Karen Stanley, editor
Often, on professional email lists, in graduate classrooms, in late night discussions, and over coffee in the sidewalk cafes of the world, language learners and language teachers in various stages of development discuss teaching and learning. It is natural, in our evolution as language instructors, to wonder about the place in our instructional practices of theory in general, and of linguistic theory and language learning theory in particular. Perhaps inevitably, those who are just beginning to think of language teaching as a career will ask what kind of training is best. How you answer them will depend on your own experiences and your own training. What is clear is that the answer to that question is always open to debate.
What follows are selected posts in just such a discussion on the TESL-L email list for ESL/EFL language pedagogy, sparked by a post in March of 2002. Contributors whose email addresses are listed welcome your comments.Bill Snyder, MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
[A poster] asks about the role of theory in language teaching and for some rationale for learning some theory before beginning practice.
I think theory is very important because it is always present. Every teacher, when they step in front of a class, is acting on their theory of education. The question is whether they are conscious of this and what their theory is based on. For many beginning and untrained teachers, their theories derive largely from "the apprenticeship of experience," their time as students in classrooms, and popular, often mythical, beliefs about their subject matter. And what that leads to, in general, is unconscious repetition, for better or worse, of their own learning experiences.
The point of theoretical training is to raise consciousness of the issues involved in teaching, to get trainees to consider their experience from different perspectives, to provide them with new information, all of which may change how they would approach practice.
For language teachers, there are two aspects of theory that are essential, theory of pedagogy (how to teach, essential to all teachers) and theory of content (in this case, linguistics, including second language acquisition). Over time, with experience, these two bodies of knowledge should merge into what Shulman has called "content pedagogical knowledge" (knowing how to teach what you know about your field). [-1-]
I really want to emphasize the importance of content knowledge for language teachers here. My experience has been that trainee teachers often are very interested in methodology, but less so in their linguistics courses, which are seen as difficult, dry, and impractical. This shouldn't be the case. A knowledge of your field in very practical, giving you the lay of the land, and providing a basis for shaping your instructional practices. Linguistics classes should provide an understanding of how language is really organized and how people really learn it that should replace the common myths about these areas that shape many novice teachers' practices.
I worry about teachers who are not interested in this aspect of their training or who think it is not as important as methodology. How can we excite our students about language if we are not interested and fascinated by it? And what respect would we have for a math teacher, say, who decided that an understanding of number theory or of how people learn math just weren't that important.
Every teacher should be able to answer the question, "What am I doing here?" every time they teach. And it's a background in theory, both pedagogical and content, that allows us to do that.
I agree that theory is important, but I have rarely seen linguistics or second language acquisition to be helpful in teaching ESL. Linguistics does not "provide an understanding of how language is really organized" because it is a formal theory that pays almost no attention to acquisition. It's like trying to determine what software was used in printing out a document by looking at the document instead of the code. Even second language acquisition theories have not added to our understanding of how people learn a language. Most of them describe different states or proficiency levels, but they do not address how students learn and go from one level to another.
I've had many good teachers in many fields who obviously knew how to teach (theory of pedagogy) and knew their content matter (sociology, biology, etc.). However, content matter is not the same as a theory of content matter. These teachers did not teach a theory of their field, and I don't teach second language acquisition or linguistics to L2 learners: I teach the content of the language, English in my case. I notice that you're in an MA TEFL program, so naturally you would want to teach how people learn second languages, but what do we really know about this topic? There's an input hypothesis, input-output, communicative approach, etc. It's kind of hard to imagine learning a language without input and without practicing output. So I'm not sure what I've learned outside of the fact, albeit an important one, that language is considerably more than reciting grammar rules.
I happened to have enjoyed my linguistics classes and found them fascinating, but I have seen little relevance to teaching a foreign language unlike theories of motivation and general learning. I'm still open, however, to learning of the relevance. [-2-]Bill Snyder, MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
Charles Nelson's argument with linguistics and second language acquisition theory as bases of content knowledge for language teachers seems arise from what he perceives as a lack of immediate relevance for teaching. I agree that this is a common problem when teachers are required to take classes meant for training theoretical linguists, rather than teachers.
A favorite article of mine on the knowledge base of language teaching (Grabe, W., Stoller, F. L., and Tardy, C. 2000. Disciplinary knowledge as a foundation for teacher preparation. In J. K. Hall and W. G. Eggington (Eds.) The Sociopolitics of English Language Teaching. Multilingual Matters.) addresses this issue directly while arguing for the importance of linguistics in teacher education. "A field such as linguistics offers many competing views on the nature of language structure, its functions, and its patterns of variation; not all linguistic perspectives will be equally relevant for teachers, and it is the responsibility of teacher educators to promote the most relevant aspects of linguistics to prospective teachers rather than the aspects that are most theoretically current..." (p. 179).
The article goes on to spell out in detail what its authors consider to be those most relevant perspectives, in more detail than I can report here. It concludes with a case study of one teacher who records the influences of her course work on her teaching practice over a three year period, until experience blends knowledge sources so that they are unrecoverable. I do recommend reading the article for the specific discussions of the relevance this one teacher found for her theory courses in her practice. It confirmed some my practice and prompted me to change other aspects of it when I first read it and it remains a source of inspiration about what I do in my teaching.
So I remain convinced that theory is important, but agree with Charles' complaint that future teachers do not always get what they really need out of courses in these areas. It is important to recognize the difference between theoretical and applied linguistics, to understand the relationship between them, and to use that knowledge to provide the best instruction for future teachers.
That teachers have an understanding of the principles underlying language as a formal system in social use is essential. To quote Grabe et al again, "A teacher who does not understand these fundamental principles will not be able to engage students in ways that can lead to student autonomy, empowerment, and reflective awareness of their learning. Teachers who comprehend the role of language form in learning will be able, in contrast, to demystify the learning and evaluation process at cognitive and social levels" (p. 180).
Charles Nelson suggests that a knowledge base in linguistics and SLA is not helpful in language teaching. I would really have to disagree. Of course we don't teach linguistics or SLA in the ESL classroom, but neither do we TEACH methodology, curriculum development or test development! However, as ESL or EFL teachers, we draw on OUR knowledge in all these areas to do the best job we can in developing and determining our learners' communicative competence. To begin with, what we even understand communicative competence to be is informed by our knowledge of linguistics, is it not? Certainly, most of the linguistics references on my shelf seem to devote a fair bit of space to the complexities of communicative competence and prior to my poking my nose into them, I tended to focus my teaching almost solely on developing my learners' grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation skills. However, even those 3 key aspects of language learning were informed by my linguistics knowledge. After all, aren't syntax, morphology and phonology elements of linguistics, whether we know the terms or not? [-3-]
Similarly, my knowledge of SLA helps me to plan teaching activities that are appropriate for the learners in front of me. Awareness of interlanguage stages helps me anticipate certain difficulties learners might encounter and aids me in appropriate error correction. Developments in SLA also often suggest new teaching activities to try out.
My teaching is constantly being informed and, I hope, improved by developments in the theoretical fields of SLA and Linguistics. After all, as teachers, we want to make pedagogically sound and informed decisions, don't we?. We can't do that if we don't have a theoretical knowledge base. For example, it is my understanding of vocabulary acquisition that has convinced me that fill-in the blank exercises or crossword puzzles are minimally effective vocabulary activities.
Without some basis in linguistics and SLA we are limited to being technicians and using cute recipes with no understanding of whether or not they are appropriate and effective, or just entertaining. As I consider myself to be an educator and a professional, the "cute recipe approach" to teaching is not good enough for me.
It may be disheartening for teachers to turn to SLA theory and find that there are few definitive answers and that much research still needs to be done. However, I find all SLA theory and linguistics to be a sensitizing experience that also leads to increased general awareness. That there is a lack of definitive research results in many areas in no way cripples me as a teacher. Rather I am excited by knowing that my observations are as valid as anyone else's in this fascinating field, and I feel more confident in my teaching because of my awareness of "possibilities" in SLA that I can recognize in my class.
It is rather like psychiatry, a field where constant research shows that the final answers are still not in. Thank goodness that psychiatrists still help patients, and keep themselves informed of research and its applications. Imagine if they all learned to diagnose and prescribe drugs, yet weren't aware of the possible underlying causes of the problems or factors contributing to recovery or relapse.
With a background in theory, teachers can avoid jumping on methodological band wagons, and can feel more secure in what they do. Researchers can make teachers' lives easier by helping them make the transition from tables of data to practical applications. Moreover, teaching schools and professional development programs should be obliged to help teachers analyze research and draw their own conclusions for classroom application. An informed teacher is a
resourceful teacher. [-4-]
The study of linguistics and particularly SLA provides the kind of knowledge that language teachers can use to evaluate their own pedagogic practices. Every time language teachers make a pedagogic decision about content or methodology, they are making assumptions about how learners learn. I would even say that the main area of application of SLA research is probably L2 pedagogy. Although many teachers have argued that the results of SLA research cannot be safely applied to language pedagogy because they are too uncertain, my opinion is that those results, and in particular of classroom-oriented research, provide strong evidence which should be used to advise teachers about what techniques and procedures work best. I think teachers should have more confidence in SLA and more conviction that its results can inform language pedagogy.
I want to emphasize that we need to be careful about conflating theory and content, and learning and stages. With respect to content, linguistics has taken over the old realm of grammar, etc. and given it new names, but it still remains much the same content. (As far as I know, my English hasn't changed that much in the last one-half century.:)). Naturally, to teach a foreign language, one has to know that language and how it works in use, and it's helpful to have names for different grammatical constituents. I am arguing against formal theories that are not connected to how people learn a language. Even Chomsky is well known for stating that he has no idea of how his theories are applicable to the classroom.
With respect to learning and stages, almost all SLA studies that I have read--despite their claims and their use of the word "acquisition"--are describing stages of different learners, whether it's interlanguage stages, good learner strategies vs. not-so-good learner strategies, etc. Translated into classroom practice, it's a "Here you are and There you need to be approach" that has no explanation of how learners get from Here to There. . . . [L]et me use my example of looking at a printed document and trying to figure out what software made it print out. . . . [T]hat's what SLA research does: looks at outcomes but does not consider the software. It's like "technicians" who repair equipment without understanding the theory behind the engineering. So, to say that teachers use the results of SLA research simply means that they are using a "Here you are and There you need to be approach" with no understanding of how learners get from Here to There. So, my position is: Teach the content of the language, but for understanding and guiding what you do in the classroom and how students learn, refer to social and psychological theories of learning.
On an oversimplifying side note, there's either full access, partial access, or no access to a Universal Grammar for L2 learners. Whatever access there is to a UG means that that portion can't be taught. Whatever access there isn't falls under general social/cognitive theories of learning. [-5-]
I find it interesting that Charles Nelson's response once more arguing against the importance of theoretical understanding of language for language teachers should arrive in my inbox just above Maggie Sokolik's post promoting the . . . [March 2002] issue of TESL-EJ. The two lead articles she mentions in her post, by Mellow and Hall Haley & Rentz, both address just this issue.
The Mellow article ["Toward Principled Eclecticism in Language Teaching"], while perhaps less accessible, should be of particular interest to Charles because it looks at the role of theoretical knowledge of language in relation to general theories of learning in order to construct a model that will help teachers make decisions about classroom techniques. The Hall Haley & Rentz addresses "focus on form," an instructional sub-approach within Communicative Language Teaching, here specifically to show an approach derived from theoretical work in SLA can be directly relevant to teachers in making instructional choices.
. . . [A] third article, Yates & Kenkel, . . . [in the forthcoming 2002 issue] of Journal of Second Language Writing . . . , demonstrates how teachers can use an understanding of SLA theory to help them in interpreting student writing and providing feedback that does help promote growth in learning.
I think one of Charles' concerns is that I might be promoting linguistic knowledge as the sole form of content knowledge relevant to language teacher education. I'm not. The Grabe, Stoller, & Tardy article I mentioned [in a previous post] includes education, psychology, and anthropology as other essential areas of knowledge. But we are talking about language teachers here, and to say that a theoretical understanding of language is not necessary or useful is simply wrong.
I think Charles' distinction between content and theory is a false one. All knowledge is organized in some way and theories are models of that organization. A relevant question for us is what theoretical model provides the most useful input for teaching practice, but we cannot reject all theoretical models or we do not know what knowledge we are dealing with. To put it another way, if we accept that knowledge of 'content' of language without any conscious theoretical understanding of its structure or acquisition are an adequate basis for being a language teacher, then all native speakers are equally well prepared in this regard. And all non-native speakers fall short. This I think is patently wrong.
The real question, as I put it above, is what theoretical model. To throw out all theory because of the limited value of a particular theoretical model for our purpose is tossing out the baby with the bathwater. [-6-]
. . . I do not recall saying to throw out all theory. I have, I thought, been referring to formal linguistic theories that have no application in the classroom. Theory is only as good as it's useful. I definitely subscribe to social and psychological theories explaining how people learn. And I do agree that all knowledge is organized in some way, so to some degree theory and content are inseparable. The article by Grabe et al. separates linguistics into descriptive grammar, psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics (and a few others) but those are also in reality inseparable. Inseparability is true of most things we discuss, but it helps to limit our scope to something we can handle.
Along with Bill, I'd like to recommend the article by Haley and Rentz. It sums up quite well what I have been attempting to say. That is, although they make strong claims for the usefulness of SLA research for teachers, at the same time, their own words show that it simply isn't true, at least in their particular article.
Haley and Rentz have gleaned through the vast body of SLA literature and are now claiming that "a combination of methods that would incorporate attention to "learner readiness" and "focus on form" in a communicative program would seem to be a mixture that a teacher should try to develop in the classroom."
Despite their many claims to the contrary, sprinkled here and there are phrases like "this research is inconclusive" and "The majority of SLA researchers now support the idea that some kind of focus on form is useful for some forms, for some students, at some point in the learning process." Other than that, there is little certainty regarding what forms students should be made to focus on and how and when." In other words, they do not know when, how, or for whom we can use this research.
Elsewhere, they write that "the research does not provide straightforward guidance to follow." It seems to me that if "little certainty" is all that this SLA research offers, then it provides almost no guidance to follow. If, as I imagine, Haley and Rentz chose strong contenders for usefulness to the classroom but these strong contenders have little evidence, why should teachers be aware of this research much less the rest of SLA research? [-7-]
Charles Nelson wrote:
> . . . I do not recall saying to throw out all theory. I have, I thought, been referring to formal linguistic theories that have no application in the classroom.
> If... these strong contenders have little evidence, why should teachers be aware of this research much less the rest of SLA research?
Charles Nelson persists in his position that a theoretical understanding of how language works and how it is acquired are of no relevance to language teachers. His critique of Hall Haley & Rentz misunderstands their proper caution about application in an area where the research has shown a large number of factors influencing the acquisition process and a concomitant level of variation. (Yes, it's SLA research that has shown these things and teachers should be aware of that research!) He fails to note that their summary of the research on focus on form (which is extensive and full of evidence; see the bibliography accompanying Doughty & Williams' book, Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition, from Cambridge University Press) addresses two significant questions for practicing teachers, whether and how grammar should be taught, and provides insights that should help teachers make appropriate pedagogical decisions for their classrooms, if they are aware of this information.
Charles Nelson seems to feel that SLA research and theory derived from it can be valuable only insofar as it supplies magic formulas for teachers to use on Monday morning. I think he misunderstands the relationship between theory and application. The point of theoretical understanding, informed by relevant research, is to help teachers make the specific decisions they need to make every day with the specific groups of students they have. Theory from any one area can't provide teaching recipes because teaching is so complex. Theoretical understanding across a number of areas supplies the basis for informed choices, which are the application of theory.
I agree with Charles Nelson that linguistic theory needs to be presented in a way that is useful to teachers, that language teachers do not need to be trained as theoretical linguists, but as applied ones. But every time Charles says something like this, he takes it a step further, as in his second quote above, and seems to say that what he would prefer is no theory at all. I maintain that a language teacher without exposure to linguistics and second language acquisition research is not best able to make informed decisions about their teaching, that they are groping in the dark every day.
In order for theory to be useful, as Charles wishes, we have to be informed about it. Because the usefulness is in how we apply our knowledge. Otherwise, our choices are made in ignorance, which is not very useful. [-8-]
The importance of theory in the field of second language teaching is under assault. Frankly, I can not understand why. For the most recent published example, see the paper by Karen Johnson in the most recent TESOL Matters. It is very disturbing that Johnson's paper has next to nothing to say about knowledge of LANGUAGE and LANGUAGE ACQUISITION in second language teacher education. Charles Nelson's recent postings here is along the same lines.
Charles Nelson writes:
> Such claims can not only apply to almost anything people do but seem to be speaking only of anomalies in learning a language rather than any discernible pattern of learning.
TESL-L is not the place to engage in specific theoretical claims, but let me suggest one important principle from a modern theory of language which every second language teacher needs to think about. I am referring to the notion of "learnability." For a paper with real pedagogical implications I recommend Lydia White's "Against comprehensible input" in 1987 volume of Applied Linguistics.
White argues that, depending on the properties of the L1 in relation to the L2, that positive evidence will not be sufficient for the learners to acquire particular rules of the L2. She speculates that this might be the case for adverb placement for learners of English whose first
language is French. Trahey and White (1993) in Studies in Second Language shows only negative evidence (in other words, explicit correction) was necessary.
According to his web page, Charles Nelson teaches writing. I wonder what his principles of correction are. Any principle he articulates is based on a theory of both language and second language acquisition. Of course, it is possible he does not correct anything in his students' papers. That, of course, is a position, based on theory, that some in our field make
Let me suggest that EVERYTHING a second language teacher does in the classroom is based on some kind of theory of language and how language is learned. All else being equal, a teacher who can articulate the reasons for his/her choices is a better teacher than one who can not.
Because I believe the previous sentence is true, theory about the nature of language and language acquisition is central to what we do as second language teachers. [-9-]
I agree with Bill Snyder and others that studying linguistic theory does not have as its goal providing a formula for classroom teaching. If we see linguistic theory as informing the teacher's vision, even the more abstract theories (such as Chomsky's syntactic theories) can be useful and have a relationship to classroom pedagogy.
I studied two terms of syntactic theory based on Chomsky. By and large, I disagree with a good number of his assumptions, and do not believe that language learning involves the types of structures proposed. However, I *do* think studying these theories can/does have an influence on how I and others teach.
For example, a basic concept in Chomsky's approach is that the input we receive when learning our L1 is insufficient for people to learn language. Thus, one conclusion he and his supporters propose is that human beings must be born with grammatical knowledge programmed into our brains; grammatical production is triggered by a minimal amount of linguistic input. If you believe that the reasoning that Chomsky uses to support this idea is sufficient, this idea certainly can affect how you approach teaching. Perhaps even more important, if you *disagree* with the theory but are aware of it, you may recognize its influence on approaches and methodologies, which may help bring to light assumptions behind styles of teaching - assumptions that you may want to question.
For example, when Krashen (originally a syntactician, I believe) says that teaching grammar rules is not helpful/useful, how much of what he says may be based on an interpretation of this "black box" theory of genetically programmed knowledge which must be released rather than learned?
It is also possible to learn useful information from abstract theories, even those we disagree with, on a micro rather than macro scale. For example, studying the concept of thematic roles (the idea that there are different types of roles for nouns - e.g., theme, agent, benefactive, experiencer, instrument, locative, goal, source) helped me understand better why
*Five dollars are cost by the book.
won't work, and why we can't combine the subjects in
*John and the hammer broke the window.
and, even if I don't explain these concepts to my students in the same terms that I learned about them, I *can* put these ideas to work in the classroom in different ways.
Of course, we need to choose how we can best put our time to use. Our own needs and interests both as teachers and as students will vary according to how we learn, how and who we teach, our previous experience, our particular interests, our need/desire for new perspectives, and the time we have available in our lives.
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