“A Research Base for Best Practice in Language Classrooms”

Yesterday (5 May 2014), I went to Pauline Foster’s lecture on the state of teaching languages in British schools which took place in the Fyvie Hall at the University of Westminster in the heart of London. Pauline is a Professor in English and Applied Linguistics at St Mary’s University in Twickenham in West London. She frequently confronts the misconceptions of language that are too present in the media: have a look at her blog called Bad Linguistics at http://badlinguistics.wordpress.com/. In fact, this was the crux of her very enlightening and thought-provoking talk that evening.

Both myself and a friend of mine, who attended the lecture, thought that its structure was quite original and effective. Pauline started by saying that a lot of the claims of Michael Gove’s in recent years about what language is are simply untrue and not grounding in research at all. For instance, she says, it is not true that understanding a foreign language makes you understand English better, it is not true that being fluent in another language makes you fluent in yours. It is not true that almost every advanced country teaches MFL to children from the age of 5 – as, Pauline says, in most of the countries children do not start school as early as in the UK. She then pointed out several barriers in existence in the UK: primary teachers not being trained to teach language to children, suitable materials for teaching language not readily available and the immersion curriculum (i.e. the idea that the entire content taught in L2) is controversial and more importantly too expensive to introduce. She additionally points out that compared to adolescents and adults, children are better at picking language through immersion, but are actually worse at learning languages in class settings – and 30 minutes per week of language is no immersion.

Pauline now proceeded to outline some of the research into how languages are learnt, done over the last 50-60 years. Some of this I knew of before, but it gave a good idea of the various approaches that are still taken to language teaching.

  • Behaviourism (Skinner): claimed that children are trained in language (monitored by adults, shaped by adults’ feedback and through being corrected)
  • Innatism (Chomsky): claimed that language is just too complicated to be “trained in” and therefore it is impossible to teach it in full. In his opinion, people are born with the basic principles of language and these are later activated through exposure to language
  • Emergentism: in this view, languages emerge from very complex and multifaceted interactions

Language learning can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as fossilization, motivation, affect, language transfer, explicit knowledge of language, explicit teaching of language, self-reflection of a learner, negative feedback received – and more.

Further, Pauline reminded us of the views on adults vs child attainment in the second language: early starters have an advantage over late starters in learning a language; later starters may end up proficient, but will never be native-like.

She also reminds us that the different language theories have resulted and continue to result in different teaching practices. For instance, behaviourism has resulted in practicing direct Grammar Translation; innatism in the focus on form paired with focus on meaning.

Focusing on two different types of teaching, she pointed out to some of their features and accompanying assumptions:

  • Grammar Translation
      • leads to conscious knowledge – but such knowledge can’t be easily recruited
      • it is divorced from real communication
      • language production is used to display knowledge for assessment processes
    • Assumptions: learners learn what teachers teach, errors are indications of non-learning and have to be corrected
  • Communication and Task-Base Language Teaching and Learning
      • learners are active participants
      • classes are interactive and noisy
      • materials are engaging
      • learning opportunities can arise ad hoc
    • Assumptions: learners learn more (or less) than teachers teach, errors could indicate development and don’t need to be corrected straight away

Here, Pauline indicates that EFL has taken the communicative role for its customers , while MFL has taken more behaviourist approach for its conscripts. As you can see, she makes a distinction between customers (willing and paying participants) and conscripts (students at schools who have to learn).

  • EFL Communicative Classrooms:
    • these can minimize embarrassment (that is, speaking with others who learn new language at the same time can minimize the feeling of speaking with a non-native accent)
    • increase speaking opportunities
    • increase a range of speaking acts
    • provides with a greater variety of activities
    • provides individual learners with greater amount of linguistic opportunities
  • For these, I can vouch as for the first 6-7 years of my career, I was, in essence, an EFL teacher and as such I still these courses and approaches as hugely beneficial to learners in terms of opportunities for language production, interaction and the different types of communication activities. It feels, a lot of the time, that EAL Strategies are often guised under different names – but are, in fact, commonly used EFL activities. Could the reason for this be the content in the UK schools being seen as more important than language teaching, particularly in the mainstream (consult Angela Creese’s research into content-base language teaching).

Prof Foster stated here that the following tenets, claims that this is the “best practice” (below) have no backing whatsoever in any research. Worryingly, as a teacher at secondary schools, I have heard these again and again referred to as “best practice” indeed:

  1. the value of peer explanations
  2. target language explanations lead to more secure learning
  3. mininizing the teacher talk
  4. inferring vocabulary meaning from context leads to deeper / more integrated learning
  5. teachers must cater to different learning styles of their students (Prof. Foster states that research into learning styles in general is very shaky ground and says it might simply be a myth)
  6. class plans must have explicit learning objectives

What is actually worrying is not so much, perhaps, whether or not these are definitely true or untrue, but rather, that there is no or very little research to back up the claims that this is what best practice is. These claims that this is what best teaching practice is are often repeated and insisted on by Ofsted and as such affect thousands of teachers across the country. Worrying, wouldn’t you say, that there might not be research to back this up? Wouldn’t you prefer for these to be well-researched and not just opinions?

She adds to this list of “benchmarks of good practice” in existence:

  • learners should find their own errors
  • learners working out their own rules of L2 leads to deeper, more integrated learning
  • peer explanations give more learning opportunities than teacher in class explaining concepts
    • interestingly, just a few hours before coming over to the talk, I had a conversation with a friend teacher of mine, who told me that she was criticized during her Ofsted inspection for coming over to a student to provide further explanation to them – apparently, her initial teaching to the entire class  should always be enough for all the students in the class and she was technically not allowed to help further!

She equates a lot of these to “making students guess”, not allowing them to use L1 and argues that teachers who are deemed to be erring from these norms are often downgraded.

  • MFL looks completely different (check, for instance: Critical Perspectives on Language Teaching Materials, a book edited by John Gray)
    • language textbooks explain grammar points
    • do not allow pupils to express their own meanings
    • the tasks pupils are provided with are far away from any real communication (clearly in huge opposition to EFL)
    • synthetic, accuracy-focused, not supported by any research evidence
    • MFL teachers want to keep their students motivated and make learning fun, but unfortunately, they have to teach only for Ofsted and towards national exams

Pauline also referred to the requirement of Ofsted that in an “outstanding” lesson, there has to be clear evidence that learning has taken place and that students have learned new things. She argues that it is actually impossible to establish this – she referred to us, attending her lecture, in fact – she wouldn’t be able to know really if we’ve learned anything! She says that ensuring that someone has learned something can be done in one of the two ways:

  • objectively:
    • through pre-test
    • through post-test
    • through statistical test
    • through delayed post-test
  • subjectively:
    • having a feeling
    • osmosis
    • guesswork
    • bias

Logically, the first group (objectively) cannot be achieved in a single lesson and the second one (subjectively) is not measurable. Well, not statistically measurable.

She also points out that MFL is seen as difficult to get a high grade in – and other subjects in the UK are seen as safer. Finally, MFL is seen as boring and pointless – and given her description of what MFL coursebooks look like and how they follow the behaviourist language learning route – it certainly be seen as such.

She concludes with certain recommendations:

  • dump the idea that the British are not good at learning other languages – the British are just as smart as other people on this planet!
  • attack the idea that learning languages is difficult
  • sell the idea that bilingual teachers have wider knowledge of the world
  • get research evidence for ‘best practice’ – make sure the claims of what best practice is are grounded in what others have found through research
  • allow qualified native speakers of other languages in the UK to teach MFL without needing a UK degree or a PGCE
  • develop better MFL text books
  • educate others in second language acquisition (yes, please!)
  • disengage MFL from GCSEs and A-Levels (

A lot of it rings very true to me. It also makes me think of what is sometimes presented to us as teachers as best practice and what we’re judged on. Potentially the most contestable is the idea that within one lesson we should establish and evidence that all of our learners have learnt. Perhaps we need a bit more time for that? Perhaps one answer at the end of a lesson during plenary is not sufficient to establish this? Perhaps it would be more doable if we had less than 20 students in a class?

A lot to think about here. Do comment on an aspect of these if you find some of Pauline’s insights, opinions and ideas interesting. It certainly has made me think!

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