This was an unsigned leaflet that mysteriously appeared around the conference at Harrogate IATEFL 2006. It’s quite funny, actually, and totally subversive. Of course, it’s unfair, over-simplified in its analysis, probably libellous, not (entirely) serious, and the reasoning can be torn apart … but there are a few thought-provoking challenges.
Bad ideas in TEFL
Okay, folks, let’s pigeonhole our learners, or better still, get them to pigeonhole themselves so they can’t say it’s our fault if they don’t make any progress. Let’s get them to say that their intelligence is chiefly bodily-kinaesthetic so we don’t have to do any reading or writing with them. Or that they are “music smart”, so that we can do songs every day. What do we do, as language teachers, if all our learners turn out to be “number/reasoning smart”? We teach them X-bar theory, of course. Or get them to count to a million, placing the correct stress on each number. If they are “nature smart” we can take them out to meet the moo-cows. It’s all quite simple, really. Unless, of course, they all turn out to have different intelligences, in which case you will have a hard time pleasing any of them much of the time, especially if our own intelligence is limited to only one of Dr. Gardner’s eight categories. It really is extraordinary that this guff is taken seriously by anyone except its originator. It’s about as useful for teaching purposes as knowing the students’ star signs.
The first thing anyone needs to know about task-based learning is that EFL publishers avoid any use of the word “task” in their coursebooks because it puts the students off. The second, which most teachers realise pretty quickly, is that the tasks in books such as Cutting edge (note that they are always the last thing in the unit) mostly involve far too much input to justify the intended outcomes. The emphasis on outcomes (as if everyone is constantly worrying about the goal of what they are doing) leads to an unfortunate backwash effect, so that the steps of the tasks are mostly not worthwhile in themselves. It is often the case (see Market Leader especially) that the texts and information input in tasks are a) far too extensive and consequently b) not adequately exploited. Recently, one of the main theorists of TBL has encouraged teachers to “taskify” their coursebooks. But why should every activity take the form of a task? Can’t we do activities to practice language without aiming at some spurious ‘outcome’?
The Lexical Approach, or: How much chunk can a woodchuck chunk?
This is a mish-mash of miscellaneous half-digested theories about language which does not cohere in any way. One of the main current theories of how language works is that vocabulary and grammar are inseparable, which may be true in some ways, but unfortunately gives credence to the idea that all ‘chunks’ of language can be treated as lexical items. But if grammar and vocabulary operate on a continuum, you might just as well start from the other end and treat all items, whether they occur in chunks or not, in terms of their grammatical features. We are constantly told that research has shown that lexis is acquired more easily in chunks (eat your burgers three at a time, folks!) than as discrete items. But beginners pick up an enormous number of single items very quickly. They don’t seem to have much trouble with items such as table, fish, sky, etc. even when they are presented completely out of context and uncollocated. Would they really learn ‘table’ better if it was presented within the chunk of ‘dining-room table’ or ‘priceless antique pine table’? The lexical approach also entreats us to get students to look at ‘patterns’ such as verb + -ing/verb + infinitive. But haven’t teachers been doing this for decades anyway? In what ways does the label ‘pattern’ make them any easier for students to learn? And when it comes to teaching spoken English, in what ways is the lexical approach different to the functional approach? Since its focus is on acquiring particular bits of language, it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with essential features such as degrees of formality or expressing feelings. Nor does it (or can it) deal with the issue of time reference, a semantic area which can only be dealt with grammatically.
English as a Lingua Franca
It has recently been discovered, after many decades of hard, back-breaking research, that if non-native speakers of English don’t share the same mother-tongue, they tend to communicate in non-standard English. We should therefore teach some version of this non-standard English so that people can communicate more easily, without having to bother with such annoying features as articles, for example. Actually, this idea has been around for many years in one form or another. Nothing has ever come of it, nor will it. At a fairly recent conference (IATEFL 2004) one speaker put forward the following strategies for teachers to take account of the ELF phenomenon:
- Avoid idiomatic language (say ‘I rose at 7.00’ rather than ‘I got up at 7’ and ‘That is nonsense’ instead of ‘What a load of rubbish’)
- Don’t correct systematic non-native usages (not even when the meaning is unclear?)
- Focus only on core items of pronunciation (What is a core item of pronunciation? Should we avoid post-alveolar approximants and concentrate instead on labio-dental fricatives? Voiced or unvoiced? Word stress rather than sentence stress, or vice-versa?)
- Expose learners to a range of non-standard varieties of English (to give them an even bigger inferiority complex about their listening skills?)
- raise native speakers’ awareness of ELF 9should we take to the streets with megaphones and leaflets?)
- Stop penalizing non-native usages in tests, e.g. all-purpose ‘isn’t it?’ (so why bother with tests?)
The big question is: if English functions as a Lingua Franca in different communities and within different professions, how can it have a uniform set of usages. If it doesn’t, how can it possibly be taught?
NLP “claims to help people change by teaching them to program their brains”. This all-embracing method of teaching, administering psychotherapy and dealing with the problems of large corporations was started by Grinder, a linguist, and Bandler, a mathematician. Two other NLP researchers, Fiddler and Diddler, are working on the development of a dial which you will be able to plug into your brain. You will then have the choice of long, medium or short cycles, with various spin speeds and temperature settings – just like a washing machine, in fact. You will be able to wash out all those unwholesome thoughts and feelings and come out all fresh and fluffy. Until this device comes out on the market, which might be quite a while, you will just have to be content with hypnotizing yourself, or getting your students to hypnotise themselves. “If someone can do something, anyone can learn it,” say the NLP-ers, which is blatant self-serving rubbish: we are all supposed to think that if we embraced NLP we could become world-famous scientists or dancers. Or native-level speakers of English. According to NLP, we all have a Primary Representational System (PRS), i.e. we think in specific modes: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory. This idea is closely akin to that of so-called ‘learning styles’, which in turn is related to Multiple Intelligences. And so it goes on: learning theory after learning theory which is completely deterministic but which claims somehow to free us from our shackles and deliver us to the promised land. Look up Grinder and/or Bandler on Google if you want to read a lot of completely impenetrable hogwash about the “Meta Model”, the “Precision Model”, “personal incongruity” and 101 other meaningless terms.
CPD (Continuous Professional Development)
CPD in TEFL: hahaha!!!