Archive for the ‘coursebooks’ Category

All aboard …

The point of adaptive learning is that it can personalize learning. When we talk about personalization, mention of learning styles is rarely far away. Jose Ferreira of Knewton (but now ex-CEO Knewton) made his case for learning styles in a blog post that generated a superb and, for Ferreira, embarrassing  discussion in the comments that were subsequently deleted by Knewton. fluentu_learning_stylesFluentU (which I reviewed here) clearly approves of learning styles, or at least sees them as a useful way to market their product, even though it is unclear how their product caters to different styles. Busuu claims to be ‘personalised to fit your style of learning’. Voxy, Inc. (according to their company overview) ‘operates a language learning platform that creates custom curricula for English language learners based on their interests, routines, goals, and learning styles’. Bliu Bliu (which I reviewed here) recommended, in a recent blog post, that learners should ‘find out their language learner type and use it to their advantage’ and suggests, as a starter, trying out ‘Bliu Bliu, where pretty much any learner can find what suits them best’. Memrise ‘uses clever science to adapt to your personal learning style’.  Duolingo’s learning tree ‘effectively rearranges itself to suit individual learning styles’ according to founder, Louis Von Ahn. This list could go on and on.

Learning styles are thriving in ELT coursebooks, too. Here are just three recent examples for learners of various ages. Today! by Todd, D. & Thompson, T. (Pearson, 2014) ‘shapes learning around individual students with graded difficulty practice for mixed-ability classes’ and ‘makes testing mixed-ability classes easier with tests that you can personalise to students’ abilities’.today

Move  it! by Barraclough, C., Beddall, F., Stannett, K., Wildman, J. (Pearson, 2015) offers ‘personalized pathways [which] allow students to optimize their learning outcomes’ and a ‘complete assessment package to monitor students’ learning process’. pearson_move_it

Open Mind Elementary (A2) 2nd edition by Rogers, M., Taylor-Knowles, J. & Taylor-Knowles, S. (Macmillan, 2014) has a whole page devoted to learning styles in the ‘Life Skills’ strand of the course. The scope and sequence describes it in the following terms: ‘Thinking about what you like to do to find your learning style and improve how you learn English’. Here’s the relevant section:macmillan_coursebook

rosenber-learning-stylesMethodology books offer more tips for ways that teachers can cater to different learning styles. Recent examples include Patrycja Kamińska’s  Learning Styles and Second Language Education (Cambridge Scholars, 2014), Tammy Gregersen & Peter D. MacIntyre’s Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality (Multilingual Matters, 2014) and Marjorie Rosenberg’s Spotlight on Learning Styles (Delta Publishing, 2013). Teacher magazines show a continuing interest  in the topic. Humanising Language Teaching and English Teaching Professional are particularly keen. The British Council offers courses about learning styles and its Teaching English website has many articles and lesson plans on the subject (my favourite explains that your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles), as do the websites of all the major publishers. Most ELT conferences will also offer something on the topic.oup_learning_styles

How about language teaching qualifications and frameworks? The Cambridge English Teaching Framework contains a component entitled ‘Understanding learners’ and this specifies as the first part of the component a knowledge of concepts such as learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, kinaesthetic), multiple intelligences, learning strategies, special needs, affect. Unsurprisingly, the Cambridge CELTA qualification requires successful candidates to demonstrate an awareness of the different learning styles and preferences that adults bring to learning English. The Cambridge DELTA requires successful candidates to accommodate learners according to their different abilities, motivations, and learning styles. The Eaquals Framework for Language Teacher Training and Development requires teachers at Development Phase 2 t0 have the skill of determining and anticipating learners’ language learning needs and learning styles at a range of levels, selecting appropriate ways of finding out about these.

Outside of ELT, learning styles also continue to thrive. Phil Newton (2015 ‘The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education’ Frontiers in Psychology 6: 1908) carried out a survey of educational publications  (higher education) between 2013 and 2016, and found that an overwhelming majority (89%) implicitly or directly endorse the use of learning styles. He also cites research showing that 93% of UK schoolteachers believe that ‘individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style’, with similar figures in other countries. 72% of Higher Education institutions in the US teach ‘learning style theory’ as part of faculty development for online teachers. Advocates of learning styles in English language teaching are not alone.

But, unfortunately, …

In case you weren’t aware of it, there is a rather big problem with learning styles. There is a huge amount of research  which suggests that learning styles (and, in particular, teaching attempts to cater to learning styles) need to be approached with extreme scepticism. Much of this research was published long before the blog posts, advertising copy, books and teaching frameworks (listed above) were written.  What does this research have to tell us?

The first problem concerns learning styles taxonomies. There are three issues here: many people do not fit one particular style, the information used to assign people to styles is often inadequate, and there are so many different styles that it becomes cumbersome to link particular learners to particular styles (Kirschner, P. A. & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. 2013. ‘Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education’ Educational Psychologist, 48 / 3, 169-183). To summarise, given the lack of clarity as to which learning styles actually exist, it may be ‘neither viable nor justified’ for learning styles to form the basis of lesson planning (Hall, G. 2011. Exploring English Language Teaching. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge p.140). More detailed information about these issues can be found in the following sources:

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre

Dembo, M. H. & Howard, K. 2007. Advice about the use of learning styles: a major myth in education. Journal of College Reading & Learning 37 / 2: 101 – 109

Kirschner, P. A. 2017. Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education 106: 166 – 171

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, E. 2008. Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9 / 3: 105 – 119

Riener, C. & Willingham, D. 2010. The myth of learning styles. Change – The Magazine of Higher Learning

The second problem concerns what Pashler et al refer to as the ‘meshing hypothesis’: the idea that instructional interventions can be effectively tailored to match particular learning styles. Pashler et al concluded that the available taxonomies of student types do not offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Even in 2008, their finding was not new. Back in 1978, a review of 15 studies that looked at attempts to match learning styles to approaches to first language reading instruction, concluded that modality preference ‘has not been found to interact significantly with the method of teaching’ (Tarver, Sara & M. M. Dawson. 1978. Modality preference and the teaching of reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities 11: 17 – 29). The following year, two other researchers concluded that [the assumption that one can improve instruction by matching materials to children’s modality strengths] appears to lack even minimal empirical support. (Arter, J.A. & Joseph A. Jenkins 1979 ‘Differential diagnosis-prescriptive teaching: A critical appraisal’ Review of Educational Research 49: 517-555). Fast forward 20 years to 1999, and Stahl (Different strokes for different folks?’ American Educator Fall 1999 pp. 1 – 5) was writing the reason researchers roll their eyes at learning styles is the utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on learning. The area with the most research has been the global and analytic styles […]. Over the past 30 years, the names of these styles have changed – from ‘visual’ to ‘global’ and from ‘auditory’ to ‘analytic’ – but the research results have not changed. For a recent evaluation of the practical applications of learning styles, have a look at Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M. & Tallal, P. 2015. ‘Matching Learning Style to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension’ Journal of Educational Psychology 107 / 1: 64 – 78. Even David Kolb, the Big Daddy of learning styles, now concedes that there is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their student’s particular learning styles (reported in Glenn, D. 2009. ‘Matching teaching style to learning style may not help students’ The Chronicle of Higher Education). To summarise, the meshing hypothesis is entirely unsupported in the scientific literature. It is a myth (Howard-Jones, P. A. 2014. ‘Neuroscience and education: myths and messages’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience).

This brings me back to the blog posts, advertising blurb, coursebooks, methodology books and so on that continue to tout learning styles. The writers of these texts typically do not acknowledge that there’s a problem of any kind. Are they unaware of the research? Or are they aware of it, but choose not to acknowledge it? I suspect that the former is often the case with the app developers. But if the latter is the case, what  might those reasons be? In the case of teacher training specifications, the reason is probably practical. Changing a syllabus is an expensive and time-consuming operation. But in the case of some of the ELT writers, I suspect that they hang on in there because they so much want to believe.

As Newton (2015: 2) notes, intuitively, there is much that is attractive about the concept of Learning Styles. People are obviously different and Learning Styles appear to offer educators a way to accommodate individual learner differences.  Pashler et al (2009:107) add that another related factor that may play a role in the popularity of the learning-styles approach has to do with responsibility. If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to think that the educational system, not the person or the child himself or herself, is responsible. That is, rather than attribute one’s lack of success to any lack of ability or effort on one’s part, it may be more appealing to think that the fault lies with instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style. In that respect, there may be linkages to the self-esteem movement that became so influential, internationally, starting in the 1970s. There is no reason to doubt that many of those who espouse learning styles have good intentions.

No one, I think, seriously questions whether learners might not benefit from a wide variety of input styles and learning tasks. People are obviously different. MacIntyre et al (MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Clément, R. 2016. ‘Individual Differences’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp.310 – 323, p.319) suggest that teachers might consider instructional methods that allow them to capitalise on both variety and choice and also help learners find ways to do this for themselves inside and outside the classroom. Jill Hadfield (2006. ‘Teacher Education and Trainee Learning Style’ RELC Journal 37 / 3: 369 – 388) recommends that we design our learning tasks across the range of learning styles so that our trainees can move across the spectrum, experiencing both the comfort of matching and the challenge produced by mismatching. But this is not the same thing as claiming that identification of a particular learning style can lead to instructional decisions. The value of books like Rosenberg’s Spotlight on Learning Styles lies in the wide range of practical suggestions for varying teaching styles and tasks. They contain ideas of educational value: it is unfortunate that the theoretical background is so thin.

In ELT things are, perhaps, beginning to change. Russ Mayne’s blog post Learning styles: facts and fictions in 2012 got a few heads nodding, and he followed this up 2 years later with a presentation at IATEFL looking at various aspects of ELT, including learning styles, which have little or no scientific credibility. Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries gave a talk at IATEFL 2016, Changing the way we approach learning styles in teacher education, which was also much discussed and shared online. They also had an article in ELT Journal called Learning styles and teacher training: are we perpetuating neuromyths? (2016 ELTJ 70 / 1: 16 – 27). Even Pearson, in a blog post of November 2016, (Mythbusters: A review of research on learning styles) acknowledges that there is a shocking lack of evidence to support the core learning styles claim that customizing instruction based on students’ preferred learning styles produces better learning than effective universal instruction, concluding that  it is impossible to recommend learning styles as an effective strategy for improving learning outcomes.



Every now and then, someone recommends me to take a look at a flashcard app. It’s often interesting to see what developers have done with design, gamification and UX features, but the content is almost invariably awful. Most recently, I was encouraged to look at Word Pash. The screenshots below are from their promotional video.

word-pash-1 word-pash-2 word-pash-3 word-pash-4

The content problems are immediately apparent: an apparently random selection of target items, an apparently random mix of high and low frequency items, unidiomatic language examples, along with definitions and distractors that are less frequent than the target item. I don’t know if these are representative of the rest of the content. The examples seem to come from ‘Stage 1 Level 3’, whatever that means. (My confidence in the product was also damaged by the fact that the Word Pash website includes one testimonial from a certain ‘Janet Reed – Proud Mom’, whose son ‘was able to increase his score and qualify for academic scholarships at major universities’ after using the app. The picture accompanying ‘Janet Reed’ is a free stock image from Pexels and ‘Janet Reed’ is presumably fictional.)

According to the website, ‘WordPash is a free-to-play mobile app game for everyone in the global audience whether you are a 3rd grader or PhD, wordbuff or a student studying for their SATs, foreign student or international business person, you will become addicted to this fast paced word game’. On the basis of the promotional video, the app couldn’t be less appropriate for English language learners. It seems unlikely that it would help anyone improve their ACT or SAT test scores. The suggestion that the vocabulary development needs of 9-year-olds and doctoral students are comparable is pure chutzpah.

The deliberate study of more or less random words may be entertaining, but it’s unlikely to lead to very much in practical terms. For general purposes, the deliberate learning of the highest frequency words, up to about a frequency ranking of #7500, makes sense, because there’s a reasonably high probability that you’ll come across these items again before you’ve forgotten them. Beyond that frequency level, the value of the acquisition of an additional 1000 words tails off very quickly. Adding 1000 words from frequency ranking #8000 to #9000 is likely to result in an increase in lexical understanding of general purpose texts of about 0.2%. When we get to frequency ranks #19,000 to #20,000, the gain in understanding decreases to 0.01%[1]. In other words, deliberate vocabulary learning needs to be targeted. The data is relatively recent, but the principle goes back to at least the middle of the last century when Michael West argued that a principled approach to vocabulary development should be driven by a comparison of the usefulness of a word and its ‘learning cost’[2]. Three hundred years before that, Comenius had articulated something very similar: ‘in compiling vocabularies, my […] concern was to select the words in most frequent use[3].

I’ll return to ‘general purposes’ later in this post, but, for now, we should remember that very few language learners actually study a language for general purposes. Globally, the vast majority of English language learners study English in an academic (school) context and their immediate needs are usually exam-specific. For them, general purpose frequency lists are unlikely to be adequate. If they are studying with a coursebook and are going to be tested on the lexical content of that book, they will need to use the wordlist that matches the book. Increasingly, publishers make such lists available and content producers for vocabulary apps like Quizlet and Memrise often use them. Many examinations, both national and international, also have accompanying wordlists. Examples of such lists produced by examination boards include the Cambridge English young learners’ exams (Starters, Movers and Flyers) and Cambridge English Preliminary. Other exams do not have official word lists, but reasonably reliable lists have been produced by third parties. Examples include Cambridge First, IELTS and SAT. There are, in addition, well-researched wordlists for academic English, including the Academic Word List (AWL)  and the Academic Vocabulary List  (AVL). All of these make sensible starting points for deliberate vocabulary learning.

When we turn to other, out-of-school learners the number of reasons for studying English is huge. Different learners have different lexical needs, and working with a general purpose frequency list may be, at least in part, a waste of time. EFL and ESL learners are likely to have very different needs, as will EFL and ESP learners, as will older and younger learners, learners in different parts of the world, learners who will find themselves in English-speaking countries and those who won’t, etc., etc. For some of these demographics, specialised corpora (from which frequency-based wordlists can be drawn) exist. For most learners, though, the ideal list simply does not exist. Either it will have to be created (requiring a significant amount of time and expertise[4]) or an available best-fit will have to suffice. Paul Nation, in his recent ‘Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing’ (John Benjamins, 2016) includes a useful chapter on critiquing wordlists. For anyone interested in better understanding the issues surrounding the development and use of wordlists, three good articles are freely available online. These are:making-and-using-word-lists-for-language-learning-and-testing

Lessard-Clouston, M. 2012 / 2013. ‘Word Lists for Vocabulary Learning and Teaching’ The CATESOL Journal 24.1: 287- 304

Lessard-Clouston, M. 2016. ‘Word lists and vocabulary teaching: options and suggestions’ Cornerstone ESL Conference 2016

Sorell, C. J. 2013. A study of issues and techniques for creating core vocabulary lists for English as an International Language. Doctoral thesis.

But, back to ‘general purposes’ …. Frequency lists are the obvious starting point for preparing a wordlist for deliberate learning, but they are very problematic. Frequency rankings depend on the corpus on which they are based and, since these are different, rankings vary from one list to another. Even drawing on just one corpus, rankings can be a little strange. In the British National Corpus, for example, ‘May’ (the month) is about twice as frequent as ‘August’[5], but we would be foolish to infer from this that the learning of ‘May’ should be prioritised over the learning of ‘August’. An even more striking example from the same corpus is the fact that ‘he’ is about twice as frequent as ‘she’[6]: should, therefore, ‘he’ be learnt before ‘she’?

List compilers have to make a number of judgement calls in their work. There is not space here to consider these in detail, but two particularly tricky questions concerning the way that words are chosen may be mentioned: Is a verb like ‘list’, with two different and unrelated meanings, one word or two? Should inflected forms be considered as separate words? The judgements are not usually informed by considerations of learners’ needs. Learners will probably best approach vocabulary development by building their store of word senses: attempting to learn all the meanings and related forms of any given word is unlikely to be either useful or successful.

Frequency lists, in other words, are not statements of scientific ‘fact’: they are interpretative documents. They have been compiled for descriptive purposes, not as ways of structuring vocabulary learning, and it cannot be assumed they will necessarily be appropriate for a purpose for which they were not designed.

A further major problem concerns the corpus on which the frequency list is based. Large databases, such as the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American English, are collections of language used by native speakers in certain parts of the world, usually of a restricted social class. As such, they are of relatively little value to learners who will be using English in contexts that are not covered by the corpus. A context where English is a lingua franca is one such example.

A different kind of corpus is the Cambridge Learner Corpus (CLC), a collection of exam scripts produced by candidates in Cambridge exams. This has led to the development of the English Vocabulary Profile (EVP) , where word senses are tagged as corresponding to particular levels in the Common European Framework scale. At first glance, this looks like a good alternative to frequency lists based on native-speaker corpora. But closer consideration reveals many problems. The design of examination tasks inevitably results in the production of language of a very different kind from that produced in other contexts. Many high frequency words simply do not appear in the CLC because it is unlikely that a candidate would use them in an exam. Other items are very frequent in this corpus just because they are likely to be produced in examination tasks. Unsurprisingly, frequency rankings in EVP do not correlate very well with frequency rankings from other corpora. The EVP, then, like other frequency lists, can only serve, at best, as a rough guide for the drawing up of target item vocabulary lists in general purpose apps or coursebooks[7].

There is no easy solution to the problems involved in devising suitable lexical content for the ‘global audience’. Tagging words to levels (i.e. grouping them into frequency bands) will always be problematic, unless very specific user groups are identified. Writers, like myself, of general purpose English language teaching materials are justifiably irritated by some publishers’ insistence on allocating words to levels with numerical values. The policy, taken to extremes (as is increasingly the case), has little to recommend it in linguistic terms. But it’s still a whole lot better than the aleatory content of apps like Word Pash.

[1] See Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 21 for statistical tables. See also Nation, P. & R. Waring 1997. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’ in Schmitt & McCarthy (eds.) 1997. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp. 6 -19

[2] See Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. (Rowley, Mass.: Rowley House) p.206 for a discussion of West’s ideas.

[3] Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. (Rowley, Mass.: Rowley House) p. 184

[4] See Timmis, I. 2015. Corpus Linguistics for ELT (Abingdon: Routledge) for practical advice on doing this.

[5] Nation, I.S.P. 2016. Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing. (Amsterdam: John Benjamins) p.58

[6] Taylor, J.R. 2012. The Mental Corpus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.151

[7] For a detailed critique of the limitations of using the CLC as a guide to syllabus design and textbook development, see Swan, M. 2014. ‘A Review of English Profile Studies’ ELTJ 68/1: 89-96

If you’re going to teach vocabulary, you need to organise it in some way. Almost invariably, this organisation is topical, with words grouped into what are called semantic sets. In coursebooks, the example below (from Rogers, M., Taylore-Knowles, J. & S. Taylor-Knowles. 2010. Open Mind Level 1. London: Macmillan, p.68) is fairly typical.

open mind

Coursebooks are almost always organised in a topical way. The example above comes in a unit (of 10 pages), entitled ‘You have talent!’, which contains two main vocabulary sections. It’s unsurprising to find a section called ‘personality adjectives’ in such a unit. What’s more, such an approach lends itself to the requisite, but largely, spurious ‘can-do’ statement in the self-evaluation section: I can talk about people’s positive qualities. We must have clearly identifiable learning outcomes, after all.

There is, undeniably, a certain intuitive logic in this approach. An alternative might entail a radical overhaul of coursebook architecture – this might not be such a bad thing, but might not go down too well in the markets. How else, after all, could the vocabulary strand of the syllabus be organised?

Well, there are a number of ways in which a vocabulary syllabus could be organised. Including the standard approach described above, here are four possibilities:

1 semantic sets (e.g. bee, butterfly, fly, mosquito, etc.)

2 thematic sets (e.g. ‘pets’: cat, hate, flea, feed, scratch, etc.)

3 unrelated sets

4 sets determined by a group of words’ occurrence in a particular text

Before reading further, you might like to guess what research has to say about the relative effectiveness of these four approaches.

The answer depends, to some extent, on the level of the learner. For advanced learners, it appears to make no, or little, difference (Al-Jabri, 2005, cited by Ellis & Shintani, 2014: 106). But, for the vast majority of English language learners (i.e. those at or below B2 level), the research is clear: the most effective way of organising vocabulary items to be learnt is by grouping them into thematic sets (2) or by mixing words together in a semantically unrelated way (3) – not by teaching sets like ‘personality adjectives’. It is surprising how surprising this finding is to so many teachers and materials writers. It goes back at least to 1988 and West’s article on ‘Catenizing’ in ELTJ, which argued that semantic grouping made little sense from a psycho-linguistic perspective. Since then, a large amount of research has taken place. This is succinctly summarised by Paul Nation (2013: 128) in the following terms: Avoid interference from related words. Words which are similar in form (Laufer, 1989) or meaning (Higa, 1963; Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993; Tinkham, 1997; Waring, 1997) are more difficult to learn together than they are to learn separately. For anyone who is interested, the most up-to-date review of this research that I can find is in chapter 11 of Barcroft (2105).

The message is clear. So clear that you have to wonder how it is not getting through to materials designers. Perhaps, coursebooks are different. They regularly eschew research findings for commercial reasons. But vocabulary apps? There is rarely, if ever, any pressure on the content-creation side of vocabulary apps (except those that are tied to coursebooks) to follow the popular misconceptions that characterise so many coursebooks. It wouldn’t be too hard to organise vocabulary into thematic sets (like, for example, the approach in the A2 level of Memrise German that I’m currently using). Is it simply because the developers of so many vocabulary apps just don’t know much about language learning?


Barcroft, J. 2015. Lexical Input Processing and Vocabulary Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Nation, I. S. P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ellis, R. & N. Shintani, N. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

West, M. 1988. ‘Catenizing’ English Language Teaching Journal 6: 147 – 151

Back in December 2013, in an interview with eltjam , David Liu, COO of the adaptive learning company, Knewton, described how his company’s data analysis could help ELT publishers ‘create more effective learning materials’. He focused on what he calls ‘content efficacy[i]’ (he uses the word ‘efficacy’ five times in the interview), a term which he explains below:

A good example is when we look at the knowledge graph of our partners, which is a map of how concepts relate to other concepts and prerequisites within their product. There may be two or three prerequisites identified in a knowledge graph that a student needs to learn in order to understand a next concept. And when we have hundreds of thousands of students progressing through a course, we begin to understand the efficacy of those said prerequisites, which quite frankly were made by an author or set of authors. In most cases they’re quite good because these authors are actually good in what they do. But in a lot of cases we may find that one of those prerequisites actually is not necessary, and not proven to be useful in achieving true learning or understanding of the current concept that you’re trying to learn. This is interesting information that can be brought back to the publisher as they do revisions, as they actually begin to look at the content as a whole.

One commenter on the post, Tom Ewens, found the idea interesting. It could, potentially, he wrote, give us new insights into how languages are learned much in the same way as how corpora have given us new insights into how language is used. Did Knewton have any plans to disseminate the information publicly, he asked. His question remains unanswered.

At the time, Knewton had just raised $51 million (bringing their total venture capital funding to over $105 million). Now, 16 months later, Knewton have launched their new product, which they are calling Knewton Content Insights. They describe it as the world’s first and only web-based engine to automatically extract statistics comparing the relative quality of content items — enabling us to infer more information about student proficiency and content performance than ever before possible.

The software analyses particular exercises within the learning content (and particular items within them). It measures the relative difficulty of individual items by, for example, analysing how often a question is answered incorrectly and how many tries it takes each student to answer correctly. It also looks at what they call ‘exhaustion’ – how much content students are using in a particular area – and whether they run out of content. The software can correlate difficulty with exhaustion. Lastly, it analyses what they call ‘assessment quality’ – how well  individual questions assess a student’s understanding of a topic.

Knewton’s approach is premised on the idea that learning (in this case language learning) can be broken down into knowledge graphs, in which the information that needs to be learned can be arranged and presented hierarchically. The ‘granular’ concepts are then ‘delivered’ to the learner, and Knewton’s software can optimise the delivery. The first problem, as I explored in a previous post, is that language is a messy, complex system: it doesn’t lend itself terribly well to granularisation. The second problem is that language learning does not proceed in a linear, hierarchical way: it is also messy and complex. The third is that ‘language learning content’ cannot simply be delivered: a process of mediation is unavoidable. Are the people at Knewton unaware of the extensive literature devoted to the differences between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, of the differences between product-oriented and process-oriented approaches? It would seem so.

Knewton’s ‘Content Insights’ can only, at best, provide some sort of insight into the ‘language knowledge’ part of any learning content. It can say nothing about the work that learners do to practise language skills, since these are not susceptible to granularisation: you simply can’t take a piece of material that focuses on reading or listening and analyse its ‘content efficacy at the concept level’. Because of this, I predicted (in the post about Knowledge Graphs) that the likely focus of Knewton’s analytics would be discrete item, sentence-level grammar (typically tenses). It turns out that I was right.

Knewton illustrate their new product with screen shots such as those below.















They give a specific example of the sort of questions their software can answer. It is: do students generally find the present simple tense easier to understand than the present perfect tense? Doh!

It may be the case that Knewton Content Insights might optimise the presentation of this kind of grammar, but optimisation of this presentation and practice is highly unlikely to have any impact on the rate of language acquisition. Students are typically required to study the present perfect at every level from ‘elementary’ upwards. They have to do this, not because the presentation in, say, Headway, is not optimised. What they need is to spend a significantly greater proportion of their time on ‘language use’ and less on ‘language knowledge’. This is not just my personal view: it has been extensively researched, and I am unaware of any dissenting voices.

The number-crunching in Knewton Content Insights is unlikely, therefore, to lead to any actionable insights. It is, however, very likely to lead (as writer colleagues at Pearson and other publishers are finding out) to an obsession with measuring the ‘efficacy’ of material which, quite simply, cannot meaningfully be measured in this way. It is likely to distract from much more pressing issues, notably the question of how we can move further and faster away from peddling sentence-level, discrete-item grammar.

In the long run, it is reasonable to predict that the attempt to optimise the delivery of language knowledge will come to be seen as an attempt to tackle the wrong question. It will make no significant difference to language learners and language learning. In the short term, how much time and money will be wasted?

[i] ‘Efficacy’ is the buzzword around which Pearson has built its materials creation strategy, a strategy which was launched around the same time as this interview. Pearson is a major investor in Knewton.