis, 2010: 40-41):
- “humanisitic exercises” (Moskowitz, 1977) [one example was given, but I’m not 100% sure what these are – I think there ones focussed on information about the people in the room]
- “procedural syllabus” (Prabhu, 1987): ” a series of meaning-focused activities consisting of pretasks, that the teacher completed with the whole class, followed by tasks where the students worked on similar activities on their own”
- with a “metacognitive focus for learner-training purposes”
Some of the contructs and theories TBLT draw on include (Ellis, 2010: 41):
- Teachability (Pienemann, 1985) – whether learners are actually ready to acquire the target structure. This causes problems as learners may not be ready for the same structure at the same time, and is contrasted with following their own “internal syllabus”.
- “Implicit knowledge”: “linguistic knowledge that is intuitive, unconscious and proceduralized” which is “acquired incidentally as a response to the frequency of sounds, syllables, and words in the input that learners are exposed to – that is, it involves associative rather than rule learning”
- “Focus on form” (Long, 1991): requiring learners to “attend to form while they are engaged in trying to communicate”, for example proactively seeding input with the target structure, or reactively with corrective feedback)
- Noticing (Schmidt, 1994): “acquisition takes place when learners pay conscious attention to exemplars of a linguistic form in the input”, meaning that at least some of the process of acquiring knowledge needs to be conscious.
Although there’s no guarantee that learners will do what the task designer intended: “there is no necessary relationship between task-as-workplan and task-as-process” (Seedhouse, 2005), “to some degree at least, it is possible to predict the language samples that result from particular tasks” (Ellis, 2010: 41-42).
Ellis (2003) proposes a frameowrk for “distinguishing the design features of tasks”. This is an example, accompanying a task shown in the chapter:
Some of the terms are defined as follows (Ellis, 2010: 42-43):
- “tight” organization: it “structures the interaction that the learners will engage in”
- split information: the participants have different information
- required interaction: “the task cannot be performed successfully unless both students speak”
- “convergent”: “the aim is for the students to agree on a solution to the task”
- “closed” scope: only one correct answer
What design features of tasks are likely to be effective in promoting L2 acquisition? (Ellis, 2010: 43) – with the caveat that SLA research so far (by 2010) shows the relationship between tasks and language use, NOT language acquisition:
- Jigsaw tasks have the “greatest psycholinguistic validity” according to Pica, Kanagy, and Falodun (1993), drawing on Long’s Interaction Hypothesis (1996): “when learners engage in the effort to negotiate meaning as a result of a breakdown in communication, their attention will be direct to linguistic forms in a way that promotes acquisition”.
- Tasks need to be varied “so that they induce learners to attend to different aspects of language use at different times”. (based on Skehan (2001), Cognitive Approach to Language Learning)
When designed tasks, you might choose to start from (Ellis, 2010: 43-44):
- a task function, e.g. describing a person
- a task genre, e.g. information gap
- a task frame, i.e. “giving consideration to a cluster of factors such as the participatory organization, skills to be practiced, timing, and teacher roles”
SLA and grammar teaching
They are a type of comprehension activity in which learners process the target structure through input. They “require learners to process the target structure in order to arrive at the meaning of the text.” (Ellis, 2010: 45) with learners creating a kind of “form-function mapping” – they can’t avoid the target structure in the activity, they have to understand it to achieve success in the activity.
Input-enrichment activities include enriched input with frequent and/or salient examples of the targeted features. There is an example on page 45. It may be a simple listening or reading text, a text with features highlighted, or a text with follow-up activities “designed to focus attention on the structure” – “questions can only be answered if the learners have successfully processed the target structure.” “Input flood” through a number of texts is needed to have a real effect on their acquisition of the target structure, but this is ineffective for some structures according to the studies Ellis quotes. (2010: 45) For this to be effective, learners need to notice the target structure, though they don’t need to be intentionally focused on it – enriched-input tasks “aim to assist noticing by increasing the salience of the target structure in the input.” Ellis contrasts this with traditional grammar activities, saying that the latter “may result in explicit knowledge rather than implicit knowledge”. The benefit of input-enrichment activities may be that they “reinforce the learning that results from a more traditional, explicitly instructional approach”. (all quotes: Ellis, 2010: 46)
Structured-input activities don’t just present enriched input (the stimulus), but provide “some instruction that forces [learners] to process it (the response)”. (Ellis, 2010: 46)
- “The stimulus can take the form of spoken or written input.”
- The response is generally either completely nonverbal or minimally verbal, for example T/F, tick a box, select a picture, draw a diagram, perform an action.
- A suggested sequence is attention to meaning > notice form and function of the grammatical structure > error identification.
- Learners should be able to “relate the input to their own lives”.
- There should be a focus on common errors, as well as correct usage.
- Immediate and explicit feedback on learners’ response to the input is necessary. (Ellis, 2010: 46-47)
There is an example of an activity on page 47. The grammar teaching approach is called Processing Instruction, defined by VanPatten (1996: 2) as “a type of grammar instruction whose purpose is to affect the ways in which learners attend to input data.” (Ellis, 2010: 47)
These tasks “make language itself the content by inviting learners to discover how a grammatical feature works for them”, with grammar the topic to communicate about. The focus is on developing understanding rather than noticing. (Ellis, 2010: 48)
Characteristics of CR tasks include (Ellis, 2010: 48-49):
- An attempt to isolate a specific linguistic feature for focused attention.
- Data to illustrate the targeted feature, and maybe an explicit rule describing or explaining the feature.
- Intellectual effort is needed to understand the targeted feature.
- Maybe learners need to verbalize a rule describing the structure.
Data might be (Ellis, 1997, summarised in Ellis, 2010: 49):
- authentic v. contrived
- oral v. written
- discrete sentences v. continuous text
- well-formed v. deviant sentences
- gap v. non-gap (i.e. each learner has all of the information, or learners have different information)
Operations learners might perform on the data could be (Ellis, 1997, summarised in Ellis, 2010: 49):
- identification (find the TL)
- judgment (is it correct? is it appropriate?)
- completion (complete a text)
- modification (e.g. replace this with this)
- sorting (categorising)
- rule provision (“state the rule they have discovered”)
A CR task constitutes a kind of puzzle that, when solved, enables learners to discover how a linguistic feature works.Ellis, 2010: 49
There are examples on page 50 and on page 54.
The justification for CR tasks is that explicit knowledge is needed to help learners “notice the gap between the input and their own interlanguage” and that “learning is more significant if it involves a greater depth of processing”. (Ellis, 2010: 50) One caveat is that “learners need sufficient proficiency to talk metalinguistically about the target feature” (Ellis, 2010: 51) [though the study which lead to this conclusion had learners from mixed L1 backgrounds – I wonder whether it’s necessary if they’re allowed to discuss the language in L1?]
Other limitations are that CR tasks may not work well with young learners, learners need a certain level of metalanguage [though Danny Norrington-Davies’ approach in From Rules to Reasons may counter this somewhat – Amazon affiliate link / BEBC non-affiliate link], and they may not appeal to “learners who are less skilled at forming and testing conscious hypotheses about language”. (Ellis, 2010: 51)
Ellis offers tham as a “valuable alternative to direct explicit instruction”. (Ellis, 2010: 51) He acknowledges that they are increasingly common in materials – I think that this is true too, though I think with only limited variety regarding the data and operations mentioned above.
That’s it for week two. Next week: Units 5, 6, 7 and 8. I spent a lot of time reading articles and a day doing other work this week, so didn’t make it to unit 5 as promised last week!