Posts Tagged ‘coursebooks’

‘Pre-teaching’ (of vocabulary) is a widely-used piece of language teaching jargon, but it’s a strange expression. The ‘pre’ indicates that it’s something that comes before something else that is more important, what Chia Suan Chong calls ‘the main event’, which is usually some reading or listening work. The basic idea, it seems, is to lessen the vocabulary load of the subsequent activity. If the focus on vocabulary were the ‘main event’, we might refer to the next activity as ‘post-reading’ or ‘post-listening’ … but we never do.

The term is used in standard training manuals by both Jim Scrivener (2005: 230 – 233) and Jeremy Harmer (2012: 137) and, with a few caveats, the practice is recommended. Now read this from the ELT Nile Glossary:

For many years teachers were recommended to pre-teach vocabulary before working on texts. Nowadays though, some question this, suggesting that the contexts that teachers are able to set up for pre-teaching are rarely meaningful and that pre-teaching in fact prevents learners from developing the attack strategies they need for dealing with challenging texts.

Chia is one of those doing this questioning. She suggests that ‘we cut out pre-teaching altogether and go straight for the main event. After all, if it’s a receptive skills lesson, then shouldn’t the focus be on reading/listening skills and strategies? And most importantly, pre-teaching prevents learners’ from developing a tolerance of ambiguity – a skill that is vital in language learning.’ Scott Thornbury is another who has expressed doubts about the value of PTV, although he is more circumspect in his opinions. He has argued that working out the meaning of vocabulary from context is probably a better approach and that PTV inadequately prepares learners for the real world. If we have to pre-teach, he argues, get it out of the way ‘as quickly and efficiently as possible’ … or ‘try post-teaching instead’.

Both Chia and Scott touch on the alternatives, and guessing the meaning of unknown words from context is one of them. I’ve discussed this area in an earlier post. Not wanting to rehash the content of that post here, the simple summary is this: it’s complicated. We cannot, with any degree of certainty, say that guessing meaning from context leads to more gains in either reading / listening comprehension or vocabulary development than PTV or one of the other alternatives – encouraging / allowing monolingual or bilingual dictionary look up (see this post on the topic), providing a glossary (see this post) or doing post-text vocabulary work.

In attempting to move towards a better understanding, the first problem is that there is very little research into the relationship between PTV and improved reading / listening comprehension. What there is (e.g. Webb, 2009) suggests that pre-teaching can improve comprehension and speed up reading, but there are other things that a teacher can do (e.g. previous presentation of comprehension questions or the provision of pictorial support) that appear to lead to more gains in these areas (Pellicer-Sánchez et al., 2021). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. There is even less research looking at the relationship between PTV and vocabulary development. What there is (Pellicer-Sánchez et al., 2021) suggests that pre-teaching leads to more vocabulary gains than when learners read without any support. But the reading-only condition is unlikely in most real-world learning contexts, where there is a teacher, dictionary or classmate who can be turned to. A more interesting contrast is perhaps between PTV and during-reading vocabulary instruction, which is a common approach in many classrooms. One study (File & Adams, 2010) looked at precisely this area and found little difference between the approaches in terms of vocabulary gains. The limited research does not provide us with any compelling reasons either for or against PTV.

Another problem is, as usual, that the research findings often imply more than was actually demonstrated. The abstract for the study by Pellicer-Sánchez et al (2021) states that pre‐reading instruction led to more vocabulary learning. But this needs to be considered in the light of the experimental details.

The study involved 87 L2 undergraduates and postgraduates studying at a British university. Their level of English was therefore very high, and we can’t really generalise to other learners at other levels in other conditions. The text that they read contained a number of pseudo-words and was 2,290 words long. The text itself, a narrative, was of no intrinsic interest, so the students reading it would treat it as an object of study and they would notice the pseudo-words, because their level of English was already high, and because they knew that the focus of the research was on ‘new words’. In other words, the students’ behaviour was probably not at all typical of a student in a ‘normal’ classroom. In addition, the pseudo-words were all Anglo-Saxon looking, and not therefore representative of the kinds of unknown items that students would encounter in authentic (or even pedagogical) texts (which would have a high proportion of words with Latin roots). I’m afraid I don’t think that the study tells us anything of value.

Perhaps research into an area like this, with so many variables that need to be controlled, is unlikely ever to provide teachers with clear answers to what appears to be a simple question: is PTV a good idea or not? However, I think we can get closer to something resembling useful advice if we take another tack. For this, I think two additional questions need to be asked. First, what is the intended main learning opportunity (note that I avoid the term ‘learning outcome’!) of the ‘main event’ – the reading or listening. Second, following on from the first question, what is the point of PTV, i.e. in what ways might it contribute to enriching the learning opportunities of the ‘main event’?

To answer the first question, I think it is useful to go back to a distinction made almost forty years ago in a paper by Tim Johns and Florence Davies (1983). They contrasted the Text as a Linguistic Object (TALO) with the Text as a Vehicle for Information (TAVI). The former (TALO) is something that language students study to learn language from in a direct way. It has typically been written or chosen to illustrate and to contextualise bits of grammar, and to provide opportunities for lexical ‘quarrying’. The latter (TAVI) is a text with intrinsic interest, read for information or pleasure, and therefore more appropriately selected by the learner, rather than the teacher. For an interesting discussion on TALO and TAVI, see this 2015 post from Geoff Jordan.

Johns and Davies wrote their article in pre-Headway days when texts in almost all coursebooks were unashamedly TALOs, and when what were called top-down reading skills (reading for gist / detail, etc.) were only just beginning to find their way into language teaching materials. TAVIs were separate, graded readers, for example. In some parts of the world, TALOs and TAVIs are still separate, often with one teacher dealing with the teaching of discrete items of language through TALOs, and another responsible for ‘skills development’ through TAVIs. But, increasingly, under the influence of British publishers and methodologists, attempts have been made to combine TALOs and TAVIs in a single package. The syllabus of most contemporary coursebooks, fundamentally driven by a discrete-item grammar plus vocabulary approach, also offer a ‘skills’ strand which requires texts to be intrinsically interesting, meaningful and relevant to today’s 21st century learners. The texts are required to carry out two functions.

Recent years have seen an increasingly widespread questioning of this approach. Does the exploitation of reading and listening texts in coursebooks (mostly through comprehension questions) actually lead to gains in reading and listening skills? Is there anything more than testing of comprehension going on? Or do they simply provide practice in strategic approaches to reading / listening, strategies which could probably be transferred from L1? As a result of the work of scholars like William Grabe (reading) and John Field and Richard Cauldwell (listening), there is now little, if any, debate in the world of research about these questions. If we want to develop the reading / listening skills of our students, the approach of most coursebooks is not the way to go about it. For a start, the reading texts are usually too short and the listening texts too long.

Most texts that are found in most contemporary coursebooks are TALOs dressed up to look like TAVIs. Their fundamental purpose is to illustrate and contextualise language that has either been pre-taught or will be explored later. They are first and foremost vehicles for language, and only secondarily vehicles for information. They are written and presented in as interesting a way as possible in order to motivate learners to engage with the TALO. Sometimes, they succeed.

However, there are occasions (even in coursebooks) when texts are TAVIs – used for purely ‘skills’ purposes, language use as opposed to language study. Typically, they (reading or listening texts) are used as springboards for speaking and / or writing practice that follows. It’s the information in the text that matters most.

So, where does all this take us with PTV? Here is my attempt at a break-down of advice.

1 TALOs where the text contains a set of new lexical items which are a core focus of the lesson

If the text is basically a contextualized illustration of a set of lexical items (and, usually, a particular grammatical structure), there is a strong case for PTV. This is, of course, assuming that these items are of sufficiently high frequency to be suitable candidates for direct vocabulary instruction. If this is so, there is also a strong case to be made for the PTV to be what has been called ‘rich instruction’, which ‘involves (1) spending time on the word; (2) explicitly exploring several aspects of what is involved in knowing a word; and (3) involving learners in thoughtfully and actively processing the word’ (Nation, 2013: 117). In instances like this, PTV is something of a misnomer. It’s just plain teaching, and is likely to need as much, or more, time than exploration of the text (which may be viewed as further practice of / exposure to the lexis).

If the text is primarily intended as lexical input, there is also a good case to be made for making the target items it contains more salient by, for example, highlighting them or putting them in bold (Choi, 2017). At the same time, if ‘PTV’ is to lead to lexical gains, these are likely to be augmented by post-reading tasks which also focus explicitly on the target items (Sonbul & Schmitt, 2010).

2 TALOs which contain a set of lexical items that are necessary for comprehension of the text, but not a core focus of the lesson (e.g. because they are low-frequency)

PTV is often time-consuming, and necessarily so if the instruction is rich. If it is largely restricted to matching items to meanings (e.g. through translation), it is likely to have little impact on vocabulary development, and its short-term impact on comprehension appears to be limited. Research suggests that the use of a glossary is more efficient, since learners will only refer to it when they need to (whereas PTV is likely to devote some time to some items that are known to some learners, and this takes place before the knowledge is required … and may therefore be forgotten in the interim). Glossaries lead to better comprehension (Alessi & Dwyer, 2008).

3 TAVIs

I don’t have any principled objection to the occasional use of texts as TALOs, but it seems fairly clear that a healthy textual diet for language learners will contain substantially more TAVIs than TALOs, substantially more extensive reading than intensive reading of the kind found in most coursebooks. If we focused less often on direct instruction of grammar (a change of emphasis which is long overdue), there would be less need for TALOs, anyway. With TAVIs, there seems to be no good reason for PTV: glossaries or digital dictionary look-up will do just fine.

However, one alternative justification and use of PTV is offered by Scott Thornbury. He suggests identifying a relatively small number of keywords from a text that will be needed for global understanding. Some of them may be unknown to the learners, and for these, learners use dictionaries to check meaning. Then, looking at the list of key words learners predict what the text will be about. The rationale here is that if learners engage with these words before encountering them in the text, it ‘may be an effective way of activating a learner’s schema for the text, and this may help to support comprehension’ (Ballance, 2018). However, as Ballance notes, describing this kind of activity as PTV would be something of a misnomer: it is a useful addition to a teacher’s repertoire of schema-activation activities (which might be used with both TAVIs and TALOs).

In short …

The big question about PTV, then, is not one of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s about the point of the activity. Balance (2018) offers a good summary:

‘In sum, for teachers to use PTV effectively, it is essential that they clearly identify a rationale for including PTV within a lesson, select the words to be taught in conjunction with this rationale and also design the vocabulary learning or development exercise in a manner that is commensurate with this rationale. The rationale should be the determining factor in the design of a PTV component within a lesson, and different rationales for using PTV naturally lead to markedly different selections of vocabulary items to be studied and different exercise designs.’

REFERENCES

Alessi, S. & Dwyer, A. (2008). Vocabulary assistance before and during reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20 (2): pp. 246 – 263

Ballance, O. J. (2018). Strategies for pre-teaching vocabulary in context. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (pp. 1-7). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0732

Choi, S. (2017). Processing and learning of enhanced English collocations: An eye movement study. Language Teaching Research, 21, 403–426. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168816653271

File, K. A. & Adams, R. (2010). Should vocabulary instruction be integrated or isolated? TESOL Quarterly, 24, 222–249.

Harmer, J. (2012). Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson

Johns, T. & Davies, F. (1983). Text as a vehicle for information: the classroom use of written texts in teaching reading in a foreign language. Reading in a Foreign Language, 1 (1): pp. 1 – 19

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

Pellicer-Sánchez, A., Conklin, K. & Vilkaitė-Lozdienė, L. (2021). The effect of pre-reading instruction on vocabulary learning: An investigation of L1 and L2 readers’ eye movements. Language Learning, 0 (0), 0-0. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/lang.12430

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching 2nd Edition. Oxford: Macmillan

Sonbul, S. & Schmitt, N. (2010). Direct teaching of vocabulary after reading: is it worth the effort? ELT Journal 64 (3): pp.253 – 260

Webb, S. (2009). The effects of pre‐learning vocabulary on reading comprehension and writing. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 65 (3): pp. 441–470.

Google search resultsUnconditional calls for language teachers to incorporate digital technology into their teaching are common. The reasons that are given are many and typically include the fact that (1) our students are ‘digital natives’ and expect technology to be integrated into their learning, (2) and digital technology is ubiquitous and has so many affordances for learning. Writing on the topic is almost invariably enthusiastic and the general conclusion is that the integration of technology is necessary and essential. Here’s a fairly typical example: digital technology is ‘an essential multisensory extension to the textbook’ (Torben Schmidt and Thomas Strasser in Surkamp & Viebrock, 2018: 221).

 

Teachers who are reluctant or fail to embrace technology are often ‘characterised as technophobic, or too traditional in their teaching style, or reluctant to adopt change’ (Watson, 2001: 253). (It’s those pesky teachers again.)

Claims for the importance of digital technology are often backed up by vague references to research. Michael Carrier, for example, in his introductory chapter to ‘Digital Language Learning and Teaching’ (Carrier et al. 2017: 3) writes that ‘research results […] seem to show conclusively that the use of educational technology adds certain degrees of richness to the learning and teaching process […] at the very least, digital learning seems to provide enhanced motivation for learners’.

Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Neither in language learning / teaching, nor in education more generally, is there any clear evidence of the necessary benefits of introducing educational technology. In the broader context, the ‘PISA analysis of the impact of Information Communication Technology (ICT) on reading, mathematics, and science (OECD, 2015: 3) in countries heavily invested in educational technology showed mixed effects and “no appreciable improvements”’ (Herodotou et al., 2019). Educational technology can or might  ‘add certain degrees of richness’ or ‘provide enhanced motivation’, but that is not the same as saying that it does or will. The shift from can to will, a piece of modal legerdemain used to advocate for educational technology, is neatly illustrated in a quote from the MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, whose remit is to improve learning and teaching across the university via digital learning: ‘Digital Learning technologies can enable students to grasp concepts more quickly [etc….] Digital technologies will enable this in new and better ways and create possibilities beyond the limits of our current imagination’ (quoted by Carrier, 2017: 1).

Before moving on, here’s another example. The introduction to Li Li’s ‘New Technologies and Language Learning’ (Li, 2017: x) states, with a cautious can, that one of the objectives of the book is ‘to provide examples of how technologies can be used in assisting language education’. In the next paragraph, however, caution is thrown to the wind and we are told, unequivocally, that ‘technology is beneficial for language learning’.

Pedagogy before technology

Examples of gratuitous technology use are not hard to find. Mark Warschauer (who, as the founding director of the Digital Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, could be fairly described as an edtech enthusiast) describes one example: ‘I remember observing a beginners’ French class a number of years ago, the teacher bragged about how engaged the learners were in creating multimedia in French. However, the students were spending most of their time and energy talking with each other in English about how to make PowerPoints, when, as beginning learners, they really needed to be spending time hearing as much French as possible’ (quoted in the Guardian, May 2014).

As a result, no doubt, of having similar experiences, it seems that many people are becoming a little more circumspect in their enthusiasm for edtech. In the same Guardian article as Warschauer’s recollections, Russell Stannard ‘says the trick is to put the pedagogy first, not the technology. “You’ve got to know why you’re using it. Teachers do need to learn to use new technology, but the driving force should always be the pedagogy behind it’. Nicky Hockly, Gavin Dudeney and Mark Pegrum (Hockly et al., 2013: 45) concur: ‘Content and pedagogy come before technology. We must decide on our content and pedagogical aims before determining whether our students should use pens or keyboards, write essays or blogs, or design posters or videos’. And Graham Stanley (2013: 1) in the introduction to his ‘Language Learning With Technology’ states that his ‘book makes a point of putting pedagogy at the forefront of the lesson, which is why content has been organised around specific learning content goals rather than specific technologies’.

But, Axel Krommer, of the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, has argued that the principle of ‘pedagogy before technology’ is ‘trivial at best’. In a piece for the Goethe Institute he writes ‘a theory with which everyone agrees and whose opposite no-one believes true is meaningless’, although he adds that it may be useful as ‘an admonitory wake-up call when educational institutions risk being blinded by technological possibilities that cause them to neglect pedagogical principles that should really be taken for granted’. It was this piece that set me thinking more about ‘pedagogy before technology’.

Pedagogy before technology (on condition that there is technology)

Another person to lament the placing of technology before pedagogy is Nik Peachey. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, entitled ‘Technology can sometimes be wasted on English language teaching’, he complains about how teachers are left to sort out how to use technology ‘in a pedagogically effective way, often with very little training or support’. He appears to take it as given that technology is a positive force, and argues that it shouldn’t be wasted. The issue, he says, is that better teacher training is needed so that teachers’ ‘digital literacies’ are improved and to ensure that technological potential is fulfilled.

His position, therefore, cannot really be said to be one of ‘pedagogy before technology’. Like the other writers mentioned above, he comes to the pedagogy through and after an interest in the technology. The educational use of digital technology per se is never seriously questioned. The same holds true for almost the entirety of the world of CALL research.

confer

A Canadian conference ‘Pedagogy b4 Technology’ illustrates my point beautifully.

There are occasional exceptions. A recent example which I found interesting was an article by Herodotou et al (2019), in which the authors take as their starting point a set of OECD educational goals (quality of life, including health, civic engagement, social connections, education, security, life satisfaction and the environment), and then investigate the extent to which a variety of learning approaches (formative analytics, teachback, place-based learning, learning with robots, learning with drones, citizen inquiry) – not all of which involve technology – might contribute to the realisation of these goals.

Technology before pedagogy as policy

Some of the high school English teachers I work with have to use tablets in one lesson a week. Some welcome it, some accept it (they can catch up with other duties while the kids are busy with exercises on the tablet), others just roll their eyes at the mention of this policy. In the same school system, English language learning materials can only be bought if they come in digital versions (even if it is the paper versions that are actually used). The digital versions are mostly used for projecting pages onto the IWBs. Meanwhile, budgets and the time available for in-service training have been cut.

Elsewhere, a chain of universities decides that a certain proportion of all courses must be taught online. English language courses, being less prestigious than major subjects, are one of the first to be migrated to platforms. The staff, few of whom have tenure or time to spare, cope as best as they can, with some support from a department head. Training is provided in the mechanics of operating the platform, and, hopefully before too long, more training will become available to optimize the use of the platform for pedagogical purposes. An adequate budget has yet to be agreed.

The reasons why so many educational authorities introduce such policies are, at best, only superficially related to pedagogy. There is a belief, widely held, that technology cannot fail to make things better. In the words of Tony Blair: ‘Technology has revolutionised the way we work and is now set to transform education. Children cannot be effective in tomorrow’s world if they are trained in yesterday’s skills’. But there is also the potential of education technology to scale education up (i.e. increase student numbers), to reduce long-term costs, to facilitate accountability, to increase productivity, to restrict the power of teachers (and their unions), and so on.

In such circumstances, which are not uncommon, it seems to me that there are more pressing things to worry about than teachers who are not sufficiently thinking about the pedagogical uses to which they put the technology that they have to use. Working conditions, pay and hours, are all affected by the digitalisation of education. These things do get talked about (see, for example, Walsh, 2019), but only rarely.

Technology as pedagogy

Blended learning, described by Pete Sharma in 2010 as a ‘buzz word’ in ELT, remains a popular pedagogical approach. In a recent article (2019), he enthuses about the possibilities of blended learning, suggesting that teachers should use it all the time: ‘teaching in this new digital age should use the technologies which students meet in their everyday lives, such as the Internet, laptop, smartphone and tablet’. It’s also, he claims, time-efficient, but other pedagogical justifications are scant: ‘some language areas are really suited to be studied outside the classroom. Extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes, for instance’.

Blended learning and digital technology are inseparable. Hockley (2018) explains the spread of blended learning in ELT as being driven primarily by ‘the twin drivers of economics (i.e. lower costs) and increasingly accessible and affordable hardware and software’. It might be nice to believe that ‘it is pedagogy, rather than technology, that should underpin the design of blended learning programmes’ (McCarthy, 2016, back cover), but the technology is the pedagogy here. Precisely how it is used is almost inevitably an afterthought.

Which pedagogy, anyway?

We can talk about putting pedagogy before technology, but this raises the question of which particular pedagogy we want to put in the driving seat. Presumably not all pedagogies are of equal value.

One of the most common uses of digital technology that has been designed specifically for language learning is the IWB- or platform-delivered coursebook and its accompanying digital workbook. We know that a majority of teachers using online coursebook packages direct their students more readily to tasks with clear right / wrong answers (e.g. drag-and-drop or gap-fill grammar exercises) than they do to the forum facilities where communicative language use is possible. Here, technology is merely replicating and, perhaps (because of its ease of use), encouraging established pedagogical practices. The pedagogy precedes the technology, but it’s probably not the best pedagogy in the world. Nor does it make best use of the technology’s potential. Would the affordances of the technology make a better starting point for course design?

Graham Stanley’s book (2013) offers suggestions for using technology for a variety of purposes, ranging from deliberate practice of grammar and vocabulary to ways of facilitating opportunities for skills practice. It’s an eclectic mix, similar to the range of activities on offer in the average coursebook for adults or teenagers. It is pedagogy-neutral in the sense that it does not offer a set of principles of language learning or teaching, and from these derive a set of practices for using the technology. It is a recipe book for using technological tools and, like all recipe books, prioritises activities over principles. I like the book and I don’t intend these comments as criticism. My point is simply that it’s not easy to take pedagogical principles as a starting point. Does the world of ELT even have generally agreed pedagogical principles?

And what is it that we’re teaching?

One final thought … If we consider how learners are likely to be using the English they are learning in their real-world futures, technology will not be far away: reading online, listening to / watching online material, writing and speaking with messaging apps, writing with text, email or Google Docs … If, in designing pedagogical approaches, we wish to include features of authentic language use, it’s hard to see how we can avoid placing technology fairly near the centre of the stage. Technologically-mediated language use is inseparable from pedagogy: one does not precede the other.

Similarly, if we believe that it is part of the English teacher’s job to develop the digital literacy (e.g. Hockly et al., 2013), visual literacy (e.g. Donaghy, 2015) or multimodal literacy of their students – not, incidentally, a belief that I share – then, again, technology cannot be separated from pedagogy.

Pedagogy before technology, OK??

So, I ask myself what precisely it is that people mean when they say that pedagogy should come before technology. The locutionary force, or referential meaning, usually remains unclear: in the absence of a particular pedagogy and particular contexts, what exactly is being said? The illocutionary force, likewise, is difficult to understand in the absence of a particular addressee: is the message only intended for teachers suffering from Everest Syndrome? And the perlocutionary force is equally intriguing: how are people who make the statement positioning themselves, and in relation to which addressee? Along the lines of green-washing and woke-washing, are we sometimes seeing cases of pedagogy-washing?

REFERENCES

Carrier, M., Damerow, R. M. & Bailey, K. M. (2017) Digital Language Learning and Teaching: Research, theory, and practice. New York: Routledge

Donaghy, K. (2015) Film in Action. Peaslake, Surrey: DELTA Publishing

Herodotou, C., Sharples, M., Gaved, M., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E. & Whitelock, D. (2019) Innovative Pedagogies of the Future: An Evidence-Based Selection. Frontiers in Education, 4 (113)

Hockly, N. (2018) Blended Learning. ELT Journal 72 (1): pp. 97 – 101

Hockly, N., Dudeney, G. & Pegrum, M. (2013) Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson

Li, L. (2017) New Technologies and Language Learning. London: Palgrave

McCarthy, M. (Ed.) (2016) The Cambridge Guide to Blended Learning for Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

OECD (2015) Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA. Paris: OECD Publishing

Sharma, P. (2010) Blended Learning. ELT Journal, 64 (4): pp. 456 – 458

Sharma, P. (2019) The Complete Guide to Running a Blended Learning Course. Oxford University Press English Language Teaching Global Blog 17 October 2019. Available at: https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2019/10/17/complete-guidagogyde-blended-learning/

Stanley, G. (2013) Language Learning with Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Surkamp, C. & Viebrock, B. (Eds.) (2018) Teaching English as a Foreign Language: An Introduction. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler

Walsh, P. (2019) Precarity. ELT Journal, 73 (4): pp. 459–462

Watson, D. M. (2001) Pedagogy before Technology: Re-thinking the Relationship between ICT and Teaching. Education and Information Technologies 6:4: pp.251–26

The use of big data and analytics in education continues to grow.

A vast apparatus of measurement is being developed to underpin national education systems, institutions and the actions of the individuals who occupy them. […] The presence of digital data and software in education is being amplified through massive financial and political investment in educational technologies, as well as huge growth in data collection and analysis in policymaking practices, extension of performance measurement technologies in the management of educational institutions, and rapid expansion of digital methodologies in educational research. To a significant extent, many of the ways in which classrooms function, educational policy departments and leaders make decisions, and researchers make sense of data, simply would not happen as currently intended without the presence of software code and the digital data processing programs it enacts. (Williamson, 2017: 4)

The most common and successful use of this technology so far has been in the identification of students at risk of dropping out of their courses (Jørno & Gynther, 2018: 204). The kind of analytics used in this context may be called ‘academic analytics’ and focuses on educational processes at the institutional level or higher (Gelan et al, 2018: 3). However, ‘learning analytics’, the capture and analysis of learner and learning data in order to personalize learning ‘(1) through real-time feedback on online courses and e-textbooks that can ‘learn’ from how they are used and ‘talk back’ to the teacher, and (2) individualization and personalization of the educational experience through adaptive learning systems that enable materials to be tailored to each student’s individual needs through automated real-time analysis’ (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2014) has become ‘the main keyword of data-driven education’ (Williamson, 2017: 10). See my earlier posts on this topic here and here and here.

Learning with big dataNear the start of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s enthusiastic sales pitch (Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education) for the use of big data in education, there is a discussion of Duolingo. They quote Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo, as saying ‘there has been little empirical work on what is the best way to teach a foreign language’. This is so far from the truth as to be laughable. Von Ahn’s comment, along with the Duolingo product itself, is merely indicative of a lack of awareness of the enormous amount of research that has been carried out. But what could the data gleaned from the interactions of millions of users with Duolingo tell us of value? The example that is given is the following. Apparently, ‘in the case of Spanish speakers learning English, it’s common to teach pronouns early on: words like “he,” “she,” and “it”.’ But, Duolingo discovered, ‘the term “it” tends to confuse and create anxiety for Spanish speakers, since the word doesn’t easily translate into their language […] Delaying the introduction of “it” until a few weeks later dramatically improves the number of people who stick with learning English rather than drop out.’ Was von Ahn unaware of the decades of research into language transfer effects? Did von Ahn (who grew up speaking Spanish in Guatemala) need all this data to tell him that English personal pronouns can cause problems for Spanish learners of English? Was von Ahn unaware of the debates concerning the value of teaching isolated words (especially grammar words!)?

The area where little empirical research has been done is not in different ways of learning another language: it is in the use of big data and learning analytics to assist language learning. Claims about the value of these technologies in language learning are almost always speculative – they are based on comparison to other school subjects (especially, mathematics). Gelan et al (2018: 2), who note this lack of research, suggest that ‘understanding language learner behaviour could provide valuable insights into task design for instructors and materials designers, as well as help students with effective learning strategies and personalised learning pathways’ (my italics). Reinders (2018: 81) writes ‘that analysis of prior experiences with certain groups or certain courses may help to identify key moments at which students need to receive more or different support. Analysis of student engagement and performance throughout a course may help with early identification of learning problems and may prompt early intervention’ (italics added). But there is some research out there, and it’s worth having a look at. Most studies that have collected learner-tracking data concern glossary use for reading comprehension and vocabulary retention (Gelan et al, 2018: 5), but a few have attempted to go further in scope.

Volk et al (2015) looked at the behaviour of the 20,000 students per day using the platform which accompanies ‘More!’ (Gerngross et al. 2008) to do their English homework for Austrian lower secondary schools. They discovered that

  • the exercises used least frequently were those that are located further back in the course book
  • usage is highest from Monday to Wednesday, declining from Thursday, with a rise again on Sunday
  • most interaction took place between 3:00 and 5:00 pm.
  • repetition of exercises led to a strong improvement in success rate
  • students performed better on multiple choice and matching exercises than they did where they had to produce some language

The authors of this paper conclude by saying that ‘the results of this study suggest a number of new avenues for research. In general, the authors plan to extend their analysis of exercise results and applied exercises to the population of all schools using the online learning platform more-online.at. This step enables a deeper insight into student’s learning behaviour and allows making more generalizing statements.’ When I shared these research findings with the Austrian lower secondary teachers that I work with, their reaction was one of utter disbelief. People get paid to do this research? Why not just ask us?

More useful, more actionable insights may yet come from other sources. For example, Gu Yueguo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Beijing Foreign Studies University has announced the intention to set up a national Big Data research center, specializing in big data-related research topics in foreign language education (Yu, 2015). Meanwhile, I’m aware of only one big research project that has published its results. The EC Erasmus+ VITAL project (Visualisation Tools and Analytics to monitor Online Language Learning & Teaching) was carried out between 2015 and 2017 and looked at the learning trails of students from universities in Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands. It was discovered (Gelan et al, 2015) that:

  • students who did online exercises when they were supposed to do them were slightly more successful than those who were late carrying out the tasks
  • successful students logged on more often, spent more time online, attempted and completed more tasks, revisited both exercises and theory pages more frequently, did the work in the order in which it was supposed to be done and did more work in the holidays
  • most students preferred to go straight into the assessed exercises and only used the theory pages when they felt they needed to; successful students referred back to the theory pages more often than unsuccessful students
  • students made little use of the voice recording functionality
  • most online activity took place the day before a class and the day of the class itself

EU funding for this VITAL project amounted to 274,840 Euros[1]. The technology for capturing the data has been around for a long time. In my opinion, nothing of value, or at least nothing new, has been learnt. Publishers like Pearson and Cambridge University Press who have large numbers of learners using their platforms have been capturing learning data for many years. They do not publish their findings and, intriguingly, do not even claim that they have learnt anything useful / actionable from the data they have collected. Sure, an exercise here or there may need to be amended. Both teachers and students may need more support in using the more open-ended functionalities of the platforms (e.g. discussion forums). But are they getting ‘unprecedented insights into what works and what doesn’t’ (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2014)? Are they any closer to building better pedagogies? On the basis of what we know so far, you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

It may be the case that all the learning / learner data that is captured could be used in some way that has nothing to do with language learning. Show me a language-learning app developer who does not dream of monetizing the ‘behavioural surplus’ (Zuboff, 2018) that they collect! But, for the data and analytics to be of any value in guiding language learning, it must lead to actionable insights. Unfortunately, as Jørno & Gynther (2018: 198) point out, there is very little clarity about what is meant by ‘actionable insights’. There is a danger that data and analytics ‘simply gravitates towards insights that confirm longstanding good practice and insights, such as “students tend to ignore optional learning activities … [and] focus on activities that are assessed” (Jørno & Gynther, 2018: 211). While this is happening, the focus on data inevitably shapes the way we look at the object of study (i.e. language learning), ‘thereby systematically excluding other perspectives’ (Mau, 2019: 15; see also Beer, 2019). The belief that tech is always the solution, that all we need is more data and better analytics, remains very powerful: it’s called techno-chauvinism (Broussard, 2018: 7-8).

References

Beer, D. 2019. The Data Gaze. London: Sage

Broussard, M. 2018. Artificial Unintelligence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Gelan, A., Fastre, G., Verjans, M., Martin, N., Jansenswillen, G., Creemers, M., Lieben, J., Depaire, B. & Thomas, M. 2018. ‘Affordances and limitations of learning analytics for computer­assisted language learning: a case study of the VITAL project’. Computer Assisted Language Learning. pp. 1­26. http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/21289/

Gerngross, G., Puchta, H., Holzmann, C., Stranks, J., Lewis-Jones, P. & Finnie, R. 2008. More! 1 Cyber Homework. Innsbruck, Austria: Helbling

Jørno, R. L. & Gynther, K. 2018. ‘What Constitutes an “Actionable Insight” in Learning Analytics?’ Journal of Learning Analytics 5 (3): 198 – 221

Mau, S. 2019. The Metric Society. Cambridge: Polity Press

Mayer-Schönberger, V. & Cukier, K. 2014. Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reinders, H. 2018. ‘Learning analytics for language learning and teaching’. JALT CALL Journal 14 / 1: 77 – 86 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1177327.pdf

Volk, H., Kellner, K. & Wohlhart, D. 2015. ‘Learning Analytics for English Language Teaching.’ Journal of Universal Computer Science, Vol. 21 / 1: 156-174 http://www.jucs.org/jucs_21_1/learning_analytics_for_english/jucs_21_01_0156_0174_volk.pdf

Williamson, B. 2017. Big Data in Education. London: Sage

Yu, Q. 2015. ‘Learning Analytics: The next frontier for computer assisted language learning in big data age’ SHS Web of Conferences, 17 https://www.shs-conferences.org/articles/shsconf/pdf/2015/04/shsconf_icmetm2015_02013.pdf

Zuboff, S. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books

 

[1] See https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/sites/erasmusplus2/files/ka2-2015-he_en.pdf

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

 

 

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.

 

 

I have been putting in a lot of time studying German vocabulary with Memrise lately, but this is not a review of the Memrise app. For that, I recommend you read Marek Kiczkowiak’s second post on this app. Like me, he’s largely positive, although I am less enthusiastic about Memrise’s USP, the use of mnemonics. It’s not that mnemonics don’t work – there’s a lot of evidence that they do: it’s just that there is little or no evidence that they’re worth the investment of time.

Time … as I say, I have been putting in the hours. Every day, for over a month, averaging a couple of hours a day, it’s enough to get me very near the top of the leader board (which I keep a very close eye on) and it means that I am doing more work than 99% of other users. And, yes, my German is improving.

Putting in the time is the sine qua non of any language learning and a well-designed app must motivate users to do this. Relevant content will be crucial, as will satisfactory design, both visual and interactive. But here I’d like to focus on the two other key elements: task design / variety and gamification.

Memrise offers a limited range of task types: presentation cards (with word, phrase or sentence with translation and audio recording), multiple choice (target item with four choices), unscrambling letters or words, and dictation (see below).

Screenshot_2016-05-24-08-10-42Screenshot_2016-05-24-08-10-57Screenshot_2016-05-24-08-11-24Screenshot_2016-05-24-08-11-45Screenshot_2016-05-24-08-12-51Screenshot_2016-05-24-08-13-44

As Marek writes, it does get a bit repetitive after a while (although less so than thumbing through a pack of cardboard flashcards). The real problem, though, is that there are only so many things an app designer can do with standard flashcards, if they are to contribute to learning. True, there could be a few more game-like tasks (as with Quizlet), races against the clock as you pop word balloons or something of the sort, but, while these might, just might, help with motivation, these games rarely, if ever, contribute much to learning.

What’s more, you’ll get fed up with the games sooner or later if you’re putting in serious study hours. Even if Memrise were to double the number of activity types, I’d have got bored with them by now, in the same way I got bored with the Quizlet games. Bear in mind, too, that I’ve only done a month: I have at least another two months to go before I finish the level I’m working on. There’s another issue with ‘fun’ activities / games which I’ll come on to later.

The options for task variety in vocabulary / memory apps are therefore limited. Let’s look at gamification. Memrise has leader boards (weekly, monthly, ‘all time’), streak badges, daily goals, email reminders and (in the laptop and premium versions) a variety of graphs that allow you to analyse your study patterns. Your degree of mastery of learning items is represented by a growing flower that grows leaves, flowers and withers. None of this is especially original or different from similar apps.

Screenshot_2016-05-24-19-17-14The trouble with all of this is that it can only work for a certain time and, for some people, never. There’s always going to be someone like me who can put in a couple of hours a day more than you can. Or someone, in my case, like ‘Nguyenduyha’, who must be doing about four hours a day, and who, I know, is out of my league. I can’t compete and the realisation slowly dawns that my life would be immeasurably sadder if I tried to.

Having said that, I have tried to compete and the way to do so is by putting in the time on the ‘speed review’. This is the closest that Memrise comes to a game. One hundred items are flashed up with four multiple choices and these are against the clock. The quicker you are, the more points you get, and if you’re too slow, or you make a mistake, you lose a life. That’s how you gain lots of points with Memrise. The problem is that, at best, this task only promotes receptive knowledge of the items, which is not what I need by this stage. At worst, it serves no useful learning function at all because I have learnt ways of doing this well which do not really involve me processing meaning at all. As Marek says in his post (in reference to Quizlet), ‘I had the feeling that sometimes I was paying more attention to ‘winning’ the game and scoring points, rather than to the words on the screen.’ In my case, it is not just a feeling: it’s an absolute certainty.

desktop_dashboard

Sadly, the gamification is working against me. The more time I spend on the U-Bahn doing Memrise, the less time I spend reading the free German-language newspapers, the less time I spend eavesdropping on conversations. Two hours a day is all I have time for for my German study, and Memrise is eating it all up. I know that there are other, and better, ways of learning. In order to do what I know I should be doing, I need to ignore the gamification. For those, more reasonable, students, who can regularly do their fifteen minutes a day, day in – day out, the points and leader boards serve no real function at all.

Cheating at gamification, or gaming the system, is common in app-land. A few years ago, Memrise had to take down their leader board when they realised that cheating was taking place. There’s an inexorable logic to this: gamification is an attempt to motivate by rewarding through points, rather than the reward coming from the learning experience. The logic of the game overtakes itself. Is ‘Nguyenduyha’ cheating, or do they simply have nothing else to do all day? Am I cheating by finding time to do pointless ‘speed reviews’ that earn me lots of points?

For users like myself, then, gamification design needs to be a delicate balancing act. For others, it may be largely an irrelevance. I’ve been working recently on a general model of vocabulary app design that looks at two very different kinds of user. On the one hand, there are the self-motivated learners like myself or the millions of other who have chosen to use self-study apps. On the other, there are the millions of students in schools and colleges, studying English among other subjects, some of whom are now being told to use the vocabulary apps that are beginning to appear packaged with their coursebooks (or other learning material). We’ve never found entirely satisfactory ways of making these students do their homework, and the fact that this homework is now digital will change nothing (except, perhaps, in the very, very short term). The incorporation of games and gamification is unlikely to change much either: there will always be something more interesting and motivating (and unconnected with language learning) elsewhere.

Teachers and college principals may like the idea of gamification (without having really experienced it themselves) for their students. But more important for most of them is likely to be the teacher dashboard: the means by which they can check that their students are putting the time in. Likewise, they will see the utility of automated email reminders that a student is not working hard enough to meet their learning objectives, more and more regular tests that contribute to overall course evaluation, comparisons with college, regional or national benchmarks. Technology won’t solve the motivation issue, but it does offer efficient means of control.

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?

References

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.

Content-Insight-Assessment-1

 

 

 

 

 

Content-Insight-Exhaustion-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

‘Sticky’ – as in ‘sticky learning’ or ‘sticky content’ (as opposed to ‘sticky fingers’ or a ‘sticky problem’) – is itself fast becoming a sticky word. If you check out ‘sticky learning’ on Google Trends, you’ll see that it suddenly spiked in September 2011, following the slightly earlier appearance of ‘sticky content’. The historical rise in this use of the word coincides with the exponential growth in the number of references to ‘big data’.

I am often asked if adaptive learning really will take off as a big thing in language learning. Will adaptivity itself be a sticky idea? When the question is asked, people mean the big data variety of adaptive learning, rather than the much more limited adaptivity of spaced repetition algorithms, which, I think, is firmly here and here to stay. I can’t answer the question with any confidence, but I recently came across a book which suggests a useful way of approaching the question.

41u+NEyWjnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse’ by Jack Schneider (Harvard Education Press, 2014) investigates the reasons why promising ideas from education research fail to get taken up by practitioners, and why other, less-than-promising ideas, from a research or theoretical perspective, become sticky quite quickly. As an example of the former, Schneider considers Robert Sternberg’s ‘Triarchic Theory’. As an example of the latter, he devotes a chapter to Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences Theory’.

Schneider argues that educational ideas need to possess four key attributes in order for teachers to sit up, take notice and adopt them.

  1. perceived significance: the idea must answer a question central to the profession – offering a big-picture understanding rather than merely one small piece of a larger puzzle
  2. philosophical compatibility: the idea must clearly jibe with closely held [teacher] beliefs like the idea that teachers are professionals, or that all children can learn
  3. occupational realism: it must be possible for the idea to be put easily into immediate use
  4. transportability: the idea needs to find its practical expression in a form that teachers can access and use at the time that they need it – it needs to have a simple core that can travel through pre-service coursework, professional development seminars, independent study and peer networks

To what extent does big data adaptive learning possess these attributes? It certainly comes up trumps with respect to perceived significance. The big question that it attempts to answer is the question of how we can make language learning personalized / differentiated / individualised. As its advocates never cease to remind us, adaptive learning holds out the promise of moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach. The extent to which it can keep this promise is another matter, of course. For it to do so, it will never be enough just to offer different pathways through a digitalised coursebook (or its equivalent). Much, much more content will be needed: at least five or six times the content of a one-size-fits-all coursebook. At the moment, there is little evidence of the necessary investment into content being made (quite the opposite, in fact), but the idea remains powerful nevertheless.

When it comes to philosophical compatibility, adaptive learning begins to run into difficulties. Despite the decades of edging towards more communicative approaches in language teaching, research (e.g. the research into English teaching in Turkey described in a previous post), suggests that teachers still see explanation and explication as key functions of their jobs. They believe that they know their students best and they know what is best for them. Big data adaptive learning challenges these beliefs head on. It is no doubt for this reason that companies like Knewton make such a point of claiming that their technology is there to help teachers. But Jose Ferreira doth protest too much, methinks. Platform-delivered adaptive learning is a direct threat to teachers’ professionalism, their salaries and their jobs.

Occupational realism is more problematic still. Very, very few language teachers around the world have any experience of truly blended learning, and it’s very difficult to envisage precisely what it is that the teacher should be doing in a classroom. Publishers moving towards larger-scale blended adaptive materials know that this is a big problem, and are actively looking at ways of packaging teacher training / teacher development (with a specific focus on blended contexts) into the learner-facing materials that they sell. But the problem won’t go away. Education ministries have a long history of throwing money at technological ‘solutions’ without thinking about obtaining the necessary buy-in from their employees. It is safe to predict that this is something that is unlikely to change. Moreover, learning how to become a blended teacher is much harder than learning, say, how to make good use of an interactive whiteboard. Since there are as many different blended adaptive approaches as there are different educational contexts, there cannot be (irony of ironies) a one-size-fits-all approach to training teachers to make good use of this software.

Finally, how transportable is big data adaptive learning? Not very, is the short answer, and for the same reasons that ‘occupational realism’ is highly problematic.

Looking at things through Jack Schneider’s lens, we might be tempted to come to the conclusion that the future for adaptive learning is a rocky path, at best. But Schneider doesn’t take political or economic considerations into account. Sternberg’s ‘Triarchic Theory’ never had the OECD or the Gates Foundation backing it up. It never had millions and millions of dollars of investment behind it. As we know from political elections (and the big data adaptive learning issue is a profoundly political one), big bucks can buy opinions.

It may also prove to be the case that the opinions of teachers don’t actually matter much. If the big adaptive bucks can win the educational debate at the highest policy-making levels, teachers will be the first victims of the ‘creative disruption’ that adaptivity promises. If you don’t believe me, just look at what is going on in the U.S.

There are causes for concern, but I don’t want to sound too alarmist. Nobody really has a clue whether big data adaptivity will actually work in language learning terms. It remains more of a theory than a research-endorsed practice. And to end on a positive note, regardless of how sticky it proves to be, it might just provide the shot-in-the-arm realisation that language teachers, at their best, are a lot more than competent explainers of grammar or deliverers of gap-fills.

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?