Posts Tagged ‘Cambridge English Language Assessment’

by Philip Kerr & Andrew Wickham

from IATEFL 2016 Birmingham Conference Selections (ed. Tania Pattison) Faversham, Kent: IATEFL pp. 75 – 78

ELT publishing, international language testing and private language schools are all industries: products are produced, bought and sold for profit. English language teaching (ELT) is not. It is an umbrella term that is used to describe a range of activities, some of which are industries, and some of which (such as English teaching in high schools around the world) might better be described as public services. ELT, like education more generally, is, nevertheless, often referred to as an ‘industry’.

Education in a neoliberal world

The framing of ELT as an industry is both a reflection of how we understand the term and a force that shapes our understanding. Associated with the idea of ‘industry’ is a constellation of other ideas and words (such as efficacy, productivity, privatization, marketization, consumerization, digitalization and globalization) which become a part of ELT once it is framed as an industry. Repeated often enough, ‘ELT as an industry’ can become a metaphor that we think and live by. Those activities that fall under the ELT umbrella, but which are not industries, become associated with the desirability of industrial practices through such discourse.

The shift from education, seen as a public service, to educational managerialism (where education is seen in industrial terms with a focus on efficiency, free market competition, privatization and a view of students as customers) can be traced to the 1980s and 1990s (Gewirtz, 2001). In 1999, under pressure from developed economies, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) transformed education into a commodity that could be traded like any other in the marketplace (Robertson, 2006). The global industrialisation and privatization of education continues to be promoted by transnational organisations (such as the World Bank and the OECD), well-funded free-market think-tanks (such as the Cato Institute), philanthro-capitalist foundations (such as the Gates Foundation) and educational businesses (such as Pearson) (Ball, 2012).

Efficacy and learning outcomes

Managerialist approaches to education require educational products and services to be measured and compared. In ELT, the most visible manifestation of this requirement is the current ubiquity of learning outcomes. Contemporary coursebooks are full of ‘can-do’ statements, although these are not necessarily of any value to anyone. Examples from one unit of one best-selling course include ‘Now I can understand advice people give about hotels’ and ‘Now I can read an article about unique hotels’ (McCarthy et al. 2014: 74). However, in a world where accountability is paramount, they are deemed indispensable. The problem from a pedagogical perspective is that teaching input does not necessarily equate with learning uptake. Indeed, there is no reason why it should.

Drawing on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for inspiration, new performance scales have emerged in recent years. These include the Cambridge English Scale and the Pearson Global Scale of English. Moving away from the broad six categories of the CEFR, such scales permit finer-grained measurement and we now see individual vocabulary and grammar items tagged to levels. Whilst such initiatives undoubtedly support measurements of efficacy, the problem from a pedagogical perspective is that they assume that language learning is linear and incremental, as opposed to complex and jagged.

Given the importance accorded to the measurement of language learning (or what might pass for language learning), it is unsurprising that attention is shifting towards the measurement of what is probably the most important factor impacting on learning: the teaching. Teacher competency scales have been developed by Cambridge Assessment, the British Council and EAQUALS (Evaluation and Accreditation of Quality Language Services), among others.

The backwash effects of the deployment of such scales are yet to be fully experienced, but the likely increase in the perception of both language learning and teacher learning as the synthesis of granularised ‘bits of knowledge’ is cause for concern.

Digital technology

Digital technology may offer advantages to both English language teachers and learners, but its rapid growth in language learning is the result, primarily but not exclusively, of the way it has been promoted by those who stand to gain financially. In education, generally, and in English language teaching, more specifically, advocacy of the privatization of education is always accompanied by advocacy of digitalization. The global market for digital English language learning products was reported to be $2.8 billion in 2015 and is predicted to reach $3.8 billion by 2020 (Ambient Insight, 2016).

In tandem with the increased interest in measuring learning outcomes, there is fierce competition in the market for high-stakes examinations, and these are increasingly digitally delivered and marked. In the face of this competition and in a climate of digital disruption, companies like Pearson and Cambridge English are developing business models of vertical integration where they can provide and sell everything from placement testing, to courseware (either print or delivered through an LMS), teaching, assessment and teacher training. Huge investments are being made in pursuit of such models. Pearson, for example, recently bought GlobalEnglish, Wall Street English, and set up a partnership with Busuu, thus covering all aspects of language learning from resources provision and publishing to off- and online training delivery.

As regards assessment, the most recent adult coursebook from Cambridge University Press (in collaboration with Cambridge English Language Assessment), ‘Empower’ (Doff, et. Al, 2015) sells itself on a combination of course material with integrated, validated assessment.

Besides its potential for scalability (and therefore greater profit margins), the appeal (to some) of platform-delivered English language instruction is that it facilitates assessment that is much finer-grained and actionable in real time. Digitization and testing go hand in hand.

Few English language teachers have been unaffected by the move towards digital. In the state sectors, large-scale digitization initiatives (such as the distribution of laptops for educational purposes, the installation of interactive whiteboards, the move towards blended models of instruction or the move away from printed coursebooks) are becoming commonplace. In the private sectors, online (or partially online) language schools are taking market share from the traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions.

These changes have entailed modifications to the skill-sets that teachers need to have. Two announcements at this conference reflect this shift. First of all, Cambridge English launched their ‘Digital Framework for Teachers’, a matrix of six broad competency areas organised into four levels of proficiency. Secondly, Aqueduto, the Association for Quality Education and Training Online, was launched, setting itself up as an accreditation body for online or blended teacher training courses.

Teachers’ pay and conditions

In the United States, and likely soon in the UK, the move towards privatization is accompanied by an overt attack on teachers’ unions, rights, pay and conditions (Selwyn, 2014). As English language teaching in both public and private sectors is commodified and marketized it is no surprise to find that the drive to bring down costs has a negative impact on teachers worldwide. Gwynt (2015), for example, catalogues cuts in funding, large-scale redundancies, a narrowing of the curriculum, intensified workloads (including the need to comply with ‘quality control measures’), the deskilling of teachers, dilapidated buildings, minimal resources and low morale in an ESOL department in one British further education college. In France, a large-scale study by Wickham, Cagnol, Wright and Oldmeadow (Linguaid, 2015; Wright, 2016) found that EFL teachers in the very competitive private sector typically had multiple employers, limited or no job security, limited sick pay and holiday pay, very little training and low hourly rates that were deteriorating. One of the principle drivers of the pressure on salaries is the rise of online training delivery through Skype and other online platforms, using offshore teachers in low-cost countries such as the Philippines. This type of training represents 15% in value and up to 25% in volume of all language training in the French corporate sector and is developing fast in emerging countries. These examples are illustrative of a broad global trend.

Implications

Given the current climate, teachers will benefit from closer networking with fellow professionals in order, not least, to be aware of the rapidly changing landscape. It is likely that they will need to develop and extend their skill sets (especially their online skills and visibility and their specialised knowledge), to differentiate themselves from competitors and to be able to demonstrate that they are in tune with current demands. More generally, it is important to recognise that current trends have yet to run their full course. Conditions for teachers are likely to deteriorate further before they improve. More than ever before, teachers who want to have any kind of influence on the way that marketization and industrialization are shaping their working lives will need to do so collectively.

References

Ambient Insight. 2016. The 2015-2020 Worldwide Digital English Language Learning Market. http://www.ambientinsight.com/Resources/Documents/AmbientInsight_2015-2020_Worldwide_Digital_English_Market_Sample.pdf

Ball, S. J. 2012. Global Education Inc. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Doff, A., Thaine, C., Puchta, H., Stranks, J. and P. Lewis-Jones 2015. Empower. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gewirtz, S. 2001. The Managerial School: Post-welfarism and Social Justice in Education. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Gwynt, W. 2015. ‘The effects of policy changes on ESOL’. Language Issues 26 / 2: 58 – 60

McCarthy, M., McCarten, J. and H. Sandiford 2014. Touchstone 2 Student’s Book Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Linguaid, 2015. Le Marché de la Formation Langues à l’Heure de la Mondialisation. Guildford: Linguaid

Robertson, S. L. 2006. ‘Globalisation, GATS and trading in education services.’ published by the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK at http://www.bris.ac.uk/education/people/academicStaff/edslr/publications/04slr

Selwyn, N. 2014. Distrusting Educational Technology. New York: Routledge

Wright, R. 2016. ‘My teacher is rich … or not!’ English Teaching Professional 103: 54 – 56

 

 

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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

There are a number of reasons why we sometimes need to describe a person’s language competence using a single number. Most of these are connected to the need for a shorthand to differentiate people, in summative testing or in job selection, for example. Numerical (or grade) allocation of this kind is so common (and especially in times when accountability is greatly valued) that it is easy to believe that this number is an objective description of a concrete entity, rather than a shorthand description of an abstract concept. In the process, the abstract concept (language competence) becomes reified and there is a tendency to stop thinking about what it actually is.

Language is messy. It’s a complex, adaptive system of communication which has a fundamentally social function. As Diane Larsen-Freeman and others have argued patterns of use strongly affect how language is acquired, is used, and changes. These processes are not independent of one another but are facets of the same complex adaptive system. […] The system consists of multiple agents (the speakers in the speech community) interacting with one another [and] the structures of language emerge from interrelated patterns of experience, social interaction, and cognitive mechanisms.

As such, competence in language use is difficult to measure. There are ways of capturing some of it. Think of the pages and pages of competency statements in the Common European Framework, but there has always been something deeply unsatisfactory about documents of this kind. How, for example, are we supposed to differentiate, exactly and objectively, between, say, can participate fully in an interview (C1) and can carry out an effective, fluent interview (B2)? The short answer is that we can’t. There are too many of these descriptors anyway and, even if we did attempt to use such a detailed tool to describe language competence, we would still be left with a very incomplete picture. There is at least one whole book devoted to attempts to test the untestable in language education (edited by Amos Paran and Lies Sercu, Multilingual Matters, 2010).

So, here is another reason why we are tempted to use shorthand numerical descriptors (such as A1, A2, B1, etc.) to describe something which is very complex and abstract (‘overall language competence’) and to reify this abstraction in the process. From there, it is a very short step to making things even more numerical, more scientific-sounding. Number-creep in recent years has brought us the Pearson Global Scale of English which can place you at a precise point on a scale from 10 to 90. Not to be outdone, Cambridge English Language Assessment now has a scale that runs from 80 points to 230, although Cambridge does, at least, allocate individual scores for four language skills.

As the title of this post suggests (in its reference to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man), I am suggesting that there are parallels between attempts to measure language competence and the sad history of attempts to measure ‘general intelligence’. Both are guilty of the twin fallacies of reification and ranking – the ordering of complex information as a gradual ascending scale. These conceptual fallacies then lead us, through the way that they push us to think about language, into making further conceptual errors about language learning. We start to confuse language testing with the ways that language learning can be structured.

We begin to granularise language. We move inexorably away from difficult-to-measure hazy notions of language skills towards what, on the surface at least, seem more readily measurable entities: words and structures. We allocate to them numerical values on our testing scales, so that an individual word can be deemed to be higher or lower on the scale than another word. And then we have a syllabus, a synthetic syllabus, that lends itself to digital delivery and adaptive manipulation. We find ourselves in a situation where materials writers for Pearson, writing for a particular ‘level’, are only allowed to use vocabulary items and grammatical structures that correspond to that ‘level’. We find ourselves, in short, in a situation where the acquisition of a complex and messy system is described as a linear, additive process. Here’s an example from the Pearson website: If you score 29 on the scale, you should be able to identify and order common food and drink from a menu; at 62, you should be able to write a structured review of a film, book or play. And because the GSE is so granular in nature, you can conquer smaller steps more often; and you are more likely to stay motivated as you work towards your goal. It’s a nonsense, a nonsense that is dictated by the needs of testing and adaptive software, but the sciency-sounding numbers help to hide the conceptual fallacies that lie beneath.

Perhaps, though, this doesn’t matter too much for most language learners. In the early stages of language learning (where most language learners are to be found), there are countless millions of people who don’t seem to mind the granularised programmes of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, or the Grammar McNuggets of coursebooks. In these early stages, anything seems to be better than nothing, and the testing is relatively low-stakes. But as a learner’s interlanguage becomes more complex, and as the language she needs to acquire becomes more complex, attempts to granularise it and to present it in a linearly additive way become more problematic. It is for this reason, I suspect, that the appeal of granularised syllabuses declines so rapidly the more progress a learner makes. It comes as no surprise that, the further up the scale you get, the more that both teachers and learners want to get away from pre-determined syllabuses in coursebooks and software.

Adaptive language learning software is continuing to gain traction in the early stages of learning, in the initial acquisition of basic vocabulary and structures and in coming to grips with a new phonological system. It will almost certainly gain even more. But the challenge for the developers and publishers will be to find ways of making adaptive learning work for more advanced learners. Can it be done? Or will the mismeasure of language make it impossible?