This week I thought I would take a break from the grammar series (to be continued!) and pick up on the discussion of coursebooks that Hugh started some time ago with the somewhat optimistically titled Complicating the coursebook debate part 1. This was almost two years ago now and we never even managed to move on to part 2 (let alone 3 or 4)! In the intervening time, the debate and the general abuse of coursebooks and their writers has rumbled on with the most vociferously anti-coursebook people almost getting to the point of saying that you simply cannot learn anything with a coursebook – and what is actually ‘learned’ is done so in spite of the coursebook, rather than because of it!
Coursebooks and their apparent failure to follow Second Language Acquisition theory
The most vocal critics claim that coursebooks cannot work as they are based on three supposedly false assumptions. What follows is taken verbatim from perhaps the angriest of the anti-coursebook bloggers, Geoff Jordan.
False Assumption 1: Declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through classroom practice. Jordan argues that it does not. Knowing that the past tense of has is had doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use had fluently and correctly in real-time communication. L2 learning isn’t like studying Geography or Biology, where declarative knowledge is primary, it’s more like learning to swim.
False Assumption 2: SLA is a process of mastering and accumulating structural items one by one. It is not, Jordan notes. All items are inextricably interrelated, and there’s no evidence that items are learned one at a time, or that any item is ever learned linearly. As Long (2015) says: “The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject-verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy”.
False Assumption 3: Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. They don’t. L2 learners follow their own developmental route, which involves a series of interlocking linguistic systems called “interlanguages”. The route is not affected by L1, learning context, or teaching method. Teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA.
Let’s talk about teaching – not materials
In taking things forward, it might be better to see these ‘assumptions’ that Jordan claims coursebooks are rooted in as applying instead to teaching. I actually basically agree that all three assumptions as they are presented above are false, though I’d add a couple of caveats. However, we might also see some false assumptions underlying the declaration that they are only false for coursebook users, as in fact they can equally apply to a task-based or Dogme-influenced teacher. So let’s take them one at a time.
Passing on knowledge is a starting point, not a final destination
1 There is no doubt that “knowing that the past tense of has is had doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use had fluently and correctly in real-time communication.” Of course the job is not finished when irregular past tenses are presented and practised in class. But that’s true of all types of classroom teaching. Would the job be finished if the past tense of had was required during a task and ‘emerged’ or was ‘noticed’ or ‘recast’ or whatever? Of course not! Students will continue to make mistakes because whether this information is passed on to students through a task or a ‘bit of classroom practice’, the information still remains essentially declarative at that point. By definition, declarative is something we know, while procedural is something we use.
Jordan’s analogy with swimming is surprisingly helpful here, though perhaps not for reasons he realises. During most swimming lessons above absolute beginner levels, nearly all instructors work outside the water! They are telling students what to do (declarative knowledge) and getting students to proceduralise this – often through rather synthetic (and to my mind rather monotonous) tasks such as ‘practise breathing out underwater’ or ‘swim with your legs only’. This is stuff that needs to be pointed out for learners to improve, but as a rather poor swimmer myself, not always to great effect, as I haven’t been able to turn my ‘declarative’ knowledge into action – perhaps because I haven’t sufficiently practised swimming only with my legs!
The lesson for teachers and learners is that you have to make use of the language you have ‘learned’ – and do so repeatedly over time. Certainly, a coursebook should give opportunities to make use of language and should ensure proper recycling over time, but it may not. A task-based syllabus should certainly provide opportunities to make use of language, but it may not be the same language over time. Although, of course, it might be! It all depends.
When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?
2 This is an interesting question because while I basically agree that SLA is not a process of mastering, one by one, accumulated structural items as in some kind of building block process, you could argue that the next point that ‘Teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA’ is slightly contradictory. It seems clear that language learners move from more or less ungrammaticalised words to grammaring the words they know in progressively more complex ways: this is the route. So in the case of questions, students at the lowest levels will generally start by just using a word, maybe with intonation or gesture – coffee?; then move to a string of words – you want coffee?; to grammaticalised strings – Do you want a coffee?; to more complex sentences – Are you sure you want a coffee? If you were a mad person and did these as consecutive lessons, your students would not be producing all these different question types. However, even here there is an important caveat. Students can sometimes learn a piece of grammar as a vocabulary item. So a student might actually master How are you? without having a general control over inversion in questions. In his research on acquisition order, Pienemann specifically discounted these instances (See Is Language Teachable? Psycholinguistic Experiments and Hypotheses, p58 Vol 10, Applied Linguistics, OUP 1989, and his comments on Teresa and rote learning).
Who’s assuming mastery?
With regard to coursebooks and their users, coursebooks clearly don’t actually expect mastery of their grammar ‘nuggets’ as can be seen by the fact that these tend to get repeated at different levels. Coursebooks may also repeat points within a course – or not – and they may provide speaking/writing opportunities where students could re-visit grammar – or they may not. However, the same is also obviously true of task-based or conversation-driven lessons. The conversation happens and then there is a stage where the teacher chooses to focus on particular language items. What will they be? How does a teacher decide the grammar or lexical focus that the students are ‘ready’ for? How do they decide who is ready – out of a class of 10 or 15 or 30 or more? What do the students do when they are focusing on form? Do they use materials at this point? What are those materials?
Coursebook writers are teachers
It is quite possible that the Dogme or task-based teacher chooses to pick up on the same kinds of grammar points as a coursebook, perhaps bringing in decontextualised examples disconnected to the original task (such as a photocopied page of best-selling grammar book). And given that teachers often share with writers the same concept of level with regards to grammar, then it’s quite likely a non-coursebook using teacher may focus on the same grammatical patterns as a coursebook does. Or they may not!
And finally, how many times does the Dogme / TBL teacher focus on the same point of language before moving on? Once, twice, three times? When do you decide if something has been learned? This is just as much a problem for a ‘materials-free’ teacher as it is for those who follow a coursebook, though I think, as we have pointed out in other blog posts, there is a certain restriction in the items and staging of grammar items as presented by most coursebooks and potentially greater flexibility that comes from interaction with students (see next post).
It’s good for all to remember we can’t really control learning
3 This is also true up to a point, but it does depend what you mean by learnt and taught. If I teach someone the meaning of a word they did not know – say, table – the student clearly can ‘learn’ it and even use it in some very limited way (for example point and say ‘table’) at that moment. That obviously does not mean it has been learnt permanently or completely:
- It may well be forgotten if not used over time (or consciously studied and recalled);
- Students may use it wrongly, applying it to a ‘desk’ or a ‘sideboard’ or saying it as ‘tarble’;
- they may use it with the wrong article or no article;
- they may not know how it is used in more metaphorical sense – e.g. lay your cards on the table.
However, all of this is true of forms which are taught or highlighted or noticed in response to tasks or conversation. Pre-selected materials, such as coursebooks or things teachers plan to teach, may carefully ensure recycling of language items (or they may not!). However, it’s quite possible that ‘teaching’ that occurs in response to a breakdown of communication will not ever be recycled! And just because you did your teaching to fill in a gap in a student’s knowledge doesn’t mean it will be directly learned – forever. It won’t.
Routes and rates – really, what’s the difference?
Then what about this idea that “the route is not affected by L1, learning context, or teaching method. Teaching affects the rate but not the route of SLA”? Firstly, this rather suggests that there is a single route (not unlike a coursebook syllabus if taken literally). However, there are clearly many routes going on at the same time – particularly when it comes to vocabulary. How many routes are there? How many can be pursued at the same time? More to the point, what on earth is wrong with speeding up the rate of acquisition? In effect, this stuff about routes and rates is a difference without a distinction. Say I teach a relative clause or chunk to a student who isn’t ‘ready’. They don’t ‘learn’ it at that point, but apparently it may lead to them acquiring it more quickly at some future time! This is like saying someone can’t use the motorway to get to a destination – they can only use A roads. However, we can also give the person a Sat Nav or access to Google maps rather than just saying ‘go North’. That seems a good reason to teach, whether it’s with a coursebook or not.
False assumption on top of false assumptions
Which leaves two further assumptions made when pointing out these supposedly false assumptions. Dismissing coursebooks by claiming they’re based on these false assumptions also makes assumptions – and false ones at that. It assumes that the coursebook user follows the coursebook to the letter and that a materials bank that a non-coursebook user brings to a class is somehow more principled – simply by not being a coursebook. Both of these assumptions, I would suggest, are false and I’ll look at these in my next two posts on the theme: using a coursebook and principles and the materials bank – well, within the next two years, anyway!.
All this is not to say that everyone should be forced to use coursebooks or that not using one essentially defines you as a better teacher. The points on SLA here are good ones; it’s just that we should all think about them whenever we teach. There are clearly good principled ways to use coursebooks and to not use them – and, of course, there are bad ways. And lest both parties forget, learners become fluent speakers by living the language outside the classroom. Ultimately, teachers are just bit parts, whatever our methodology.