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What if we have our whole approach to MFL teaching wrong?

Whenever I write about language teaching I try to maintain a pragmatic, open-minded view about methodology. This isn't always easy when you've been taught and trained in a certain way (for me the oral-situational approach based on a grammatical syllabus) and worked within an English system where the high stakes GCSE and A-level exams dominate the scene and, to an extent, dictate teaching approaches. Nevertheless I endeavour to present a range of methods as having value as long as they respect some basic principles to do with input and practice. I do this because I find it interesting and hope other teachers do too.

I quite recently wrote two blogs about the Teaching Schools Council report on MFL pedagogy. They are here and here.To remind you, that report came out strongly in favour of a skill-acquisition approach to classroom language teaching. The emphasis should be on explicit, structured teaching of grammar and phonics, along with high frequency vocabulary possibly at the expense of the topics. The report claimed that this emphasis was based on the latest research evidence.

Much of the report made sense to me (given my own bias mentioned above), but in my second blog I pointed out that the research evidence for the TSC report was cherry-picked. To support this view, let me quote to you from Geoff Jordan, a British applied linguist, who puts forward a theoretical position held by a number of influential scholars in the field. This is taken from a blog he's written and it sums up a view of second language acquisition which is the antithesis of the TSC's skill-acquisition position. Jordan attacks three assumptions about skill-acquisition. I quote almost verbatim:

Assumption 1

In SLA, declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge. Wrong! No such simple conversion occurs. Knowing that the past tense of has is had and then doing some controlled practice, does not lead to fluent and correct use of had in real-time communication.

Assumption 2

Second language acquisition is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. Wrong! All the items are inextricably inter-related. As Michael Long says:

"The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject- verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy."

Assumption 3

Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. Wrong – as every teacher knows! Pienemann (1987) has demonstrated that teachability is constrained by learnability."


Now, it should be made clear that far from all researchers agree wholeheartedly with the above, but it is fair to say that the evidence for TSC, skill-acquisition view is far from settled. Indeed, for academics in general teaching grammar is much less important than it seems to be for most teachers. They can, as yet, find little convincing evidence that explicit grammar instruction and practice is the best way to enhance acquisition.

Is learning a language like the learning of any skill? Do we build up skill by learning, one by one, the component skills until we master the whole? Can we turn declarative knowledge of grammar into procedural knowledge through practice? Can spontaneous speech be developed through structured practice and focus on form?

Or is language acquisition fundamentally different? Does it all happen at a sub-conscious level, largely or wholly immune to the order teachers present and practise material? Is the best thing we can do just provide interesting input at the right level and let the brain do its natural thing?

The jury is still out, I'm afraid.

In the meantime, in the UK classroom context where GCSE and A-level hold sway, your traditional mix of grammar and topics with a dose of CLT (and TLC) still has a lot going for it. Your big get-out clause is that even when you teach a grammatical syllabus you are providing comprehensible input at the same time, even if it may be less than perfect.

Geoff Jordan references:

Long, M.H. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M. Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Pienemann, M. (1987) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. In C. Pfaff (Ed.) First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 143-168.

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  1. 'let me quote to you from Geoff Jordan, a British applied linguist, who puts forward a theoretical position held by a number of influential scholars in the field.' If it's only a theoretical position, why do you give it any weight? Why not look to empirical research?

  2. Jordan's view is, he would say, supported by empirical evidence. If there is a consensus at the moment it is that comprehensible input is the basis of acquisition, supported by some focus on form.Thank you for commenting.

  3. hi
    from my quick look at report in addition to skill-aquisition,

    there is a recommendation based on input processing:
    "Practice of the grammar point in ‘input language’ (listening and reading), doing structured tasks which require identification of a grammatical feature and linking it to a meaning or function, normally with other contextual clues stripped away."

    possible usage-based theories:
    "Generally, teachers stated, and research shows, that language learning needs repetition to embed knowledge."

    possible interaction approach in the Errors: anticipation and correction section

    sometimes i got confused when report mentioned "practice" as to whether they meant practice in the input or practice in the output;

    so there is a case to say that there are more is one "theory" being referred to in this report?

    wonder if the DFE literature review is available yet? that may give a better ideas of theories being used in the report?


    1. Yes, the things you mention give a role to imput, but the emphasis is still on showing grammar in input, not laying the stress on meaning only. Yes, repetition is referred to, as one would expect. When practice is referred to I think the stress is on output. What they recommend is what you see in some textbooks - grammar built and repeated in short texts at the presentation stage, then quickly and explicitly taught.


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