For some time now the promotion of ‘learner autonomy’ has been one of the main tenets of the ELT professional discourse. It has drawn support from the body of evidence which shows that learning is a ‘constructivist’ process , i.e., learners learn by creating a personalised mental ‘model’ of the object of study (see, e.g., Littlewood 1984; Nunan 1999: Part 1). From this perspective, only the learner can do the learning, and therefore the greater the degree of autonomy the learner is given in the learning process, the greater the potential for learning. Thus, maximising learner autonomy in the classroom becomes an important professional priority.
However there are, of course, a number of factors in most ELT situations which make it difficult to put this pedagogical ideal into practice. For example, in Waters (1998: 13) a range of day-to-day ‘external pressures’ at play in the ‘majority’ ‘TESEP’ EFL teaching context are identified, all of which can significantly affect teachers’ ability to foster learner autonomy, such as the following:
- shortage of time: getting learners to do more of the work for themselves takes too long;
- examination pressures: results often appear to be better when the approach is more ‘teacher-centred’;
- materials constraints: the methodology of the textbook forces the teacher to adopt a teacher-centred approach;
- the head of department/headmaster/inspector threat: the ‘powers-that-be’ will not tolerate a more learner-centred style;
- cultural expectations: the socio-cultural norm is for teachers to transmit knowledge and learners to passively absorb it;
- learner resistance: learners, for all sorts of reasons, may be reluctant to take responsibility for managing their own learning.
Such factors do not mean that learner autonomy cannot be fostered in the typical ELT setting, but, rather, that it will be possible only to the extent that due account is taken of practical considerations of the kind just mentioned. As Illés (2012: 508) puts it:
Education cannot function without teacher control. How teachers exercise this control and how much they deem appropriate to relinquish should be their decision, based on the knowledge of their teaching context and their students in particular. Any model of learner autonomy should therefore be adopted only after careful appraisal of its relevance to a specific educational setting.
Examples of pedagogical ideas characterised by taking the norms of pedagogical practice that prevail in the prototypical English language learning situation as a ‘given’, and then identifying the potential for building incrementally on this foundation, so that an appropriate element of work aimed at fostering learner autonomy is also introduced, include Sturtridge 1982, Allwright 1988, Clarke 1989, Stevick 1996: Ch. 8, Littlewood 1997, Waters 1998, Spratt et al. 2002 and Illés 2012.
For example, in Clarke (1989), one of the ‘stock in trade’ features of pedagogy in the type of language learning situation in question – the grammar structure substitution table – is introduced and worked with first of all in a conventional, ‘teacher-directed’ way. Following this, however, the learners go on to i) create a parallel table of their own, ii) then complete a ‘gapped’ version of a similar table, and iii) finally, construct a new, parallel table of their own and try it out on their fellow learners (cf. Stevick 1996: Ch. 8).
By such forms of ‘re-invention’, whereby widespread existing pedagogical practice has been both simultaneously retained and redeveloped, it is possible to see how the sometimes overblown pro-autonomy rhetoric of the ELT professional discourse (Smith 2008) can be brought down to earth and made to work in practice in the everyday ELT setting.
Allwright, R. L. (1988). Autonomy and individualisation in whole-class instruction. In A. Brookes & P. Grundy (Eds.), ELT Documents 13: Individualization and autonomy in language learning (pp. 35-44). London: Modern English Publications, British Council.
Clarke, D. F. (1989). Materials adaptation: why leave it all to the teacher? ELT Journal, 43(2), 133-141.
Nunan, D. (1999). Second language teaching & learning. Boston, Mass.: Heinle & Heinle.
Illés, É. (2012). Learner autonomy revisited. ELT Journal, 66(4), 505-513.
Littlewood, W. (1984). Foreign and second language learning : language-acquisition research and its implications for the classroom. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Littlewood, W. (1997). Self-access: why do we want it and what can it do? In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning (pp. 79-92). Harlow, Essex: Longman.
Smith, R. (2008). Learner autonomy. ELT Journal, 62(4), 395-397.
Spratt, M., Humphreys, G., & Chan, V. (2002). Autonomy and motivation: which comes first? Language Teaching Research, 6(3), 245-266.
Stevick, E. W. (1996). Memory, meaning & method : a view of language teaching (2nd ed.): Heinle & Heinle.
Sturtridge, G. (1982). Individualised learning: what are the options for the classroom teacher? In M. Geddes & G. Sturtridge (Eds.), Individualisation (pp. 8-14). London: Modern English Publications.
Waters, A. (1998). Managing monkeys in the ELT classroom. ELT Journal, 52(1), 11-18.
Research shows that long-term memory (LTM) of information is vital for ‘skilled performance’, i.e., the ability to carry out complex cognitive activities in ‘real time’ (see, e.g., Sweller et al, 1998; Kirschner et al, 2006). This is especially true when attempting to communicate with any degree of fluency in a foreign language. On the other hands, if only ‘working’ or short-term memory (STM) is relied on for such a task, communication is likely to break down quite quickly. This is because STM capacity is very small, and therefore easily becomes overloaded.
LTM gets round the space constraints imposed by STM through the twin processes of ‘schematisation’ and ‘automisation’. Briefly, the former acts to combine what were originally separate items of knowledge into much larger, connected networks of information. This means that huge amounts of information can be brought into STM all at once, functioning to all intents and purposes as just a single item of knowledge, and thereby by-passing working memory storage limitations.
The latter process enables the recall of items of information without conscious effort. This occurs when awareness of items of information stored in long-term memory becomes largely unconscious as a result of repeated practical application. Since automated knowledge involves very little or no conscious processing, such information can be deployed without any noticeable effect on STM capacity.
Now, since (for the reasons given) storage of information in LTM is the key to mastering forms of skilled performance such as foreign language communication, the obvious question is: what form of pedagogy is most likely to facilitate the transfer of language knowledge into LTM?
Currently, there is a widespread belief within the educational discourse in general and among the ELT ‘elite’ in particular that a problem-solving, ‘discovery learning’-oriented approach, such as ‘task-based learning’, can best serve this purpose (see Christodoulou 2014; Peal 2014; Waters 2012, 2015). On the other hand, at the ELT practitioner level there is evidence that a more didactic, ‘direct’, ‘one-at-a-time’ approach to teaching language knowledge is widely favoured (Medgyes 1999; Scheffler 2012; Waters 2012), such as ‘PPP’ (Presentaion-Practice-Production).
Despite the prestige attached to the former position, and the criticism often meted out to the latter, there is a large body of research (Hattie 2009; Christodoulou 2014; Peal 2014) which shows that more ‘direct’ approaches to the teaching of knowledge are actually a good deal more effective than ‘discovery-learning’.
In a nutshell, this is because of the burdens imposed on STM of a primarily problem-solving approach. There is so much information to weigh up and consider that STM soon becomes overloaded, resulting in insufficient capacity for long-term learning. On the other hand, a ‘step-by-step’ approach helps to create the ‘mental space’ needed to facilitate the transfer of items of knowledge to LTM. It follows that ‘grass-roots’ ELT approaches in this area are therefore likely to be much more effective most of the time than those favoured by the professional elite.
It is thus to be hoped that increasing awareness of the body of research and theorizing I have referred to – which currently appears to be mostly overlooked by the dominant ELT discourse – will help to create a more open-minded and balanced perspective on the part of professional opinion-formers.
Christodoulou, D. (2014). Seven myths about education. London: Routledge.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London; New York: Routledge.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based reaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
Medgyes, Pe ter. (1999). The non-native teacher (2nd ed.). Ismaning: Hueber.
Peal, R. (2014). Progressively worse. Stevenage, England: Civitas.
Scheffler, P. (2012). ‘Theories pass. Learners and teachers remain,’ Applied Linguistics, 33, 5: 603-607.
Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251-296.
Waters, A. (2012). Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology. ELT Journal, 66(4), 440-449.
Waters, A. (2015). Cognitive Architecture and the Learning of Language Knowledge. System Journal, 53: 141-147.
Innovation has been one of the hallmarks of ELT in recent times, from task-based learning to English as an International language to computer mediated communication, and so on. An allied trend has been the development within the field of a ‘pro-innovation bias’ (Rogers 2003: 106–7), i.e., a belief that ‘the newer the better’, on the grounds that newer ideas are better than older ones. However, a growing body of literature (e.g., Markee 1997, Wedell 2009) has shown that many recent ELT innovations have frequently fallen short of the mark, both in terms of impact and the desirability of their consequences, and that a major cause of these problems has been a widespread failure to understand and utilize the lessons of innovation theory.
For example, extensive research has resulted in the identification of several major characteristics of innovations which predispose them towards success or failure (Rogers, 2003: 15-16). One of the main factors of this kind is the compatibility criterion, i.e., ‘the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the existing values, past experiences and needs of potential adopters’ (Rogers 2003: 106). The higher the compatibility in these respects, the greater the possibility of success.
Within ELT, however, the main innovation dynamic has a built-in tendency to create significant INcompatibilities between most major innovations and their potential adopters. This is because most innovation work within ELT tends to occur and be aimed originally at (the ‘minority’)
‘BANA’ ELT setting (i.e., private language schools and other similar institutions, mostly located in native speaking parts of the world and operating outside the local education system), but ends up subsequently be exported wholesale to the very different (and ‘majority’) ‘TESEP’ type of setting (i.e., institutions that form part of the state educational system in non-native speaking locations). As Holliday (1994) points out, the two types of settings differ markedly in terms of physical characteristics (class size, etc.), overall goals of learning, educational philosophy, professional ‘culture’, and so on. As a result, many such innovations contain features which are significantly incompatible with the TESEP context. For example, with reference to task-based learning, Ellis (2009: 242) points out that:
Educational systems in many parts of the world place the emphasis on knowledge-learning rather than skill development, and a task-based approach to language teaching is not readily compatible with such a philosophy. A structural approach based on teaching discrete items of language accords more closely with such an educational philosophy.
The potential solution to this problem is for a much more bottom-up approach to ELT innovation to be adopted, whereby instead of one-way traffic from ‘on high’ flowing solely from BANA to TESEP settings, the attempt is made to artfully combine elements of existing practice prevalent in TESEP settings with new ideas, as in the case of so-called ‘task-supported learning’. In this approach, the task element, instead of being the central focus of pedagogy, as in task-based learning, becomes instead an adjunct to a main focus on ‘teaching discrete items of language’.
Such a ‘hybrid’ approach is strongly supported by another aspect of innovation theory, the ‘re-invention’ concept (Rogers 2003: 180-188). Rogers defines ‘re-invention’ as occurring when an innovation is ‘changed or modified by a user in the process of its adoption and implementation’ (ibid.: 180). As he also explains, there is evidence that ‘a higher degree of re-invention leads to a faster rate of adoption …[and] a higher degree of sustainability of an innovation’ (183). This occurs primarily because of the greater level of compatibility between the innovation and the local setting which the re-invention process creates. Thus, for innovation in ELT to be more successful, it needs to be properly grounded not just in the latest trends emanating from BANA-land, but, first and foremost, in the pedagogical realities and priorities of the TESEP setting.
Ellis, R. (2009). Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19(3), 221-246.
Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate methodology and social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rogers, Everett M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Markee, N. (1997). Managing curricular innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Waters, A. (2009). A guide to Methodologia: past, present, and future. ELT Journal, 63(2), 108-115. doi:10.1093/elt/ccn037
Wedell, Martin. (2009). Planning for educational change – putting people and their contexts first. London: Continuum.
Teaching methods can be thought of as being, on the one hand, of the ‘everyday’ variety, and of the ‘grand’ kind on the other. The former are those which teachers devise as a result of their experiences, i.e., the techniques they feel work best for teaching particular groups, their personally preferred ways of teaching. The latter are academic constructions, bodies of theory and practice which are (or were) promoted as ‘context free’, ‘scientifically-proven’ ways of teaching, e.g., ‘Audiolingualism’, ‘Grammar Translation’, ‘Total Physical Response’, ‘The Silent Way’, ‘Suggestopedia’, ‘Task-based Learning’ (TBL) and so on (see Richards and Rodgers, 2001). They prescribe how teaching should be done to be as effectively as possible, and proscribe other methods as (supposedly) less effective.
From an academic point of view, however, the method concept has been widely discredited, and as a result the current period is characterised as having entered a ‘post-method condition’ (Kumaravadivelu 1994). This has happened for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the results produced by method comparison studies, in which the effects of one teaching method was compared with those of others.
For example, the ‘Pennsylvania Project’ (Smith, 1970), a major study of this kind, failed to show that the newer, more ‘scientific’ Audiolingual method was more effective than ‘traditional’ methods. As a result, in an attempt to account for such outcomes, the focus of research began to change from the study of methods to the nature of classroom teaching and learning processes (Allwright 1988, Allwright & Bailey 1991). Investigations of this kind soon began to throw light on the highly complex and frequently unpredictable nature of classroom interaction, and thus the need for much greater understanding of its processes before attempting (if ever) to prescribe classroom inputs such as teaching methods.
Among others, Kumaravadivelu (1994) has therefore argued that an alternative to method is needed as the basis of teaching methodology. His own recommendation has been for the adoption of a set of pedagogical principles (‘macrostrategies’), derived mainly from Second Language Acquisition research and theorising, which he sees as providing a consensus of understanding about the main features of effective teaching methodology.
However, as Bell (2003) argues, rather than a true alternative, Kumaravadivelu’s proposals can be seen as yet another (albeit somewhat less prescriptive) attempt to impose a top-down and culturally-biased set of theoretical constructs, thereby perpetuating the method tradition in another guise. Similarly, TBL and other ‘discovery-learning’ methods have been increasingly advocated in academic circles in recent years as methodological ‘cure-alls’ (Waters 2012). As Littlewood (2004: 319) puts it:
The task-based approach has achieved something of the status of a new orthodoxy: teachers in a wide range of settings are being told by curriculum leaders that this how they should teach, and publishers almost everywhere are describing their new textbooks as task-based.
At the same time, there is evidence that among ‘rank and file’ ELT practitioners, other, more ‘traditional’ teaching methods, such as PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production), despite being subject to increasing academic criticism, appear to have become further entrenched, rather than eroded (Waters 2012; cf. Tomlinson 2001). In other words, the post-method academic philosophy appears to have failed to stem the tide of ‘methodism’ at the ‘official’ professional discourse level and at the grass-roots practitioner level as well.
This is probably because the anti-method stance is best regarded as a critique of method-oriented pedagogy, rather than a practical alternative to it. In other words, however complex the nature of classroom interaction, teaching of necessity involves some kind of attempt to intervene within it in such a way as to maximise the potential for learning: the teacher cannot afford to wait until research at last manages to identify the best way to teach (something that is in any case very unlikely to ever happen, of course). The perspective offered by the post-method condition, rather than leading to an abandonment of method, can therefore best be seen as helping to lower expectations about the potential effectiveness of any one method and create better understanding about why methods may frequently turn out to be less successful than anticipated.
Also, all this said, as Lightbown and Spada (2006: 179) indicate, recent findings from classroom-based research, rather than providing no evidence at all to guide methodological decision-making, at least:
offer support for the view that form-focused instruction and corrective feedback provided within the context of communicative and content-based programmes are more effective in promoting second language learning than programmes that are limited to a virtually exclusive emphasis on comprehension, fluency, or accuracy alone.
In this light, it is ‘interesting’, to say the least of it, that, despite Lightbown and Spada’s conclusions, the main type of method preferred by the ELT professional discourse, on the one hand, is largely ‘fluency’ oriented, while, on the other, the tendency for the ordinary ELT practitioner is to favour a more ‘accuracy’-based approach. This important issue is explored further in other blog posts (see, e.g., ‘Memory’ and ‘Task-based learning’ [to come]).
Allwright, R. L. (1988) Observation in the Language Classroom. Harlow, Essex, London; New York: Longman.
Allwright, R. L. & Bailey, K. M. (1991). Focus on the language classroom : an introduction to classroom research for language teachers. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bell, David M. (2003). Method and Postmethod: Are They Really So Incompatible? TESOL Quarterly, 37(2), 325-336.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The Postmethod Condition:(E) merging Strategies for Second/Foreign Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28(1), 27-48.
Lightbown, P. M. and N. Spada. (2006). How Languages are Learned (3rd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Littlewood, William. (2004). The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions. ELT Journal, 58(4), 319-326. doi: 10.1093/elt/58.4.319
Nunan, David. (1999). Second language teaching & learning. Boston, Mass.: Heinle & Heinle.
Richards, J. C. & T. Rodgers (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Smith, P. D. (1970). A comparison of the cognitive and audiolingual approaches to foreign language instruction: the Pennsylvania foreign language project. Philadelphia: Center for Curriculum Development.
Tomlinson, B. (2001). Materials Development. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 66-71). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Waters, A. (2009). A guide to Methodologia: past, present, and future. ELT Journal, 63(2), 108-115. doi:10.1093/elt/ccn037
Waters, A. (2012). Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology. ELT Journal, 66(4), 440-449. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccs038
‘Authenticity’ is a good place for a blog on common sense in ELT to start. It is one of many concepts in our field that involve a good deal of faulty reasoning, yet this is largely unrecognised. At the same time, there is also an almost religious degree of agreement that the normal understanding of the term makes sound pedagogical sense.
The typical meaning given to the term ‘authentic(ity)’ in ELT = ‘of the “real world”‘. In other words, it is usually used to refer to a ‘text’ which was originally devised for a purpose other than English language teaching, but which has been brought into the classroom in order to exploit its potential for language learning purposes. Examples of such texts are newspaper or magazine articles, letters, television or radio broadcasts, web-pages and so on. Such ‘naturally-occurring’ texts are in contrast to the other main type to be found in ELT, i.e., ‘specially-written’ ones. These, although frequently ‘life-like’, have had no prior existence outside the classroom, i.e., they have been constructed solely for language teaching use.
Both types of text are of potential pedagogical value, of course (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987: 158-60). For example, if the teacher’s aim is to boost learners’ confidence by showing them how much they can understand of ‘real-life’ language, despite knowing the meaning of only some of it, then a ‘naturally-occurring’ text will be the obvious choice. However, if the aim is to provide learners with plentiful examples of the use of a particular language structure, it is likely that a ‘specially-written’ text will be more appropriate. In other words, both kinds of texts have their place in pedagogy, with neither kind being inherently superior to the other, i.e., they are in a complementary relationship.
However, within much of the ELT professional discourse the overall ‘message’ is that the emphasis in pedagogy should be on the naturally-occurring rather than the specially- written type of text (see, e.g. Simpson, 2009), i.e. a replacement strategy. This view is strongly reinforced by the use of the term ‘authentic’ to stand for ‘naturally-occurring’. Such usage carries with it positive overtones of ‘genuine’, ‘real’, ‘natural’, and so on. On the other hand, the other main kind of text, instead of being referred to as ‘specially-written’, tends to be described in the same discourse in more negative terms, such as ‘artificial’, ‘contrived’, ‘unnatural’ (see, e.g. Tomlinson, 2010).
But in reality, of course, contrary to such perspectives, it is the so- called ‘authentic’ text which is actually ‘artificial’. This is the case because such a text, once used for language teaching, cannot be regarded as truly ‘authentic’ any longer, since both its purpose and context of use are no longer the same as they were originally. At the same time, the other, ‘specially-written’ type of text can be regarded as potentially more truly ‘authentic’, in the sense that its context of use and its function are consistent with its original (pedagogic) purpose of construction (cf. Seedhouse, 1996).
However, the tenor of much of the professional discourse on this matter has had the effect of reversing such a perspective, resulting in a lop-sided view, one in which an implicit preference is expressed for ‘naturally-occurring’ over ‘specially-written’ texts, despite the benefits inherent in both kinds. As a result, the value for pedagogy of the specially-written text tends to be downplayed, on the one hand, and, on the other, that of ‘authentic’ texts exaggerated, and an unrepresentative kind of professional discussion created – a very unfortunate state of affairs. Instead of such a dichotomising perspective, it ought to be recognised a good deal more often that ‘the ultimate criterion for judging the usefulness of language activity in the classroom is not whether it is communication but whether it helps people to learn to communicate’ (Littlewood 1992: 83, original emphasis).
Hutchinson T, Waters A (1987) English for Specific Purposes: a Learning-centred Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Littlewood, William T. (1992). Teaching oral communication : a methodological framework. Oxford: Blackwell.
Seedhouse P (1996) Classroom interaction: possibilities and impossibilities. ELT Journal 50(1): 16–24.
Simpson J (2009) A critical stance in language education: a reply to Alan Waters. Applied Linguistics 30(3): 428–34.
Tomlinson B (2010) Principles of effective materials development. In: Harwood N (ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 81–108.
 Or ‘task’ – the points being made in this blog apply equally to both.
 In reality, of course, several sub-types of texts/activities can also be distinguished, but the picture has been deliberately simplified here, in the interests of clarifying the main focus.