Throughout 2016, I’ve read a lot about how much the current ELT practice flies in the face of SLA research findings. I usually dismiss these assumptions straight away – probably because personally, I’ve never felt too guilty as an ELT practitioner. I mean, I think I know something about the contribution of the SLA research to developments in TESOL over the last five decades, and I do my best not to be blind to it. Although in my teaching context, which I would describe as standardized education (meaning standardized level, pace, and path of learning), my hands are tied to a certain extent, I don’t despair.
The other day, I came across this article by Rod Ellis called Principles of Instructed Language Learning, in which he shares a set of generalizations which, he believes, might serve as the basis for language teacher education. When reading the text, I lit up. It’s not all that bad after all given the limitations I have to deal with on a daily basis, of which the lack of time is the worst of all shortcomings. I can conclude now that there’s not a single principle I would consciously ignore.
Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence.
Although I don’t avoid the focus-on-forms approach, I believe that my instruction is not exclusively directed at developing rule-based competence through the systematic teaching of pre-selected structures. My students would probably confirm (with a slight sneer on their face) that I’m moderately obsessed with grammar and totally obsessed with formulaic chunks.
Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning.
I’m well aware of the fact that to meet this principle, task-based approach to language teaching is one of the prerequisites. Also, it is important that instruction provides opportunities for learners to focus on semantic meaning (meanings of lexical items or of specific grammatical structures) as well as pragmatic meaning (the highly contextualized meanings that arise in acts of communication) and, as Ellis argues, it is pragmatic meaning that is crucial to language learning. Although I do try to incorporate communicative tasks into my lessons whenever possible, I’d say that TBL approach is something I still tend to circumvent. Why? It’s a question for another post.
Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form.
This, among other things, involves a response to the errors each learner makes. In my context, I often practice this through collected feedback, i.e. feedback I give a group of students on selected linguistic issues I spot in their writing/speaking. I like this approach as it’s individualized and emergent.
Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge.
Ellis argues that instruction needs to be directed at developing both implicit and explicit knowledge, giving priority to the former (because we don’t know how easily/if at all explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge). While the benefits of explicit knowledge are somewhat controversial, there is a consensus among researchers that learners need the opportunity to participate in communicative activities to develop implicit knowledge. Thus, communicative tasks need to play a central role in instruction directed at implicit knowledge. I can boldly claim that communicative activities have always been central to my classes. It was only recently when I started gravitating towards a slightly more focus-on-form approach as I was no longer comfortable with the zero grammar strategy.
Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’.
One way to do this is to ensure that learners are developmentally ready to acquire a specific target feature. Like the zero grammar approach, this is not very feasible in my teaching context. There is a national curriculum I need to follow plus I’m also required to assess my students formally. So I give those students who struggle with specific linguistic features other opportunities to succeed (little tasks, extra projects, etc.) since I know most of them will finally catch up on all the required skills and knowledge.
Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input.
This is a real stumbling block. With three or four 45-minute lessons a week you’d have to be a magician if you wanted to help your students march out of the classroom with native-like proficiency. So I assume it’s more about showing them how to make it on their own – about giving tips for online places to go, books to read, methods to apply, etc. Because if you are supposed to a) give them tasks, b) present lots of chunks of language and some grammar, c) provide opportunities for meaningful communication, then there’s not much time left for extensive input while in class. Fortunately, these days it is practically impossible to avoid English in everyday life so most students will probably manage quite well when left to their own devices.
Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output.
While I’m somewhat concerned about the previous principle, I’m very confident about number 7 – simply because I know my students produce a lot of language in the classroom. As I said, my students come with bits and pieces they pick outside of school, which we can then work with and elaborate on.
Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.
Ellis maintains that we can achieve this by a) creating contexts of language use where students have a reason to attend to language, b) providing opportunities for learners to use the language to express their own personal meanings, c) helping students to participate in language-related activities that are beyond their current level of proficiency and c) offering a full range of contexts that cater for a ‘full performance’ in the language. The last one is something I feel I need to focus on a bit more. I suspect that it is closely related to TBL, which, as stated above, I need to apply more in my teaching.
Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.
This is a problematic one, especially in a standardized teaching context, as discussed above. However, I can still do (and I think I do) a lot as a teacher: pair/group students up in a manner that fosters cooperation, find ways to motivate weaker/slower students (especially intrinsically) and find as many opportunities leading to success as possible.
Principle 10: In assessing learners’ L2 proficiency, it is important to examine free as well as controlled production
At times it seems that it’s much easier to assess controlled production. However, I’ve recently come across many poorly designed tests, which, for example, accept one correct answer for each question when there are more appropriate alternatives. One may argue that it opens some space for discussion, but I think that at the same time, it discredits the test itself. Assessing free practice is primarily about acknowledging the fact that the student managed to get the message across. In such a case, he or she always deserves a decent grade regardless of grammatical mistakes, for example.
What about your instruction? Is it based on solid research or folksy wisdom? 🙂