Say WHAT? Run that by me again…

Burning Patterns into the Brain (Class Eleven)

“Alright–I want all of you to listen to the recording of today’s dialogue for homework and have it memorized and ready for recitation by Thursday. Yes, I know it was three pages long, but that’s beside the point. Your intonation must be exactly as you hear on the recording, and that means repeated practice. Each passage should be played and recited 30-50 times until you’ve mastered every line. If I find you have not done this, your parents will be notified.”

FullSizeRender (12)

Shuku loved the dictionary!

As a student, how would you respond to this assignment? The three Chinese EFL learners discussed in Monday’s article by Yanren Ding worked long and hard throughout their secondary school years to follow their teachers’ hard-lined approach and memorize most of their English textbooks. Not surprisingly, they resisted at first, but all three grew to appreciate the intense focus on recitation and the strict pedagogy. In fact, they credited their later success as winners of national speech and debate tournaments to the hours spent memorizing and reciting textbook dialogues and later memorizing scenes from English movies, line by line. Today’s blog post is devoted to these three learners, and to the topic of language memorization. I will also dedicate this post to my husband, and to my classmate Shuku, who both willingly memorized English dictionaries, one definition at a time. 

Here’s the gist of the article: Ding chose three mainland Chinese college students who had demonstrated high levels of achievement in English in order to learn what strategies they had used to achieve success. The learners were interviewed in detail, each describing years of memorization on a daily basis–a road on which they all, at first, traveled unwillingly. They spoke of the pressure they felt and the difficulty of memorizing lengthy passages of text. They did what they were told to do, however, in spite of the fact that many of their classmates, unable to imitate the L2 accent properly, resisted the practices of memorization and recitation. Ding reports that teachers simply gave up on those students, devoting themselves to others who were willing to put in the time (Ding, 2007, pp. 273-4). And, along the way, each of the learners found themselves becoming motivated not just by the teacher’s exhortations (they were praised and encouraged, as well as scolded), but by the English language itself.

Here is where it gets really interesting for me because I, too, am motivated by the love of words as well as the ideas they represent. In a previous post, I referred to psychologists Amabile and Hennessey’s definition of  intrinsic motivation, as characterized by “The drive to do something for the sheer enjoyment, interest, and personal challenge of the task itself (rather than for some external goal).” (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010, p. 581) Although Ding does not explore this issue at length, I believe that his learners H, W, and Z were unusual in their degree of intrinsic motivation, which gradually took root and flourished while they busily memorized passages of language. As they spent long hours at home listening and attempting to precisely imitate native speakers’ inflections, class time recitations and discussions grew easier; the students came to discover their own aptitude for English and to find pleasure in the sound of the words themselves.

Mind you, all three were modest about their English ability. Neither Z not W believed they had any aptitude, and although H originally mentioned her “natural gift” for language, she later changed the wording of the interview notes to reflect a more neutral stance. (Ding, p. 273).  However Z reported noticing that there were “…things that I could do but others couldn’t do,” (Ding, p. 277) and I am certain that all three learners were secretly proud of their ability to manipulate a second language. In short, they knew they were good at something, and though their ability must have made them stand out in class (a big faux pas for Asian students), they forged ahead, driven by the desire to perfect their language skills. They became intrinsically motivated.


Sherlock can be seen in China, too.

After graduating from high school, the students’ drive to memorize English continued through their college years, in the form of fanatic movie watching in English. Textbook memorization enforced by the teacher was replaced by out-of-class learning, as the three memorized dialogues from English language films, line by line, making a long train trip home once a week since television was off-limits in their dormitories. A combination of work and play? Absolutely! As Ding says, “…their purpose was not just to enjoy the stories; rather, their goal was to enjoy the language, imitate it, and memorize it.” (Ding, 2007, p. 227) 

So what exactly did years of memorization enable these devoted students to achieve? They learned patterns and formulaic chunks of language. They practiced diligently and learned them so well that they could easily retrieve and use them both in the classroom, in interviews, and on stage in debates. They learned to recognize and acquire prosodic features of language, practicing their own rhythm and intonation on a daily basis, constantly comparing it to that of native speakers. Most impressive to me is that the students mastered details of the English language that would not be interesting to more meaning-focused communicative L2 students. They listened for and learned to use collocations, function words, and inflections without worrying about grammar and apart from their desire to understand the meaning. H, especially, spoke enthusiastically of the enjoyment of listening for new and unusual usages and intonations that she might add to her own repertoire. The three also learned to hear their own voices and to take control of their own learning process. My guess is that the years of imitation and critical feedback from teachers enabled the students to be good judges of their own pronunciation and keen strategic learners. They knew what the standard was, and they knew how to achieve it. Lastly, they became producers of language, able to spontaneously and appropriately produce chunks of language to communicate, to persuade, to argue, and to expound. 

“Oh, yes,” you might say. “But was their language natural? ” Well, the answer is not a simple one, and before answering it, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. 

To begin with, how do we really feel about this kind of learning? Are we unknowingly condescending toward those raised in a culture where rote memorization of large bodies of knowledge is acceptable and preferred? Do we (speaking for myself and fellow westerners) feel a bit superior in our perceived ability to think critically and use language creatively? I’ll raise my hand and admit that I thought my husband was nothing short of pitiful when he first spoke of his dictionary memorizing days. Fast forward twenty years to the day when he scored higher than me on the Qualitative portion of the GRE exams, and ask me if I still think that. Go ahead–and you can also ask me if I regret being too high and mighty in high school to memorize algebraic formulas and chemical compounds…or better yet, don’t ask since I’m already properly humbled just by the writing of this post.

Now back to the question of “natural” and “creative” English. I only know learners H, W, and Z through Ding’s analysis of their statements, but my guess is that no, their use of English was not always natural or “native-like”.  After all, it is hard to find the perfect chance to use a line from a movie or a textbook dialogue in spontaneous conversation. Yet they were always concerned with context and alert for opportunities to make use of what they had struggled to remember. We can presume their English was not notably creative since much of it was lifted word for word from dialogues and scripts. They probably did not string elements of language together, but instead relied on formulaic chunks they had memorized. I have no doubt, however, that their language was appropriate (they were, again, very concerned with context), grammatically accurate, and spoken with native-like intonation and pronunciation. And because their heads were literally full of patterns and chunks of language that had been “burned into their brains” they were rarely at a loss for words. In short, their secondary school learning environment had demanded complete accuracy of language use. And–here is the amazing thing–they were able to achieve this because of their dedication to memorization, most of which occurred outside of any communicative context. Ding writes, and I agree, that freedom from the pressure of real-time conversation enabled the three learners to perfect their language skills. Taking all this into consideration, I see no reason to treat their achievement with condescension, or to bemoan a lack of creativity and naturalness, both of which would undoubtedly emerge with time spent abroad in an immersion situation. 

It is conceivable, of course, that such intense focus on form could have the adverse effect of inhibiting students from engaging in face-to-face conversation, but Ding writes that his subjects embraced the chance to converse and discuss in class as well. And their story reveals a different twist to what we know about how language is acquired. Scholars have repeatedly proven that learners’ noticing of the gap between an L1 speaker’s language and their own imperfect interlanguage is the key to real acquisition. Yet in many cases the gap remains unnoticed, and L2 errors become habitual. Perhaps those learners are the ones who can’t be bothered to memorize and recite? No matter how distasteful the idea might seem, Ding believes that this is so: memorization and repetition are an important part of the noticing process. He writes, “Passion for the language leads to noticing and rehearsal, which in turn lead to acquisition. Good language learners are superior to other learners in the two aspects of noticing and rehearsal.” and, even more directly, “…text memorization and imitation have a legitimate place in second language education.” (Ding, p. 279)

Lastly, I’d like to return to the subject of intrinsic motivation, which is what enabled learners H, W, and Z to memorize such a massive amount of input, thoughtfully process it, and finally make it their own for productive use. My guess is that many highly motivated Asian students are bored with communicative classrooms and with task-based learning in particular. Shuku, Alan, and I discussed this in our small group and Shuku admitted as much. “I was never task-oriented,” she said. “There was never enough speaking involved, and I wanted more direct feedback from my teachers instead. In class, I pretended to be an average student like everyone else, but at home, I did what those Chinese students did: I spoke in English out loud, and I tried to imitate my English teachers exactly.” And there you have it: those who love language for its own sake will not necessarily be happy task-based learners since they are intrinsically motivated by the language itself rather than in the task, which is assumed to be the motivating factor. And just as music lovers accept that memorization of several movements of a sonata is necessary to perform on stage, language lovers realize and accept that memorization is not only part of the process, but can be highly motivating in and of itself.

In the end, I’m proud to be married to a language-loving man and proud to be the friend of Shuku, who imitated her teachers and slept with a dictionary by her pillow. I hope that learners H, W, and Z are living productive lives, using their English regularly and with enthusiasm, and able to travel abroad to polish their already formidable language skills, which I suspect are already becoming more natural and native-like. 



Ding, Y. (2007). Text memorization and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System, 35(2), pp.271-280. doi:10.1016/j.system.2006.12.005

Hennessey, B.& Amabile, T. (2010). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology, 61(1),pp. 569-598. doi:10.1146/1nnurev.psych.093008.100416





We Can! Goal-Oriented English for Children (textbook review)

The We Can! children’s EFL textbook series published by McGraw-Hill (2009) is available on the We Can! website , on the discount site, or at the Kinuokuniya main bookstore in Shinjuku, as well as other websites and bookstores throughout Asia. The series is designed especially for EFL students in Asia, from pre-schoolers to junior high level. It can be used either for home study, for use in private language schools, or for use in public elementary schools. I have chosen to review We Can! Level One, which is recommended for beginning learners age six to eight.

We Can!Children’s EFL textbooks come with an almost bewildering array of supplementary materials, and the We Can! series is no exception. Pictured on the left is the “Student Book”, which provides visual support for class time CD listening exercises and songs as well as the teacher-led games and activities. A workbook (designed to be used as homework) and a phonics workbook are also promoted, to be used in conjunction with the Student Book. A teacher’s guide is, of course, available and, I would say, indispensable for this particular series. Additionally, there are posters to reinforce classroom language and flash cards (which look pricey, but appealing, featuring photos of children rather than cartoon characters) for classroom use. “Play cards” may also be purchased for children to review at home. And there are CDs: one each included in the workbook and student book, and a song and chant CD available separately.

I chose the “Student Book” (as opposed to the phonics book or workbook) to review because I have never actually found a student book that suited my teaching style. They are designed to be used by students sitting at tables or desks for visual reference during teacher presentations, and while my smallest students do use textbooks for the phonics portion of their lessons, they also spend a good thirty minutes of the lesson sitting on the carpet or up and moving. As a new teacher, I often experimented with more “table time” using various popular student books, but never felt comfortable with the materials or with the balance of active versus seated time. Because of this, I’ve come to rely on my own resources and plan my own syllabus for years. This assignment, however, prompted me to return to Kinokuniya to check out the rows of colorful, enticing students books to see whether that perfect student book might now exist. Out of a plethora of Oxford and Cambridge options, I chose a Matsuka Phonics Institute publication because 1) I have used their phonics materials successfully for over a decade and 2) because I feel that Matsuka materials are often underestimated and underutilized by native English speaking teachers. The Matsuka phonics books I have long relied on are bilingual, with clear and interesting instructions in Japanese that provide young children with metalanguage; they are reasonably priced, and easily understood and appreciated by parents. “So I’ll try the Matsuka student book,” I thought. “Maybe this one will be a perfect fit, and my life will be changed forever!” Student books cannot be fully utilized without an instructional guide, so my review will include information from the teacher’s guide as well.

I spent the better part of my day perusing the We Can teacher’s guide, the class book, and the workbook, and came away with some interesting observations. In particular, I was reassured and impressed to discover that the We Can series stands on solid theoretical ground. Although the syllabus is adapted to suit the cognitive abilities and learning style of children, the basic principles of this particular textbook series are the same as those espoused by many materials designed for adult learners. Both the We Can! website and the teacher’s guide are in line with SLA research findings on the importance of comprehensible input and output, of interaction and meaningful communication, of student motivation, of ease of evaluation, and of constant review of language at spaced intervals. Let me touch on each of those features briefly before I continue, beginning with input and output.

In her website’s personal statement, Yoko Matsuka proposes that the aim of English for elementary school children is “To let kids experience the richness and depth of English” rather than having language passed on “in meagre fashion”. Her textbooks are chock-full of words and phrases that are presented and re-presented in conversations, in rhyme and chant, and in songs. It’s all input, and it’s all designed to be recycled as output. For instance, I was surprised to see that each and every unit has a component called “talk time”, requiring students to first practice the day’s target language alone, then with a partner, and lastly in front of the class.  The We Can series’ communicative goal is made clear in the teacher’s guide book which states, “…it is very important to create situations in the classroom where students can use English in a practical way,” and promises that students will “…have fun, complete challenging tasks, or exchange thoughts with their classmates in English” (Matsuka & Ito, pp. v-vi).  There is no mention of grammar. Matsuka’s class book features weekly goal-setting, for the dual purpose of student motivation and ease of evaluation. At the end of each lesson, teachers check that students actually can produce the target language, then literally check the colorful boxes at the bottom of the page in the class book. Each lesson features two goals, one based on repeating the phrase as learned in the day’s lesson, and the second goal designed as a “real-world expansion” of the same target language. The weekly mini-report, then, is designed to keep students motivated and to satisfy parents’ worries about their children’s progress. Lastly, spaced repetition of language is assured through a “spiral curriculum”, ensuring that language is constantly recycled in different ways. 

I especiallly liked the teacher’s guide introductory statement, which encapsulates the spirit of the book nicely: “…what makes good material greatly depends on what the goal or philosophy is. This course is based on the belief that good material for children is child-centered. Children have a totally different energy from that of adults and when children’s imagination is captured, they can use this energy to enjoy and learn, unconstrained by limits” (Matsuka & Ito, p. iv).

A brief examination of the content of the We Can! student book reveals standard themes found in most kindergarten-level textbooks. Topics covered are (in order): friends, body, family, birthdays, toys, “yummy things”, animals, and days of the week. There are two bonus lessons, one for Halloween and one for Christmas. The syllabus was a bit mysterious, even after some serious pondering; it appears to be designed to be used for 8 months, with no regard to seasons, except for a single snowman song, which would be sung in July (if the course began in April) or December (if the course began in September). The book is designed to be used either in a private language school or an elementary school, and the lesson planner features 3 lessons per week,  four lessons per unit, and 39 lessons in all. Since Japanese public elementary school students still receive very few hours of English education and most private language students take only 1 lesson a week, the syllabus would have to be adapted, perhaps with the content stretched out over a full year rather than 8 months. I also found it interesting that although the units were designed around themes, the individual lessons are designed to focus on different components of language. The first lesson of the month focuses on speaking, the second on rhythm and sounds, the third on vocabulary, and the final lesson on phonics. Of course, all of these elements appear to be blended into each lesson to some extent, but clearly the purpose of each lesson is to focus on one discrete component. The speaking lessons are characterized by games involving movement and repetition, and–as discussed previously–by practice of the target language with the ultimate goal of presentation to the class. The rhythm and sounds lessons are all about singing, moving, chanting, rhythm games and listening activities, while the vocabulary lessons involve listening and repetition of target language, pointing to objects, and matching and coloring activities. Lastly, the phonics lessons involve letter recognition, pronunciation practice, and basic tracing and writing and coloring activites. Each unit is followed by “extension activities” designed to give teachers ideas on how to use learned language in different contexts. The CD found in the back of the class book provides a mini-review of the day’s language points; students listen to the CD in class, and  presumably listen again and practice at home. A vocabulary list can be found in the back of the book, containing a 113 word corpus. 

As a veteran teacher of small children, I found many things appealing about the We Can class book. In particular, I appreciate the philosophy behind its creation and the care and thoroughness put into the teacher’s guide. The introduction to the guide states, “Good teachers can be teachers in English-language schools, private schools, public schools, or at home. Being a good teacher has nothing to do with age or nationality. We believe that if you can speak English and teach and guide children, you can be a good teacher.” ( Matsuka & Ito, 2009, p. iv) I believe so, too, and this book provides a solid support for EFL teachers both old and young, in a variety of teaching contexts.

I also found the layout and design of the class book very appealing. The illustrations are bright and child-friendly without being babyish or overly cute, and the layout is cheerful but not busy. Best of all are the illustrations of target vocabulary words; they are, as they should be, bright, bold, realistic, and unambiguous. I further appreciate that there are blank spaces for children to draw and color, and that letters are not only to be traced, but to be “decorated” or given faces, arms, and legs. The teacher’s guide promotes the student books as child-friendly, and makes good on that promise.

The focus on output and communication is also a strong point of the We Can! series. Although shy children might take a while to warm up to the “presentations” in front of peers, this is no different from what they are used to doing in their regular elementary school lessons, and it’s a form of pushed output that forces children to think carefully and to develop confidence and poise.

In the end, however, I feel that the class book would be quite restrictive for veteran teachers of small children, precisely because it is so all-encompassing. In an effort to provide scaffolding for less-experienced teachers, the syllabus ends up being too detailed and inflexible for those teachers who have ideas of their own and a good supply of basic games and flash card sets and CDs. To give an example, there are three CDs included in the We Can level 1 package: one for the student book, one for the workbook, and an accompanying song and chant CD. As a native speaker of English, there is no reason (short of laryngitis ) to not use my own voice in class, so I would not use a CD for pronunciation purposes during class time. As for the song and chant CD, I have listened to it in its entirety and am not overly impressed. Although my students might find several of the songs catchy, I prefer straight piano, guitar, and voice over electronic accompaniment and syrupy sweet vocals. Personal preference counts, since EFL teachers must listen to their class music each and every day while maintaining a cheerful smile and singing along with gusto. As for parents and CDs, I’m afraid that most would not be bothered to keep track of three different CD discs (for level one only) and play them regularly at home.

In general, for my own purposes, I find the student book superfluous. Many of the activities described involve movement, and are, after all, best introduced by a teacher sitting on a carpet, rather than by a book, with students sitting at their desks. If English is to be introduced to pre-readers in a communicative setting, there is no reason to use a textbook for the spoken aspect of language learning. Why look at a picture of a teacher leading a game when the real teacher is standing right there, ready to teach? Private language schools that teach phonics already incorporate sitting and writing for a good portion of the lesson, and I see no reason to use a “student book” that ties small children to their seats for the remainder of the time. Although I find the book visually appealing and the activities appropriate and child-centered, the same activities can be done without a textbook, and large flashcards and posters can be enjoyed while sitting informally in a circle rather than at desks. Elementary school teachers with 30 to 40 students would, on the other hand, would find this book easy to use, though lack of classroom space might make the active games quite tricky. I do find the “point and find” exercises in the student book to be a valuable use of time and absolutely engaging for children; in the best of all possible worlds, these exercises could be included as an extra in the phonics book, so parents would only need to invest in a single text.

As far as the syllabus and the lesson plans (or objectives), I personally find the sequencing and topic choices rather disappointing. Only one snowman song? What about the rest of winter? And no spring or summer? No flowers or ocean fish? First graders are still attuned to the seasons. They spend a good part of their day out-of-doors, and it seems only natural to at least include seasonal references in the objectives if not the syllabus itself. Also, I find teaching speaking, rhythm, vocabulary, and phonics as separate lessons to be a bit odd; ideally, all of these elements should be included in each and every lesson for small children rather than taught as discrete components.

My final criticism pertains to the emphasis on goal setting and evaluation. This is one of the selling points of the series, and in theory, I think it’s an excellent idea. In reality, however, the goals are all pre-decided and teacher-set, and may have no substantive meaning for students. Other goals are absolutely subjective, and depend on the teacher’s interpretation (“I can sing the Bingo song with good rhythm”). Most importantly, the concept of achieving a “goal” in a single lesson is in itself unrealistic. I can already imagine myself dutifully checking “yes” in the book of the sweet little boy who sang Bingo with great enthusiasm but less-than-perfect rhythm, and I’m sure other teachers would be reluctant to tell highly-motivated first graders that in fact they had NOT achieved their goal that day. I know from experience that some children will not be able to remember and produce a target phrase in a single lesson, and this kind of goal-setting strategy might very well prove de-motivating and discouraging—to parents as well as children. Unfortunately, the evaluative component of the goal setting and marking is also of dubious value. Teachers will always be tempted to check the “yes” box for first graders (otherwise, prepare for tears!), and even if a child has truly “achieved a goal” on a set day, parents might be discouraged and upset to find that the child has forgotten the target language by the next morning. Of course, the purpose of the multiple CDs and the workbook is to ensure that children do review what they’re “achieved” at home, and perhaps that is an aspect of learning that should be emphasized, rather than achieving goals during class time.

In spite of these personal criticisms, I would recommend the We Can! Student Book Level 1 to elementary school teachers of English who are lucky enough to meet their students two or three times a week. Either native or non-native English speaking teachers could easily adopt or adapt the syllabus, and would find the games and songs level-appropriate and easily implemented in a crowded classroom. While I feel that a 113 word corpus is not challenging enough for first graders in private language schools featuring small classes, that same number seems appropriate in a packed classroom of 35-40 students. Good luck to the teacher in checking off all the goals individually, though!

As for my own personal quest to find the perfect “student book” for young learners, it may either be a continuing saga or I may gracefully admit defeat. Most likely, I will channel my energy into adapting previously used materials and creating new and different prints to supplement carpet time. In the meanwhile, I’m pleased with my purchase of the We Can! textbooks, and will be dipping into the teacher’s guide for new ideas. A few of the songs are also quite good, and will make their way into my eclectic repertoire. All in all, I appreciate Yoko Matsuka’s efforts to bring the spirit of communicative language learning and teaching to Asia. Her materials are teacher-friendly, child-friendly, and worthy of their display shelf in Kinokuniya, next to the glossy Oxford, Cambridge, and National Geographic titles. A day spent reviewing the We Can! student book was an excellent time investment.



Matsuka, Y. & Ito, L. (2009) We Can! Goal-oriented English for Children (Teacher’s Guide). Singapore: McGraw Hill ELT.

Matsuka, Y. & McDougall, G. (2009) We Can! Goal-oriented English for Children (Student Book). Singapore: McGraw Hill ELT.

William Littlewood on Communicative and Task-Based Teaching in Asia: article review

Article Title: Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms

Journal: Language Teacher 40 (3), July, 2007.

Doi: 10.1017/S0261444807004363

William Littlewood.

William Littlewood.

Author: This article was penned by William Littlewood, who wears many hats including language scholar, professor, curriculum developer, textbook writer, and teacher trainer. Littlewood began his teaching career in Germany working for the well-known Berlitz language school, then returned to teach in his native U.K. In 1991, he traveled to Hong Kong on a research grant and has been based there since, currently lecturing at Hong Kong Baptist University. In addition to training EFL/ESL practitioners, he is a prolific writer of both journal articles and books. His TESOL textbook entitled Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction has been translated into Basque, Japanese, Malaysian, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Greek.  He has a lovely smile.

Type of article: A revised transcription of a plenary speech given by Littlewood at the 2006 International Conference of the Korean Association for Teachers of English.

Purpose:  To discern why East Asian educators have trouble implementing communicative teaching techniques in the classroom, and to reflect on how teachers adapt to the challenges they face.  Littlewood attempts to re-frame the concepts of both CLT and TBT to make them more relevant and practical for East Asian classrooms.

What Littlewood has to say: After establishing the widespread use of Task Based Language Teaching in East Asia (under the umbrella of Communicative Language Teaching), Littlewood discusses concerns that have been voiced by teachers struggling to successfully implement tasks. He explores the problem areas of classroom management (“The students have too much freedom and I can’t restore order!”), avoidance of English (“They’re really into the task, but no-one’s using the target language!”), minimal demands on language competence (“Students spent forty minutes and used only a few easy phrases!”), incompatibility with public assessment demands (“We don’t have time for this–the national exams are coming up in a month!”), and conflict with educational values and traditions (“We’re used to accumulating bodies of knowledge in this country!”).

Based on studies by various scholars based in East Asia, Littlewood paints a sympathetic picture of teachers caught between the ideal portrayed by their national policy and the reality of their classroom situtation. Educators described in the article respond, in some cases, by simply ignoring policy and continuing to teach in a way that’s familiar and effective for them, complying on paper with the national guidelines for Comunicative Language Teaching.  Other teachers in China and Japan have re-interpreted CLT and tasks in general, adjusting the framework to better fit their students’ needs. This watered-down type of Task Based Learning is often more about practicing discrete language items rather than negotiation for meaning, it seems, with the addition of “context” providing the communciative aspect. One enterprising teacher in Mainland China was managing to double up, focusing on traditional exam-based English grammar and drills while also encouraging student interaction in the L2, and creative language use. Bravo, Mr. Yang! 

Littlewood, however, points out that many Asian teachers are unclear on the fundamental concepts of CLT and TBLT, assuming that such approaches mean focus on speaking and communication, with no place for grammar. “Not teaching grammar” and “teaching only speaking” were the two most common misconceptions uncovered in the study, along with the fact that many Asian teachers have only a “fuzzy notion” of what a task actually is. Most recognize that it is not a drill, but what about “exercises”? Can they be considered tasks if one adds a communicative element? Some teachers have created a middle ground called “exercise-tasks”; Littlewood suggests that this might not be a bad idea, and could in fact be taken further, to create a continuum of task types.

On the form-focused end of this continuum would be Non-Communicative Learning, including grammar exercises and drills: next would be Pre-Communicative Learning, such as controlled (rather than free) question-and-answer practice. Communicative Language Practice is third on Littlewood’s continuum, defined by information exchange based on recently-taught predictible language. Fourth would be Structured Communication, where finally the focus moves to meaning and includes more complex information-exchange activites. Still, this stage is stuctured and teacher-directed. Lastly, the most meaning-oriented activities would be deemed Authentic Communication, in which language forms are unpredictible and creative, and problem-solving, content-based tasks, and true discussion can be implemented.

Finally, Littlewood concludes that in the current post-methods era, “…no single method or set of procedures will fit all teachers and learners in all contexts”.  In other words, there are no ready-made recipes, so teachers had better start experimenting in the kitchen until they get it right. Good luck to us!

What Ruthie has to say: Hooray for the continuum–best idea I’ve seen yet! One size does most certainly NOT fit all, and the idea of a communicative continuum takes away the pressure many EFL teachers in Asia face on a daily basis. Specifically, it helps us see “failed tasks” in a different perspective: rather than a “task-gone-wrong”, the day’s lesson can be viewed as “closer to the form-focused end of the spectrum”. And hopefully, as students progress in their interlanguage and gain confidence, lessons will come to more closely resemble the “meaning end of the spectrum”. Some might disagree, but I believe Littlewood’s article should be required reading alongside Willis and Willis, who present the ideal model. It’s an important bridge that encourages educators to reflect more closely on their own situation and to better adapt their methods and teaching style to the needs of their students.

Intrinsic Motivation and Thoughtful Corrections (Class Ten)

Last night’s listening and speaking class with Dr. Jim was lively, in spite of the fact that Chunmei had not slept a wink, Hiroko had walked over 20,000 steps across Tokyo during the day, and Paul and I had spent an exhausting weekend attending a two-day vocabulary acquisition seminar with Batia Laufer. There were three presenters, and the topic was a continuation of the Task-Based Learning theme, with a twist. I’d like to talk about two of the articles presented, one of which I had engaged with since reading the title, and another which looked to be uninspiring, but proved to be surprisingly useful and enlightening.

Steven Sadow

Steven Sadow

I’ll begin with the article we all thought sounded appealing: “Concoctions”, by Stephen Sadow, a professor of romance languages and literature at Northeastern University. It’s not often that we get to read an article written by someone outside of the field, and I viewed it as a treat rather than an assignment from the first. Happily, the article–found in Foreign Language Annuals 27(2) did not disappoint.

By Sadow’s own definition, “concoctions” are tasks that students find absorbing because they stimulate intrinsic motivation. But ho-hum, that definition is yawn-inducing, so let me go a bit further. Psychologist Teresa Amabile, whom Sadow quotes, defines intrinsic motivation as, 1) having love for and even an obsession with the task at hand, 2) having a sense of dedication to the work over time, 3) having a view of the project as combining work and play (are you waking up yet?) and 4) marked by a concentration on the activity itself.  Dr. Jim’s study sheet for the article had asked us to recall an intrinsically motivating projectand I knew the answer: this blog, of course. It’s a requirement, but it’s also an obsession, and these blog posts get written before reading or writing assignments for other courses. I am one of those women who do not hesitate to indulge in dessert before a meal. 

So more about concoctions. They are tasks which are performed not just for the sake of the outcome (which had been my impression so far from reading Willis and Skehan), but for the sake of the process itself. These are tasks involving ambiguity, open-endedness, and instability. They make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. They involve unexpected, unusual, or even startling associations, and curiosity is the key. If students are not intensely curious–if they are not driven to think in new and different ways–Sadow would not consider the task a proper concoction. He also goes so far as to speculate that, “…the ability to grab and hold student attention may be more important than the practice of specific language points.” In designing a concoction, Sadow suggests: Avoid problems that have already been solved and design new problems. Let students brainstorm for solutions and re-arrange their existing schema (he calls this “breaking frames”).

In discussing the Dada and Surrealist influences on Sadow’s thinking, Chunmei showed us a clip of a Luis Bunuel film involving the juxtaposition of an eyeball and a razor as an example of a “frame-breaking” experience. Having been through three laser surgery operations on my eyes (and lasers and razors are one and the same in Japanese), I could not watch, but I did lift my head up in time to enjoy Chunmei’s final slide, entitled “Stairway to Heaven” by Jim Warren. “It’s Surreal, but it’s also romantic, and I just like it,” she pronounced, and we were able to forget the eyeball clip and end the presentation on a positive note.

Well. After Chunmei’s presentation, there were a few awkward minutes where we tried to picture ourselves as creators and implementors of such ambiguous and appealing tasks, with our intrinsically motivated students begging for more class time to finish the project, please! Some of us ventured to say that this was all very exciting, but not realistic or practical for our teaching situations. And I’m sure that many of us felt, at that point, about as interesting as dishrags. What bearing could this article by a crazy Harvard-educated literature scholar possibly have on our daily working lives as teachers of shy Asian EFL students?

Then Doug, who teaches classes for Japanese businessmen, spoke up. “You’d think that guys in suits are really serious,” he said, “but we do some crazy things in our lessons. I’m basically mocking the textbook dialogues a lot of the time, and those businessmen love it. If I tried to teach everything straight from the book, we’d all die of boredom and no-one would learn anything.” Aha. Then I remembered, “Yeah, I do something similar with my kids’ classes. I have to teach endless chunks of language and phrases using these cute little Kumon cards showing boring well-behaved children. So I always re-arrange the order of the cards to purposely put the boring, predictable children in interesting or unexpected predicaments.” And from there, most of us could think of ways that we tweaked tasks or drills to give them unexpected or humorous outcomes. And Dr. Jim wrapped things up by reminding us that challenging learners to “think differently” can be as simple as changing the perspective. Trees, eyeglasses, shoes–even objects can have a perspective or a voice (said the professor whose doctoral dissertation involved puppets) and students can willingly suspend their disbelief to imagine the world seen through different eyes. Ha! As I wrote that, an image flashed through my head of shoes with eyes, alert to impediments or obstacles that their near-sighted owner might not have noticed. “Look out for the snail!” “Whooooa, that’s dog poop!”  Maybe an idea for a concoction-influenced task? I believe I will file it away for future reference.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the last presentation, on an article entitled Teaching Speaking: Suggestions for the Classroom (found in The Language Teacher 21-1) by Robert S. Brown and Paul Nation. This was the article I wasn’t overly excited about; it had a mundane title that did not sound like an alcoholic beverage, and I was in the mood to talk more about concoctions. The presenter was Robert, who began, as many of us have thus far, with an apology: “I’m really sorry, but my presentation’s going to be straightforward and boring. I’m just not good at this stuff.” …….and then he went on to speak confidently, smoothly, engagingly and enthusiastically, as most of us do. After all, we’re teachers, and performing is part of our job on a daily basis. Perhaps the tendency to apologise before beginning our presentations reflects our comfortableness in speaking in front of peers; in front of our own students, any little anxieties are instantly repressed, and bright smiles belie none of the worries that make us human. Whatever the reason, Robert’s modesty was soon tossed aside as he launched into the heart of the presentation and became teacherly in the best sense.

Paul Nation

Paul Nation

The first half of the article covered speaking: how to encourage students to do more and how to improve their fluency and accuracy. Okay–pretty good stuff, and Robert was interesting. Then my ears really perked up near the end when the subject of error correction was introduced. We’ve discussed the subject often, in different classes and different contexts, but there are always new angles to consider. I thought that Brown and Nation (as represented by Robert) did an excellent and thoughtful job of analysing why L2 learners make errors and how we as teachers can respond both effectively and sensitively. For those of you who are familiar with these principles, it’s probably worthwhile to read them again, and for those of you who haven’t yet encountered them, here they are:

If your learner makes an error because they have not yet come into contact with the correct language form.…….don’t correct. Show them the correct form and give them chances to practice.

If your learner errs because they have not observed the form correctly………correct by showing the difference.

If your learner errs because of nervousness…….do NOT correct. Lighten the mood, relieve the tension!

If your learner is suffering from cognitive overload due to task difficulty, do not correct. Make the task easier, or give more chances to practice.

If your learner is confused due to task difficulty (tongue-twisters are the example given), do not correct. Again, tweak the task to make it easier.

If your learner’s error is based on the transfer of a pattern from their first language, do correct, or learners may continue to make the same error, leading to what some linguists call “fossilization”. If the learner’s error has not yet become a habit, it’s time for “consciousness-raising” to help make them aware of correct patterns.

If your learner has copied an incorrect model (which can happen when L2 learners use their interlanguage together without a L1 interlocutor), do point out the correct model.

In short, EFL and ESL teachers should be wary of rushing in to correct learner errors. In some cases, correction can do more harm than good, and often it would simply be a waste of time. On the other hand, it’s also a waste to let a potential consciousness-raising opportunity slip by, so when the circumstances are right, we need to find a way to make learners aware of the much-discussed gap between the target phrase and their developing interlanguage.

“And don’t forget,” said Dr. Jim at the close of the class, “that error correction often works over time. While you may think a simple re-cast of the learner’s error goes unnoticed, that might not be the case And sometimes, learners do the re-cast themselves….. Ruthie! Ask me a question!” Startled, I opened my mouth and said what was uppermost in my mind: “Don’t you think it’s time for a little haircut, Dr. Jim?”

Dr, Jim

Dr, Jim

The good Dr. looked a bit startled, his hand flew to his head, and Hiroko sitting next to me scolded, “Ruthie!! That’s not a QUESTION! That’s a hidden request!” Hahaha—never mind that mentioning the state of your professor’s hair is not an appropriate topic, Hiroko was remembering the article by Zoltan Dornyei, urging teachers to train their students to recognize all manner of complex “questions”. She immediately substituted, “What did you do last weekend?”, while both Dr. Jim and I recovered our composure (to be honest, I had startled myself by saying what I was thinking). And then Dr. J. showed us what he meant. “What did you do last weekend?” he repeated in a small voice to himself thoughtfully. “See?” he said. “The learner is repeating the phrase, thinking about it and re-casting it for himself. That happens!” We all said, “aaaaah! yes!” then put away our pens and notebooks, unplugged our iPhone chargers, and called it a night. Another Listening and Speaking class checked off the syllabus, and–as always–some good things to ponder before next Monday when we meet again.

Rickety Roller-Coasters and Task-Based Teaching (Class nine)

Tonight I’d like to talk about tasks. Those of you familiar with TESOL terminology will know exactly what I’m talking about, but what about the rest of the world? What words does the average Joe associate with the word “task”? I don’t consider my husband to be in any way average, but his academic field is very different than mine, so I took a shot in the dark and asked him: “What do you think of when you hear the word task?”

“Mmmmm….” he said reluctantly, eyeing his yet-untouched hamburg steak and knowing that I would persist until he produced an acceptable answer. Within 30 seconds, he came up with: “Difficult”. “Arduous”. “Thankless”. “Heavy”. “Taxing”… Just as I suspected, all negative words.

My hypothesis was correct, and I was pleased. Heavy and taxing are words that would not necessary be chosen as collocates by native speakers (his first language is Japanese), but they definitely carry negative implications; the rest of his choices were spot on, so I let him dig into his dinner. I myself had never had a positive reaction to the word task, most often associating it with words like….. Monotonous. Repetitious. Unpleasant. Onerous. Laborious. Impossible. Remember Rumplestiltskin? If you’re familiar with the Grimm brothers’ grim fairy tales, you know that the lovely maiden of the story was given a task: “Spin this straw into gold by morning. If you do, you shall marry the King.” And children instinctively know the flip side: “If you cannot…. Death.” Then there’s the oppressive image of a Taskmaster, one who drives workers to the point of exhaustion, probably carrying a whip, sneering an evil sneer and using language my grandmother would not approve of. As conscientious adults, we feel we really should make a task list and check things off, but that’s an unpleasant task in itself, isn’t it?

Now push all those negative images aside and imagine a positive task, in the context of classroom learning. Rather than giving a definition, I will tell a story from this Monday’s Task-Based Teaching lesson in Dr. Jim’s class. One of our study questions was to recall and reflect on a task-based learning experience we ourselves had participated in, and my seat partner Cynthia had the best story. Here it is:

“When I was in high school, we did an extended project with my English teacher that went on for weeks–and the focus of the project was a single word. It had to be a ‘concept word’, and we had to have an attachment to it or a reason for choosing it. Then each week, we explored a different aspect of the word; one week we had to search for a poem including the word, and another week we had to find the word mentioned in a work by Shakespeare. The next week, we had to research the word’s history, and so on. Every week we had to find an example of the word used in a different context in a different medium, and in the end, we wrote a research paper—all about a single word. It was really motivating and made a huge impression on me.”

Cynthia’s enthusiasm as she recounted her memory made an impression on me as well, and we agreed that her high school teacher was the best kind of taskmaster. On my part, I recalled a particularly memorable culture festival at my son’s high school, featuring a terrifying but workable roller-coaster, constructed by students and supervised by the homeroom teacher. This brave and intrepid soul had organized students into groups, overseen the planning and construction, and let them go at it, offering advice and monitoring the process up until its successful completion, just minutes before the festival’s scheduled opening time. On that day, I held my breath as my very tiny twelve year old daughter–I swear she weighed next to nothing–hopped fearlessly into the makeshift contraption (she was first in line to test it out) and was pushed up and over a mountain of chairs held together with duct tape, coming careening down into a sea of sofa cushions. There were cheers from the sweaty high school boys and big sighs of relief from myself and the homeroom teacher.

“WOW,” said Cynthia when I finished my story. “That would SO not happen in the U.S. ! Lawsuits! Injuries! Damages!” But we also agreed that it was pretty cool.

So here’s what Cynthia’s word project and the brakeless plywood roller coaster have in common: they were motivating tasks. They were engaging. They had meaning for the learners. They involved positive, tangible outcomes. The teachers monitored and supported learners, rather than directing and leading. In Cynthia’s case, many of the tasks were assigned at school and completed at home, and the work was not collaborative. In my son’s case, most of the tasks were completed at school in the classroom and the entire project depended on co-operation and collaboration. Although both are good examples of task-based learning, the roller coaster example is probably closer to the way TBL functions in a language classroom…..let me talk about this in a little more detail, and you will see why.

Task basked learning is an approach to English language learning that encourages students to learn language by using it in order to achieve an outcomeIt’s not about accuracy, it’s about the task itself, which must be a task in the good sense: something that students want to achieve and something that means something to them. In Cynthia’s case, students worked on their tasks individually, but in the EFL classroom, tasks are usually done in small groups.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Here’s a photo of Jane and Dave Willis, whose book on task-based teaching is chock full of ideas and practical advice on how to transform a traditional teacher-centered classroom into a lively convention center, with students clustered in small groups using their interlanguage to collaborate on creating a list, doing a ranking exercise, sorting or classifying word items or phrases, or attempting to solve a hypothetical dilemma. Have you got the picture in your mind? Then, as the task phase finishes, the teacher-monitor takes the opportunity to wrap things up, reviewing and clarifying the language learners have been using. Helping to smooth out the rough patches. So students work with language and use their interlanguage in the process, but not for its own sake--the end result is the motivating factor, and the sense of accomplishment when the task cycle has finished naturally leads to increased confidence, which is almost never a bad thing.

On the other hand, as my very thoughtful classmate David remarked, task-based teaching doesn’t always conform to that ideal scenario. “I wish there was a troubleshooting manual for this stuff!” was how he put it. In my own experience, a task-gone-wrong can be discouraging, but that’s still vastly preferable to the opposite scenario: me standing by the chalkboard (how I’d love to have a “magic board”) with my pointer, calling on junior high school age students individually (most would rather die than volunteer) and waiting patiently (awkwardly) for the answer that may or may not be forthcoming. Give me the swarming hub of action any day! And, as Jane Willis, the lovely Task-Mistress, says, this kind of teaching is flexible. Textbooks can be adapted by teachers to be more task-like by adding supplemental “mini-tasks” and designing outcomes. There is a standard task framework for those practitioners who want or need the scaffolding, but it is the spirit of task-based teaching and learning that’s important, so I’ll close with the same words that I used to introduce this approach in its TESOL context: motivation, meaning, engagement, and outcome. These are the all-important factors that give L2 learners the impetus to continue, to push forward, to move toward rather than away from the language they are attempting to acquire.

Insight on the Listening Process from John Field: article review

Article title: An insight into listeners’ problems: too much bottom-up or too much top-down?

JournalSystem 32 (2004)

Author: John Field, professor at University of Leeds, UK. Teaches psycholinguistics, child language, and English grammar. His widely-used textbook, Listening in the Language Classroom, won the Ben Warren International House Trust Prize. A teacher trainer, materials writer, and syllabus designer as well as practitioner, Field travels widely lecturing on L2 listening.

Doi: 10.1016/j.system.2004.05.002

Type of Study: Empirical study based on observations gleaned from an analysis of three related experiments.

Purpose: To clarify the relationship between L2 listeners’ use of top-down and bottom-up listening strategies.

Research questions:  1) If top-down and bottom-up information are in apparent conflict, which one prevails? and 2) How do learners deal with new items of vocabulary when they crop up in a listening passage?

Procedure: 47 NNS students from a leading British EFL school were given listening tests in a classroom with good acoustics. The tests were designed to reveal learners’ listening strategies by presenting them with a series of problematic items, forcing them to choose between semantics (representing top-down listening strategy) or phonology (representing bottom-up). Each test was slightly different, and designed to explore different aspects of the research questions.

Results: The experiments produced both expected and unexpected results. Fields found that L2 learners often do re-interpret or misinterpret words to fit their own schema (relying on top-down, rather than bottom up processing), but also that they accurately perceive other words by relying on the onset sound. Lastly, he found that learners rely on a third strategy as well, which he calls a “lexical strategy”; in this case, learners bypass the top-down strategy in favor of matching an unknown word with a similar-sounding familiar word, regardless of the word’s semantic appropriateness.

My thoughts: First, let me pat myself on the back for choosing such a brilliant and easily comprehensible article to review. Now, let me see if I can elaborate a bit on the design, and its simple elegance.

Field begins with a history of the opposing views of bottom-up-influence versus top-down-influence proponents; midway into the discussion, in a section labeled “The legacy of scripted materials“, he points out an interesting connection that I hadn’t realized before: many L2 learners have developed an expectation of understanding everything in the text, since listening materials have traditionally been heavily scripted (contrived for the learner’s benefit, rather than reflecting natural spoken language) and graded according to level. Think about that: understanding everything in the text. That means doing the kind of precise and accurate bottom-up processing that is almost impossible for L2 listeners to do in a real-world context. Is it any wonder, then, that some learners panic when they’re exposed to the unpredictability of real conversation occurring at normal speed? Since the EFL world has become more “communicative”, learners must now rely more heavily on their top-down processing skills to hypothesize and compensate for the bits of language that they cannot fully process in the speech stream in real time. So while many scholars insist that L2 learners cannot focus on semantics when they’re unable to catch sounds and segment them into words, other scholars–such as Long (1989) and Field himself (1997)– counter that learners’ top-down processing ability is exactly what enables them to make sense of what they hear. This ability (they say) is what provides the support necessary to compensate for L2 learners’ imperfect decoding skills.

Moving on to the experiments themselves, I’ll briefly explain the design:

The first experiment: This test consisted of groups of four to six high-frequency words likely to be familiar to the learners ( all high elementary or low intermediate level). Sometimes the words all belonged to the same lexical field (for example, desk, chair, lamp, computer), and sometimes only the two last words had a semantic connection (e.g. sunny, excited, bumpy, hot, cold). For the target items, Field changed the onset of the last word only, making a similar word which “didn’t fit” semantically (i.e. sunny, elegant, bumpy, hot, bold). Foils, or examples where the last words were not changed, were mixed in, giving learners examples of target patterns. Fields wanted to see whether what learners expected to hear would override what they actually heard. And what he found was…….the opposite! Out of 18 example sets, listeners only “re-interpreted” one answer to fit their expectations. Well, now, that’s discouraging if you thought you had a good case in favor of top-down processing skills. Field, however, re-assessed his test design and found an important flaw: he had chosen to change the onset–rather than middle or the offset of the target words. Native speakers attach great importance to the initial sound of words, and Field (cheerfully?) proclaims that this in itself is an interesting result, since it clearly shows that L2 speakers also pay great attention to the onset of words, to their obvious advantage.

John Field

John Field

As an aside, I do hypothesize that John Field is a cheerful person. I listened to a podcast of him speaking about his reception of a prestigious award; he describes himself as “gobsmacked” upon hearing the news, which I take to mean pleased and surprised. The surprise implies a very appealing modesty and genuineness. I wouldn’t mind having tea (or a beer?) with him.

So, on to the second experiment, which produced more expected, but this time positive results. This next test consisted of semantically constrained sentences marked by “acceptable but unpredictable” final words. For instance, “I couldn’t listen to the radio because of the XXX”. One might expect an appropriate answer to be noise, but the actual spoken answer is boys. Again, Field was curious to see whether learners would choose a more predictable answer over the what they actually heard, which was less appropriate or expected. This time, results showed that words in seven out of the twenty items were substitutions of “expected” words rather than the words listeners actually heard. But once again, there were unexpected results as well: an analysis of the words chosen showed that test takers tended to change to a word whose onset was similar to the target word (for instance, Field predicted that noise would be the preferred choice in the previous example about listening to the radio; learners, however, preferred to substitute voice, which shares a similar labial onset sound). Aha–further evidence of the importance of onset sounds, concluded Field.

Finally, on to the last and most interesting experiment. This time, subjects were presented with a sentence designed to provide a meaningful context for the very last word….which was a potentially unknown low-frequency lexical item. For instance….”They’re lazy in that office; they like to shirk“. Field hypothesized that learners might be tempted to substitute a more familiar and phonetically similar word, even if the context didn’t fit. In the case of the office question, learners might choose work, a word that didn’t necessarily make sense, but that sounded similar and was associated with offices.

So what happened? Well, as Field reports, “results were striking”. He found that 33.31% of the listeners did not accept the acoustic evidence of unfamiliar words, instead deciding on familiar and phonetically similar ones that often had very little connection with the sentence context. Eliminating those listeners who left questions blank, the number went up to 42.39%. Again, words that learners chose were often not those that Field had predicted. And not only did learners often choose semantically inappropriate words, but they sometimes chose words from different word classes! The trend, he found, did not vary according to individual either, as only one of the forty-seven subjects did not use this strategy at least once. And learners chose to match heard words with known words in each of the 20 test questions. There was no case of a question where a learner had not used this particular strategy. A significant result, right?

It all depends on how you look at it. Field admits that if the data for the third test (not adjusting for those who left questions blank) were to be calculated, it would show that learners’ choice of inappropriate words was not statistically significant (i.e. it was little better than chance) by quantitative standards. But, as he makes clear, such a pronouncement does not take into account “the most striking fact about the figure–that it was achieved despite the evidence of the listener’s ears and, in many cases, to the evidence of the contrary”. Learners, it seems, can sometimes ignore both top-down (the logical contextual choice) and bottom-up (the word as heard phonetically) evidence when faced with a difficult unknown lexical item. The tendency to substitute a known for an unknown word, then, is an entirely different phenomenon which he calls a lexical strategy.

In the end, Field provides insights rather than answers, and that, for me, is the beauty of this article. He hypothesizes, considers his results accurately and honestly, revises and expands his ideas, and finally sheds some real light on the process of listening for L2 learners. A must-read for all TESOL students and language EFL/ESL practitioners, Field’s article is also an interesting and accessible read for language lovers in general. Treat yourself to an enjoyable afternoon with John Field, and you’ll come away a little wiser.


Multilingual Education : an open access journal

Multilingual Education photoWhile doing research for a paper in an entirely different class, I stumbled upon this journal; it’s available for perusal at  and well worth checking out. It’s published by Springer as one of their many “open journals”; as such, it’s freely accessible to the public with no charge to read or download articles and no registration necessary to use the site. Instead, the journal runs on a “reverse business model”, with researchers paying a rather steep fee to have their articles published. The fee, it says, may be waived for researchers based in low-income countries, and is usually footed by academic institutions or private sponsors. Articles are peer-reviewed and must meet rigorous publication standards. It’s been published since 2011 and contains 5 issues with 33 articles.


A. Kirkpatrick

I’d certainly like to meet the Editor-in-Chief, Andy Kirkpatrick, a Professor of Linguistics at Griffith University in Australia. His areas of specialty are World Englishes (particularly Asian varieties) , English as a Lingua Franca, and contrastive Chinese-English discourse and pragmatics. In 2011, he, along with Merrill Swain and Jim Cummins, authored a book entitled How to Have a Guilt-Free Life. Using Cantonese in the English Classroom.  He has an amazing and prolific beard.

The Co-Editor, Bob Adamson, head of the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning at the Hong Kong Institution of Education, has an impressive list of honors and publications. Sure, I’d like to meet him too, especially since he’s written fifty-plus English textbooks for primary and secondary schools in China. Writers of childrens’ textbooks are bound to be good conversationalists. Some of his interests include Comparative Education and Curriculum Studies.

Here’s their mission statement:

Multilingual Education is a high-quality journal that publishes empirical research on education in multilingual societies. The journal publishes research findings that in addition to providing descriptions of language learning, development and use in language contact and multilingual contexts, will shape language education policy and practices in multilingual societies. Multilingual Education is highly relevant to researchers in language and education, language education professionals, and policy makers.

Who would this journal appeal to? In my opinion, a wide variety of people. As the mission statement makes clear, the articles published are empirical research, reflecting both qualitative and quantitative studies. However, an evening spent skimming through a variety of articles revealed that many of them would be approachable and appealing to academics outside the field of applied linguistics, and potentially to non-academic readers as well. Since education is a broad field encompassing sociocultural as well as academic issues, ethnographers, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians (or those with a general interest in any of those fields) would enjoy dipping into any one of the papers available for perusal. Geographers, too, might find this journal of interest; because the publication fee is waived for researchers from low-income countries, studies from places like South Sudan, Uganda, and Bangladesh are featured, which certainly whets my curiousity. One can travel to Paraguay, to Ghana, to Luxembourg, or Kenya, and get a glimpse of the context in which English is taught around the world. Since many of the studies are qualitative, readers can get an in-depth picture of the culture from scholars and practitioners living abroad doing longitudinal studies.

What I’d like to read: Hmmmm. I’ve skimmed quite a few already, and am using one for a paper in my curriculum class. I certainly can’t resist a paper entitled Emotion-Based Language Instruction (EBLI) as a new perspective in bilingual education, co-authored by Bob Adamson, the journal editor. In this widely-viewed article, the authors propose a new approach to bilingual education based on the emotional qualities that learners bring from their L1 experience; Adamson’s unabashedly humanistic approach is based on the ideas of Stanley Greenspan, famous for a “floor time” therapy approach to treating children with autism spectrum disorders. I also wouldn’t mind digging into Marching is for soldiers: Russian-born Buriat children in a Chinese bilingual school, an ethnographic study focusing on the tension experienced by Buriat Mongolian children being schooled in a school system reflecting Han Chinese ideology. This longitudinal study, supported by data from interviews, casual conversations, and questionnaires, is packed with historical and geographic detail and looks to be a great read.  

Highly relevant empirical research with a global focus, and it’s all open access; why would I not recommend this journal? Check it out for yourself!

Mechanics and Organics: The Power of Output (Class Eight)

Last week, inspired by Levelt’s language acquisition model, I wrote about the tension between complexity, accuracy, and fluency experienced by second language learners, and about Peter Skehan’s proposition to include lexis in the trio of characteristics of a competent speaker. The topic of this week’s class with Dr. Jim was practice, and two of the three articles we read dealt with the role of output and interaction in second language acquisition. The Levelt model  of speech that I am still enamoured of re-appeared in an article by Tohoku Gakuin University’s Hitoshi Muranoi, and I will paste the model here once again for reference: recall the different roles of the Conceptualizer (conceives the utterance itself and processes it as a pre-verbal message), the Formulator (takes care of the grammatical and phonological encoding), and the Articulator (retrieves the utterance from the mind and transmits it into audible sounds). Like this:

Here's the Levelt model.

Here’s the Levelt model.

Now notice that the model is actually cyclical, with the spoken utterance (“overt speech”) proceeding to the “speech comprehension system”, and from there travelling as parsed speech straight back to the Conceptualizer. When I first saw the Levelt model, I assumed that the speech comprehension system belonged to a second participant–a

listener. But looking at it once again after yesterday’s class, I realized that no, the listener and speaker are one and the same in this model, and that’s the beauty of how it works. The speaker hears his own utterance, checks for meaning and grammatical accuracy–that’s the monitoring part–and if seems in some way incorrect, the

Willem Levelt: the man behind the model.

Willem Levelt

Conceptualizer will get back to work on re-formulating the message. Merril Swain calls that “noticing the hole” in one’s own language production. It makes perfect sense, and we do it unconsciously all the time even as native speakers, especially when faced with the challenge of putting something very difficult or delicate into words. It doesn’t sound right to us or isn’t clear enough; we stop mid-sentence, go back and try again, creating a cycle in which output influences input. I must be getting academic-nerdy, because I find that really cool.

So output influences input. By producing imperfect speech, language learners notice the holes in their own interlanguage (that special imperfect and constantly changing working model of the language being acquired) but they can’t yet do the repair work. That’s where interaction comes in. Perhaps the learner’s interlocutor (speech partner) is a native speaker, and consciously or unconsciously happens to use just the phrase that the learner has been struggling to produce. “Aha! That’s it!” says the learner to himself, assiduously comparing the correct version to his or her own imperfect one and plotting to produce the phrase correctly next time, gosh darn it. If context allows, the highly-motivated learner will bring the conversation to a screeching halt and try out the new phrase then and there, hopefully meeting with encouragement and kind words from the patient interlocutor. This, of course, is called “noticing the gap” (Schmidt, 1990), and the process is known as cognitive comparison.

 Now let’s look at another model, designed by H. Douglas Brown, Professor Emeritus at San Francisco and the author of Teaching by Principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy. Are you ready? Here it is, and there’s a world of difference:

And here’s what the author, Brown, has to say about his eco-model:

One day, in a rebellious moment of simultaneous frustration and inspiration, I was moved in a second language acquisition class I was teaching to create a different “picture” of language acquisition: one that responded not so much to rules of logic, mathmatics, and physics as to botany and ecology… a burst of wild, artistic energy, I went out on a limb to extend the flower-seed metaphor to language acquisition. (from a book chapter published as part of the Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics in 1993)

H. Douglas Brown

I’m sure that Brown’s students thought their teacher was awesome and inspired. And before I proceed any further, I’m not ashamed to admit that I too have a soft spot for this kind of model: it’s warm and nurturing, it’s visually appealing, and it’s more “likeable” than a flow chart featuring boxes with names that sound like cold, linguistic super-hero robots: Formulator smashes Conceptualizer! Articulator crushes Audition! Lexicon caught in the middle! Brown’s model, on the other hand, is mellow and groovy.

But as much as the organic model appeals to my sense of aesthetics, it’s flawed for me, because, unlike the Levelt model, it’s not cyclical. Although this was a language acquisition model and Levelt’s was a model of speech production, I would argue that both the act of speaking and the act of acquiring language are cyclical in nature.

According to Levelt, learners’ own output influences their input, and vice-versa. According to Brown, the seeds of language acquisition are sowed, watered, nurtured (and all those details are all right on the mark), and finally bear the “Fruit of Performance”, or output. What’s missing is that the leaves and fruits on the “Output Tree” need to fall to the ground, turn to compost, feed the roots of the tree, and produce still more output. That could easily be taken care of by drawing a big old compost pile off to the right of the tree, but then what about the role of interaction in language acquisition? It appears that learner’s “production” doesn’t really mature until the end of the natural cycle, with no representation of interaction along the way or of attempts to use language imperfectly (hypothesizing how language works). I tried to think of how to re-work the model to include interaction, but the best I could do was to envision a flock of birds sitting on the tree branches, doing their best to act as interlocutors and spurring the buds on to full bloom. Aviary-locutors, in constant motion.

Six short months ago, I might have been satisfied with the Brown model, so I guess that my education is progressing. That’s a good feeling: I found something cool on the internet, scrutinized it, compared it with the theories I’m learning and with another model, and found it sadly lacking. Although it’s not groovy, the Levelt model still comes out on top for me because it works so brilliantly, even as a model of first language acquisition. A bit of searching on the side reveals that it has been re-designed by Kees de Bott as a model for bilingual speakers….and I think I just may have found a good article to review in a future post. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading!

Singing Builds Reading Skills – 5 Facts

Share Singing has been part of preschool, kindergarten and grade school education for decades. However, nowadays many teachers feel pressured to omit practical music…

Source: Singing Builds Reading Skills – 5 Facts

Applied Linguists and Captive Frogs (Class seven)

Yesterday’s class marked the exit of the Ear Book ( too soon! ) and the end of the listening half of Dr. Jim’s course. It also marked the abrupt entrance of the trio Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency, featuring three lengthy academic articles kicking off the speaking half of the course. Many of us were mentally unprepared for the switch, since we had spent the weekend studying for the Ear Book midterm exam rather than reading the articles. Half the class time was devoted to the test and the other half to article discussion, but since most of us had not been heroic enough to sacrifice our midterm test grade and wade through the readings, question time was short and sweet, and discussion nearly non-existent. I left class in a daze, telling myself I would read at least one of the three articles as penance, and write it up for my blog post. So now I’m bound to keep my word, and I’ve deliberately chosen the most formidable of the three: a 23 page treatise by Peter Skehan called “Modelling Second Language Performance: Integrating Complexity, Accuracy, Fluency, and Lexis”.

I'm really a famous applied linguist.

I’m really a famous applied linguist.

It’s not a catchy title and there is not a single picture in the article, which features page-long paragraphs and terms like “complexification”. The unwavering seriousness of the paper, in fact, led me on a short search, scouring the internet for photos or videos of Skehan which might reveal something about the man behind the scholar. What I came up with was this: a single video, filmed last year at the University of London, in which Peter Skehan tells a joke aobut a voluptuous blonde and a frog. He says it’s the only joke he knows, and it turns out to be an applied linguistics joke. First one I’d ever heard, and I won’t spoil it for you–take a listen for yourself, here.

Alright, now I will get down to business and wrestle this article into submission.

The article deals with the tension between three aspects of speaking performance that are constantly competing for L2 learners’ attention and straining their cognitive resources: accuracy, fluency, and complexity. Accuracy, of course, refers to correct and error-free speech. Fluency refers to smoothness, flow, and ease of communication, and complexity refers to “advanced language”. The Trade-Off Hypothesis ( Skehan’s own hypothesis, which he defends in this paper ) states that L2 learners are severely taxed ( stressed, burdened, ) by the demands of these three competing processes, and find it difficult to perform well in all three areas simultaneously. This makes sense. All three areas require attention, and when learners are focusing intently on any one of the areas, their performance in the other two may suffer as a consequence.  For instance, as a Japanese speaker, my grammar is fairly accurate and I can talk a mile a minute, but I also recognize that my general use of the language is not as complex as that of adult native Japanese speakers. If I aimed for complexity, I can easily imagine both my accuracy and my fluency suffering, along with my good humor and patience. In another often-quoted example, many serious Japanese students are sabotaged by their determination to speak accurately and to use complex words and phrases from their textbooks, leading to stop-and-start dysfluent speech.

So we’ve established the problem of tension. There are other problems going on in this article, including a rival hypothesis (which I will not touch on here) and a rival academic who apparently referred to the Trade-Off Hypothesis as “vacuous”. Aside from these two hints of drama, this is a straightforward article, intending to better define the ongoing complexity-accuracy-fluency challenge, and to re-introduce a first language acquisition model, re-interpreted by Skehan for second language learners. Skehan proposes early on, in fact, that the complexity-accuracy-fluency trio should expand to a quartet, including lexis as a fourth aspect. Although this seems unnecessary, since Skehan himself has defined complexity as “advanced language”, he argues that second language learners could benefit from considering complexity in two parts, structure and lexis. In other words, he proposes redefining the performance aspects as complexity (of structure), accuracy, fluency, and lexis (complex or low-frequency words). This, he argues, is necessary because while native speakers who use “big words” are usually masters of grammar (the two correlate), the same is not true for second language speakers. Like the serious Japanese students previously mentioned, many L2 learners who attempt to use difficult words find their grammar derailed in the process. No-one wants their grammar train to be derailed, and if a greater focus on vocabulary in general (both low and high frequency words) can free up the speaker’s resources to attend more closely to accuracy and fluency, then I have no quarrel with Skehan on this point.

Along with complexity, the concept of fluency should also be re-examined, says Skehan. And here I will include a link to something fun that arrived in my mailbox the other day from my friend Jase Levine, known as “Fluency MC”. Click on it to learn from 34 practitioners, materials developers, teacher trainers, and SLA researchers about fluency and how it can best be achieved. You’ll see that the concept of fluency is not so easily defined, and that even the experts disagree about how to become fluent. In this particular article, Skehan is interested in speech pauses (one of the most common dysfluencies), and presents evidence from his past publications showing that not only do non-native speakers pause more mid-speech, but that they pause in different places than native speakers. While native speakers naturally pause at the boundaries between clauses, L2 speakers also pause within clauses. As Skehan says, they “seem to have pauses thrust upon them” rather than initiating the pauses themselves. Interesting, eh? His point is that there are many dimensions to the aspect of fluency, and we should take care to define the concept itself thoughtfully and thoroughly. I won’t argue there, either.

As I mentioned before, this was a long and complexified article; what I did not mention was that it led to the discovery of model of language production that I’d been unaware of: The Levelt Model of first language speaking, proposed by Willem Levelt in 1989. Here’s the model, featuring the three super-heros Conceptualizer, Formulator, and Articulator.

Here's the Levelt model.

Here’s the Levelt model.

As you can see, according to Levelt, the Conceptualizer is where the language process starts, as the speaker’s message is generated. The Formulator is the “surface” of language production, where the grammar is put together (encoded) and prepared to be phonetically implemented. The Articulator, of course, is the hero who gets to actually “speak” and send the message off to be processed by the listener.

Skehan uses Levelt’s model as a means of elucidating his CAF (or CALF if you include Lexis) findings. The model, he reminds readers, was intended to represent first language acquisition, with the Conceptualizer and the Formulator engaged in parallel processing of language. However, the model ceases to function in the same way for L2 learners, since smooth simultaneous processing is hindered by those pesky cognitive demands that speaking in a second language involves. Let’s see if I can break it down into plain language using aspects of task-based learning, since that is the paradigm that Skehan promotes. Here goes:

Learners: Help, help! We have a task! We have to plan! This stuff is abstract, and the information keeps changing! We can’t deal with all the information!

Skehan’s advice: Buck up! You are dealing with complexity. Your Conceptualizers are stressed.

Learners: Help, help! We can’t remember all these big words! And we have to use them–there’s no choice!

Skehan’s advice: Well, well, now. Your Formulators are experiencing some pressure. Try to be patient.

Learners: Heeeelp! We’ve got to finish this task in five minutes! And there’s SO MUCH! And there are no fun conversations!

Skehan: Aaah, well, that would be pressure on your Formulators again. Let’s see what we can do about this….


And then Skehan offers practical advice. Here’s what can be done when learners’ Conceptualizers are under strain, and when their Formulators cease to formulate smoothly. To begin with, the goal is to decrease pressure on both the Conceptualizer (the Information Guy, whose job is to prime the Formulator so that lexis can be more easily retrieved) and the Formulator (the Planner, who accesses the words and generates the message to be articulated). A clever teacher can arrange and adjuste learners’ tasks to ease the burdens of both. To placate the Conceptualizer, then, design tasks with concrete, static information--less is more. And keep it simple, so the learner feels grounded rather than overwhelmed. For the Formulator, Skehan suggests that teachers do the basic planning so that students can limit their focus to the task itself. Dialogs, he says, are less overwhelming than monologues. With these two factors addressed, Skehan proposes that the Formulator will be able to access difficult lexis more efficiently. Lastly, the Formulator is concerned with syntax–which means grammar–which refers to the Accuracy component of the troubled CAF trio (or the quarrelling quartet if you include Lexis). Here the task-based solution would be rehearsals. And tight structure. Lastly, more dialogues and a post-task activity will allow students to polish what they have learned in the task, thus improving their accuracy.

Well. Since this is a blog post and not a literature review,  I can now bring this entry to a close in all good conscience. This is not the entirety of Skehan’s message, or even the essence of his message in a nutshell; it’s what I personally gleaned from the article, and what I hope might be interesting and inspiring to others. And if any of you reading are considering a graduate degree in TESOL, I urge you not to be afraid of Peter Skehan and his page-long paragraphs. Dig right in, break down the academic vocabulary, and find the heart of the ideas. It’ll be worth your time.

Post Navigation