Tag Archives: language teaching

Compliance and creativity in language teaching

When I create an I-20 form for a prospective student, the SEVIS system has me choose “Language Training” as the student’s area of study. I’m always intrigued by this choice of words. Why is learning English considered ‘training’ and not ‘education?’ Are other disciplines – math, the sciences, English literature and foreign languages – considered to be training?

I suppose this rankles because ‘training’ doesn’t sound as elevated or noble as ‘education.’ The word training connotes the learning of standard routines for predictable situations. In preparing people to administer CPR, make a burger in a fast-food restaurant, or respond to a customer service call, a future situation is anticipated, its predictable components are identified, and a set of routines, to be followed step-by-step, is developed. Complying with the prescribed routine is considered the most effective way of behaving in the anticipated situation.

Historically, language teaching methodology adopted such a compliance or training approach. The grammar-translation method inculcated grammar rules and vocabulary with the aim of producing accurate translations of sentences. The Berlitz schools relied on heavily scripted lessons from which teachers were not to deviate. Audiolingualism employed drills designed to ingrain mental and muscle habits, and functional language teaching provided scripts for situations such as ‘asking for help’ or ‘at the post office.’  Perhaps the notion of language training is derived from this history of methods that emphasized rules, drills, and situations imagined to be predictable.

This changed with communicative language teaching, which combined a constructivist approach – knowledge regarded as being built or constructed in the learner, not received from outside – with the goal of teaching students to use their language to solve problems in less predictable situations. In information gap tasks, students were not given specific language, but were required to draw on their language resources creatively to find missing information in communication with classmates. In the communicative heyday, many teachers and textbooks de-emphasized grammar teaching and error correction, to the disappointment of many of their students.

Communicative language teaching ushered in a new age of creativity in language teaching. Students gave presentations, took part in classroom discussions, wrote original essays and stories, and engaged in pair- and group work, all of which was unpredictable language-wise. The emphasis in pronunciation teaching was less on ‘sounding like a native’ and more on students making themselves comprehensible with whatever phonological features they brought to English from their own language.

These days we have moved past language teaching methods into an eclectic era in which teachers use whatever approaches and  techniques they feel are best suited to the subject matter and their students. It is liberating not to be straitjacketed into a teaching method, but freedom of choice means that teachers need to make principled decisions, and this includes how much they will adopt a training approach, emphasizing rules, routines, and scripted language, as opposed to a more educational one, having students solve problems using their language resources.

Naturally, both approaches are needed, as they likely are in most academic disciplines. Particularly in early language learning, training is vital, as students need language rules and vocabulary. Practice dialogues, controlled grammar exercises, dictation, drills, and choral readings are all helpful at this stage. Later, these methods, aimed at compliance, can give way to a more creative approach, in which students use their second language resources to navigate unexpected situations and in doing so increase their proficiency. Language teaching that gets stuck in a training mode as students progress may help them prepare for tests and complete predictable exercises, but is unlikely to prepare them for using language in the real world. By the same token, an approach that leaves too much open, providing too little language structure, may not help students progress.

The compliance-creativity/training-education dichotomy (or is it a spectrum?) can be helpful in analyzing one’s own lesson plan and teaching, and is one useful framework for observing and analyzing a language class. It is helpful in thinking through students’ needs and deciding on materials and teaching components in curriculum design. Training has an important place in language teaching – but language teaching shouldn’t be reduced to ‘language training.’

Forwards design, backwards design

Backwards-design curriculum is a relatively new approach to curriculum design that is finding its way into many disciplines. In English language teaching, backwards design originated with English for Specific Purposes courses (such as English for pilots or English for the food service industry) where it was important to specify what learners should be able to do following the course or program. In the US, it was given a boost by the accreditation requirements of ACCET and CEA, themselves subject to the mandates of a federal Department of Education that sought greater accountability from educational institutions, starting with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

To understand backwards design, it helps to understand what it sought to replace. In a forwards-design approach to curriculum, the subject matter is broken down into its component parts and taught. At the end there is a test or other form of assessment to check what the students learned. The most obvious example in English language teaching is the traditional grammar syllabus, which organizes teaching grammar point by grammar point, and is still popular in many schools. In early versions of the communicative approach, grammar was replaced by communicative functions, but the approach was essentially the same. When I started teaching, I followed this approach: teach the points, then make a test.

Backwards design turns the process around. In this approach, you first analyze the needs of the students. What are they learning for? What do they need to do? This results in an overall goal for the course or program, and learning outcomes (often referred to as Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs) that state what students are expected to know or be able to do after completing it. Then you determine what would be acceptable evidence of achievement of this knowledge or ability, and design a means of assessment. Following that, you break the outcomes down into teaching and learning objectives and order them into a logical sequence. Finally, you decide how you are going to teach the knowledge and skills – your methodology.

Backwards design has been disruptive in many schools. Faculty with many years of experience are used to a forwards-design approach, and have developed their preferred ways of teaching around this approach. They may feel that the classroom is a place to explore new knowledge with students, they may want to meet students where they are, and may not want to define in advance exactly where those students will end up. Many are uncomfortable with trying to shoehorn their established teaching practices into a backwards-design course. Newer faculty are more likely to have been trained in backwards-design principles and accept them as natural.

However we feel about backwards design, it responds to a demand for greater accountability in education. This is the result of rising tuitions, a value-for-money orientation among students and their parents and sponsors, and a greater demand for demonstrable practical skills resulting from education. Love it or hate it, teachers have to embrace backwards design and incorporate it into their professional practice.

How SWBATs and can-do statements shortchange language learners

“Can keep up with an animated discussion, identifying accurately arguments supporting and opposing points of view.” “Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points.” If your program is using Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) descriptors as its outcomes statements, you’ll be familiar with ‘can-do’ statements like these.

The CEFR was developed as a means to assess and describe language proficiency. It was built on the European tradition of communicative language teaching (CLT), which emphasized the performance of language tasks. Since language performance can be observed, the CEFR’s can-do statements were a perfect match for the measurable-outcomes-based accountability initiatives that came in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Many teachers have been trained, encouraged, or badgered to plan their lessons and courses around SWBAT (‘students will be able to’) or can-do statements.

There is a persuasive case to be made that CEFR (and similar) performance statements are a useful way to describe language proficiency. Employers, for example, what to know what a potential employee can do in a language – what practical uses the employee can use the language for. Language educators are not employers, though. What language educators need to know is whether and to what extent learning has taken place, and here’s the problem.

Broadly speaking, two educational traditions have informed language teaching: the behavioral, and the cognitive. Behaviorists see learning as a change in behavior, one that can be observed or measured. Cognitivists see learning as acquiring and understanding knowledge. The cognitivist tradition fell out of fashion with the demise of the grammar-translation method and the rise of behavior-based approaches to language teaching. These days, we can probably all agree that in language learning, we need to refer to both traditions: the acquisition or construction of a mental representation of the language, and the skill required to be able to use it in practice. When our outcomes are can-do statements, we focus on observable or measurable behaviors, but tend to pay less attention to acquired or constructed knowledge. We want to know if the learner ‘can tell a story,’ or ‘keep up with an animated discussion,’ for example.

If you have taught students from various countries, you know that some are great performers even if they lack a solid language base – somehow, they manage to draw on sparse linguistic resources to communicate. And on the other hand, you know that some learners have extensive language knowledge, especially grammar and vocabulary knowledge, but have a great deal of difficulty ‘performing.’ Hence, Chomsky wrote of language proficiency, “behavior is only one kind of evidence, sometimes not the best, and surely no criterion for knowledge,” (as cited in Widdowson, 1990). The one is not necessarily indicative of the other.

If you are an educator (as opposed to an employer), you are interested in student learning in any form. You want to know what progress a learner has made. From a cognitive point of view, that includes changes in the learner’s mental representation of the language – a clearer understanding of the form, meaning, and use of the present perfect, for example – even if that has not yet resulted in a change in behavior, such as the ability to use that tense easily in a conversation. A learner who has made great strides in his/or mental representation of the language but is still speaking in telegraphic speech may be of little interest to an employer, but should be of great interest to an educator, because learning has taken place that is a basis for future teaching. Assessment and description of the learner’s language should address this type of progress. The behavioral tradition, with its can-do outcomes statements have no interest in such cognitive development – it is not interested until there is a change of behavior, an observable, measurable performance.

This approach to assessment shortchanges learners who may have made real progress on the cognitive side. So, I’m calling on language educators not to accept uncritically the use of CEFR and similar performance-based descriptors as measures of language learning.

Widdowson, H.G., Aspects of Language Teaching, Oxford University Press, 1990