IATEFL 2016 Plenary Day 4 1966 and all that: a critical history of ELT (Scott Thornbury)

The last day has come all too soon…

Scott starts with a warm up. He gives us some significant dates in his life: 1950, 1975, 1992, 2000. 1950, he was born. 1975, significant career landmark: started teaching! Will revisit that moment shortly. 1992, first IATEFL conference (in Lille, France). 2000, at an IATEFL conference in Dublin he coined the term grammar McNuggets – little bitesized chunks of language that we love teaching, that form the nutrition of our syllabuses, on the assumption that if we deliver enough of them, the students will magically absorb them and language learning will take place. Also likens it to feeding seals – here is the past continuous, catch that! A metaphor he saw in a talk recently.

On the theme of chronology, given it’s the 50th anniversary of IATEFL, it seems appropriate to map the lifeline our profession. The reference in the title:

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In the introduction to this book, history is not what you think, it’s what you can remember. Today will be the history that Scott can remember. He collects old course books, old grammars, old dictionaries etc.

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The titles wouldn’t resonate now – “Interesting English”? come on, it would have to be “Awesome English” and what would the follow up to “I’m learning English” be? “I’m still learning English”?!

He shows us a cover:

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It’s interesting to look at the transcript inside…

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English for interrogation purposes? In 1965, this was the height of the cold war. Looking at the credits for this book, one of the names, Weiman, is from the department of war…

However, 1966 (50 years ago):

TESOL was founded. And Chomsky said he was skeptical about the significants for the teaching of languages such insights and understandings as have been attained in linguistics and psychology.” Another voice that gave a counter-discourse in linguistics, Dell Hymes. He gave a talk about communicative competence though it wasn’t published till a few years later. But the idea is born that linguistic competence isn’t the be all and end all: communicative competence also includes sociolinguistic and strategic competence. It was an interesting, fresh look at what language competence is. Had a knock-on effect for course design and methodology.

Newmark, L. wrote How not ot interfere with language learning. Incredibly presciently, he said, if we just teach the little bits of language, there are so many of them, by the time we’ve taight them and practiced them, a child will be an adult and an adult will be dead. It’s not the case that language is additive and linear, or no one would ever learn it. “An important test of our success as language teachers…is the ability of our students to choose to say what they want.” The alternative put forward was doing tasks, that language was learning a whole act at a time rather than individual items.

Pit Corder, an applied linguist at the university of Edinburgh, said that language is not knowledge but a set of skills. The teaching of it therefore must be different from the teaching of a content subject like science. In the same year, James Asher was propagating the view of total physical response. Niche methods were trying to fill the void left by the demise of the direct method.

1967

Saw the foundation of IATEFL (the I being added). The first conference was in London. Scott alludes to Richard Smith’s blog tracing the history of IATEFL. The then president said that the much publicised revolution is not a leap forward but a regression into routine and dullness. There were collections of papers that are fascinating from then, there is quite a lot of controversy.

Louis Alexander’s First Things First was published, and it was based on a very structural view of the language. Error was very much frowned upon…

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H.V. George was also error phobic:

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In a paper called the significance of learner errors, Pit Corder talks about the ‘built in syllabus’, saying we need to learn more about the way the learner learns and their ‘built in syllabus’.

So on the one hand, no errors, errors are bad, on the other errors are inevitable, deal with it, and they don’t necessarily come from L1 interference.

Then we look at some children’s English books. The language used isn’t very frequent…

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1969

L.G. Kelly’s (New Zealand scholar and applied linguist)’s 25 Centuries of Language Teaching, he wasn’t looking at methods but methodologies and the ideologies that underpin them. “Methods are of little interest”. One generation’s heresy becomes the orthodoxy of the next. Out with the old, in with the new. This seemed to be about to happen in the late sixties. There was also a major cultural revolution going on in reaction to the cold war and the Vietnam war and that’s captured a progressive moevement in education generally:

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Times were changing, it was the Zeitgeist of the late 60s.

1971

At a conference in Switzerland, a group of people got together to plan an approach to the teaching of languages in Europe. The Council of Europe in Switzerland aimed to reform and standardise the teaching of languages and devise a framework for adult language learning based on the needs of the learner and things required of them to function in a target language community.

Chris Candlin presented a paper called “Sociolinguistics and communicative language teaching” at IATEFL. The very word communication hadn’t really penetrated into our field until then but suddenly started to take off.

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1972

At last the first woman in a sequence of white males produced a paper based on her own classroom research “Communicative competence: an experiment in foreign language teaching’. Widdowson’s article on the teaching of English for communication also appeared in ELTJ. There was also the first conference focusing on communicative language teaching and the first ‘morpheme studies’ and diagrams started to appear which attempted to describe the order in which morphemes and inflections are acquired in first and second language, irrespective of the first language.

1975

International House Shaftsbury Avenue is where Scott got his certificate which alludes to “surprising lapses in grammar analysis”. Scott arrived as the major change away from the audio-lingual method was happening. The Threshold syllabus appeared and Strategies. So the syllabus was organised by notions and functions rather than grammar. Language described in terms of the purpose for which it was designed, rather than a series of structures to practice.

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What’s important is what people want to DO with language. This is where this undercurrent came to the surface in pedagogic materials.

So there were two intertwining but not interconnected discourses.

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On the one hand, there is the view of learning as being primarily cognitive and the nature of language/units of acquisition as structural and atomistic, the accumulation of entities of language, of accuracy being primary and the goal being NS-like proficiency. The new discourse came from social linguistics. It saw the units of language acquisition as communicative routines, larger acts or tasks, the acquisition of which was holistic not one at a time, and fluency was primary, with communicative competence being the aim. It seemed in 1975 that these two discourses that had been unravelling over the decades had finally been resolved in favour of the communicative approach.

BUT, had they? Of course, they were never resolved. The tension goes on. There was a reaction to it…the grammar syllabus was likened to bamboo, whatever you do to it, it keeps springing back up! Then we look at the introduction in a 1968 course book and a 2016 course book. Grammar is central. In some ways, not a lot has changed:

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What happened? Well, it’s easier to test grammar McNuggets…

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With a view to finding out what people think, Scott sent out a survey to try and unravel the mystery of why we can’t shake off the grammatical syllabus.

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He thought number 5 was interesting: that SLA researchers are wrong. These are probably climate change deniers as well… The earth is flat…

Many of the respondents had been teaching for more than ten years and had taught in a variety of different contexts. A fairly representative sample. In terms of student expectation, are they ever asked? Canagarajah found that since teachers thought that students thought that grammar was important, this is what they gave them.

Scott took some of the statements from the first survey and asked people to rather in terms of whether they agree or not. There is a mismatch between what we teach and what we believe. That for many people learning a language means learning the grammar, but not that grammar is the first and most essential factor in any language.

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We need to free ourselves from being teachers of grammar and remember that we are part of the field of education and rebrand what we do as educational. SLA needs to be anchored in education.

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This is how he was going to end the talk but then when you stick your head over the parapet and look, you see that all is not well in the field of education either.

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The iconography in an advert for teaching is very business technology and ppt-heavy. This has penetrated into schools, turning them into service providers. The rhetoric/discourse of neoliberalism penetrates into the discourse of education.

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What’s associated with this is the proliferation of testing, standardised testing, which seems to have taken over (think of the number of suicidal children in Britain due to pressure of testing). There is something unhealthy about this. The atomisation of knowledge. You can deliver them and test them.

Granular is the new buzzword.

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It’s a good word for marketing a breakfast cereal but not for language. Even vocabulary is not granular, every word in the lexicon is connected to other words which are connected to other words in both the TL and other languages.

We’ve gone back to the lefthand side of this image:

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How can we find a way out of this dilemma?

There are three possible routes.

  1. The pragmatic route
  2. The dogmatic route
  3. The dialectic route

There is a view, another view that negates that ideology and then there is a synthesis of the two, which is more than the sum of its parts.

First one: it’s just a subject, it has coursebooks and a syllabus, you have to break it down and test it. Accept it, don’t get het up about it.

In 1930 the Coleman report was published, and they decided to forget fluency and focus on reading, the objective was the ability to read a foreign language. This was a pragmatic approach, not expecting fluency.

Second one: The dogmatic (dogmetic?) route – if we want to get rid of the grammar syllabus, get rid of the coursebook and go back to using the language as it was meant to be used, for whole acts, communicatively and work on emergent language etc. You can go even further and say let’s get rid of the teacher (flavour of Sugata Mitra’s plenary) as well, according to Scott.

Maria Montessori: The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say,”The children are now working as if I did not exist.”

Third one: Is there a way we can combine the traditional on the one hand and the view that language is learnt through use, is holistic etc on the other?

  • http://languagelearninginthewild/com – a wonderful idea, for the learning of Scandinavian/nordic languages, by adults who to go the country, are enrolled in classes but are sent out into the streets and have to do things like buy a croissant. The people who work in the shops have been coached/prepared in how to deal with silly foreigners who can’t speak the language. They take photos, record on their mobile phones, they take it back to the classroom and compare notes. The perfect fusion of experience and classrooms. They can also phone up a volunteer to help them if they get stuck. Uber teachers?!
  •  http://handsupproject.org – for children who cannot get out of the classroom, children from Gaza performed some songs and chants they had learned via Skype, here at IATEFL. We are shown a reverse picture dictation, where they draw something and then try and get Nick Bilborough to draw it, through a question and answer sequence. A fusion of traditional language classroom and real language use.

Ok, where are we going? 2066…

What can we predict? Probably the intertwining discourses will still be with us. The process of learning is not straight-forward. Even when it seems so, some teachers still go against the flow. Scott salutes these teachers.

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5 thoughts on “IATEFL 2016 Plenary Day 4 1966 and all that: a critical history of ELT (Scott Thornbury)

  1. Lizzie – I was at IATEFL but I still read all of your blog posts from the conference. Each post has been excellent. Thank you so much for capturing the essence of each talk. Patrice Palmer (Canada)

  2. Hi Lizzie, I wasn’t at the conference but will watch Scott’s plenary at some point soon. But in the meantime, thanks for this great ‘summary’.

  3. Pingback: IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Video selections | Sandy Millin

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