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February 01, 2005

A Tale of Two Books: Looking back on twenty years of communicative language teaching

Youngstown State University, Youngstown OH USA February 2005

Steven Brown

Like many of my generation of English Language Teachers, I came to ELT through a back door. In the 1970s, I found myself teaching "Introduction to American Studies" to a very diverse group of students at City College of San Francisco, people who were working on a new language as well as on new academic concepts. By early 1981, I was in Japan teaching EFL full-time. The Communicative Revolution, Notional-Functional syllabuses and the ideas of Stephen Krashen were on everyone's tongue. It was an exciting time, and in retrospect a charmingly naïve time.

“Dialogues provide a strange sort of confidence to beginners (until they realize that real people seldom memorize "their" half of the dialogue).”

At least in Japan, lots of people were learning how to teach as they went along, and in most cases it was textbooks that taught us how to teach in a new way. In my case, even as I worked with the slim audio-lingual volumes the school had ordered for my class, Building Strategies (Abbs and Freebairn 1979) showed me the way. Several years later, a friend, Marc Helgesen, invited me on a continuation of his project (Helgesen, Mandeville & Jordan 1986, Helgesen, Brown & Mandeville 1988). We've recently revised the English Firsthand books again and I've been thinking where we've been over the past twenty years. I'd like to analyze selected pages of Building Strategies and English Firsthand to see what (if anything) we've learned.

Conversations
I'm sure I'm not the only one who can remember snippets of dialogue from high school Spanish textbooks. Dialogues have been with us from the beginning. They provide a strange sort of confidence to beginners (until they realize that real people seldom memorize "their" half of the dialogue). Here's the first half of a Building Strategies dialogue (Abbs & Freebairn 1979, p. 85-86):

Rod: Hello, Barbara! Welcome back! You look marvelous.
Barbara: Rod! What a surprise! It's lovely to see you again.
Rod: Sorry I didn't telephone you before I left, but I didn't have time, in fact…
Barbara: Oh, that's all right. Forget it!
Rod: Well, how was Italy?
Barbara: Fun, but tiring. Milan was interesting. It's bigger than I expected. Noisier and dirtier, too.

The dialogue presents two functions the unit will focus on: apologizing and comparing. It's relatively natural ("Fun, but tiring" and the attempt to represent overlapping conversation) and later attempts some humor (of a suitcase: "What's in it? Stones?") The dialogue is followed by comprehension questions like "Why didn't Rod telephone Barbara before she left?" The text also provides suggested starters for the answers to the questions that attempt (by what we might call now a focus on forms) to draw attention to the language within the dialogue:

What did he say when he apologized?
Sorry I …but…

What did Barbara think of Italy?
She thought it was …but…

Would we do this today? Yes, I think so. Though I'm not so sure we would have comprehension questions, we might well want to draw attention to the language of the dialogue, and directed questioning can accomplish that. Here's what English Firsthand (Helgesen at al. 2004a, p.92) does with this part of a dialogue about shopping (the theme of its unit on comparisons):

May I help you?
Yeah, I'm looking for a sweater.
What ______1______?
I'm not sure. ____2_____, I think.

The choices for #1 are size and color. The choices for #2 are medium and blue. The use of slots attempts to build flexibility in language use. The dialogue is much more minimalistic; there is no story line, there are no characters. The students are the characters and they choose what they want to say (and their partners have to listen a little more carefully). The dialogue is accompanied by a "3 Minute Conversation Task" that asks the students to personalize the activity (Close your book. Have a conversation. Talk about something you bought.) and a homework activity the students can do on their own to work with the dialogue.

The newer dialogue is at once simpler and more complex. There is less "content" but students are making more decisions. They're filling in slots and practicing in a way that is not an oral reading of the page. They are using their own lives, not Rod's and Barbara's. That said, there are students and teachers who like story lines and characters and there is certainly no denying that in the hands of a good teacher such stories can serve a useful purpose. I myself used to play up the soap opera possibilities of the plot of Strategies. Dialogues are interesting in that they have the potential to serve as exemplars of language, and it has been hypothesized that there may be structures that are better presented through exemplars than rules (DeKeyser 1998).

Listening
I am struck by the difference in the amount of listening given in the two books. In Building Strategies, this is the listening task:

John is British, but has worked in Japan. Etsuko is Japanese from Osaka, but she is studying in Britain. Listen to them comparing life as they see it in the two countries. Make notes about the features of each country they mention and the comparisons they make.

The follow-up task is Write paragraphs using your notes, like this: "John says that, in his experience, the …Etsuko says that, in her experience, the …" (Abbs & Freebairn 1979, p. 92). In English Firsthand 1, there is one entire page devoted to pre-listening or "Getting Ready." The first exercise asks learners to match sentences with responses ("May I help you?" " I'm looking for some jeans."). The learners listen and check their answers. The second exercise is a guessing activity. Students first guess the price of the items they will hear about in the listening task, and then note if they have ever bought that item. The purpose of guessing the price is to make students aware of the possible range of answers, so that they don't answer $250 instead of $25 (Helgesen et al. 2004, p. 90).

This focus on task-based listening with extensive pre-listening tasks is clearly an area of difference between the two books. Over the last twenty years, ELT has forged a consensus on the importance of developing listening skills. We have in the process of forging that consensus learned a great deal about listening.

The model of listening that we've adopted is one from cognitive psychology. We see the brain as limited in its processing abilities, and we try to ease the processing burdens, for instance, by activating prior knowledge. I like to use as an example of prior knowledge's amazing power my experience buying postcards at an Austrian museum. I speak no German, but walked up to the counter after having calculated that the postcards would cost sixteen schillings. I gave the clerk a twenty-schilling note, she opened the till, looked in it, and said something in German. As a reflex, I dug in my pocket and produced a one-schilling coin and gave it to her. She smiled and handed me "a five." I managed the transaction based on my prior knowledge of how one deals with change at a store. In some sense, I didn't need German. I just needed my life experience.

Later, on that same trip, however, I did need to manage a conversation "bottom up" when I asked at the Madrid train station for tickets west and was answered by a torrent of Spanish including the word "huelga." There had been a wildcat strike that morning. Here the "getting tickets" routine failed and I needed words, just one in this case, to understand what was going on. We now try to develop both kinds of listening in our students and we try to use pre-listening activities to remind them of what they know about the situations they will hear.

Another key idea in listening is to provide a task. Strategies encouraged note-taking. That's still an important skill, but most books these days provide for a quick check/circle/write one word sort of task. Tasks provide feedback for both learners and teachers and they are (at least somewhat) more like the real world, where we are most likely not to take extensive notes but to write down the starting time of a movie or a phone number as a result of listening.

A third key idea about listening is speech rate. Students often tell us "The tape's too fast" or "People speak too quickly." Some tapes have always been natural while others have treated learners to a molasses-like flow of sound. Speech rate may not be the main issue, however. Studies in reading (Beck, McKeown, Omanson & Pople 1984) have shown that presenting a text with clearly linked ideas is more beneficial (leads to more comprehension) than simplifying the text's language (see also Long & Ross 1993). One way materials developers do this is by building in redundancy to their scripts.

The final important notion in listening is individual differences. The assumption of many in the field has been that one of the key areas where individual differences come into play is through strategy use. One of the best studies I know that shows clearly that strategy use improves listening is Thompson and Rubin (1996). They showed that teaching small groups of American students cognitive strategies like predicting content and listening for redundancies, as well as metacognitive strategies like planning and defining goals, led to improvement by the experimental group on listening comprehension tests.

One aspect of strategy use that well may need further study in light of Just and Carpenter's (1992) work on language processing while reading is the development of strategies to improve memory. Just and Carpenter claim that individual differences in processing are a function of working memory. People who have good working memories have more processing space and are more efficient readers. At present, there seems to be no work in this are of listening and it is unclear whether strategy use could have any effect on short-term memory (as opposed to long-term storage) but it's something worth considering.

Speaking Tasks
Next, let's consider two tasks that practice giving excuses.

Building Strategies approaches its task by presenting learners with a chart with stems such as these:

Explanations
Apologise for
a.) not doing your homework

you
-- forgot
-- didn't have time
-- lost your book

Students work in pairs and make apologies, choosing different explanations. The partner is instructed to accept the apology, using phrases like, "Oh, that's all right." The next step is a Roleplay, in pairs, with situations like "Apologise and explain to your teacher you didn't come to class last week." (Abbs & Freebairn 1979, p. 86).

English Firsthand 2 first has the students work in groups of six. They divide themselves into three teams. Each team has two members. With partners, the learners think of a "wild" excuse for items such as

I'm sorry. I don't have the homework…
I was late for class because …

After thinking up excuses, they join the other two teams. The group of six decides which of the excuses for each item is the most interesting. A note at the side of the page specifically encourages the students "Use your imagination. Crazy, unusual or funny excuses are best for this activity" (Helgesen et al. 2004b, p. 50).

Both books are rooted in the Notional Functional syllabus. Both exercises are drill-like work in pairs, in which the students are given several opportunities to practice short exchanges. The difference is in English Firsthand's conscious focus on students' own ideas and on the encouragement of fun. There is also an attendant increase in task complexity.

Over the last twenty years, we have seen another consensus join the one developed around listening comprehension, a consensus that says that pair and group work are important and that task-based learning should be at the core of speaking activities. Books like Strategies clearly led the way on the use of small group work.

The advantages for work in groups over whole class activities have become clear. The most obvious is time on task; learners simply get more speaking opportunities when the teacher leaves center stage. An early and influential study by Long and Porter (1985) assured us that group work led to more negotiation of meaning and was thus good for students' interlanguage development. Porter later (1986) noted, however, that members of groups sometimes do not treat each other in pragmatically appropriate ways; they are likely to be less polite than target-level norms would dictate, for example. Still, the value of group work has been stressed again and again, in different ways, including in Swain's (1995) notion of pushed output: pairs force each other to notice their learning, to notice what they don't know, and thus to strive to be more accurate.

It seems that how well the partners know each other may be important. Plough and Gass (1993) found, for example, that unfamiliar partners tended to echo each other as a device to keep the conversation going, while partners familiar with each other were more likely to use clarification checks and more negotiation (an argument, incidentally, for fostering classroom community). It makes sense that negotiating or questioning someone's language would be a face-threatening act toward a non-intimate.

We have also accumulated a great deal of information about task-based learning in groups. In general, closed tasks are more facilitative of language learning, stretch learners more, than open tasks. Closed tasks are those for which only one outcome is possible. Assuming we want students to push each other by thrashing out an understanding of each other, a jigsaw task in which partners cooperate to find the answer is better than a discussion, for which there is no closure. Two-way tasks are better, in the same way, than one-way tasks. Two-way tasks are those in which partners have equal information they must share in order to reach the task outcome. One-way tasks are tasks like listen-and-draw, when only one person has some information the other must obtain (Long 1990, Ellis 1999).

There also seems to be (Plough & Gass 1993) potentially more negotiation in tasks that are familiar to students (arguing for repetition of task types). However, there may be a sort of law of diminishing returns if students are familiar enough to be bored by the task.

The role of planning has recently been shown to be important. Teachers tend to get impatient and throw their students into activities. As little as a minute or two of planning might, however, lead to gains in fluency, accuracy and complexity of language (Foster 1998, Skehan & Foster 1999).

In the best of all possible worlds, then, the ideal task would be a two-way information gap activity that calls for a definite resolution, and furthermore one that is somewhat (but not too) familiar to the students. This task would be done by partners who know each other. The teacher would allow some planning to take place before the task. As my students say, "Yeah, right."

Conclusion
I hope the effect of this piece is not to suggest that we today are geniuses and Abbs and Freebairn weren't, because I think their series remains one of the great ones, better than much of what is published today. If we had to learn on the fly, I'm glad we learned from them. There was much in Strategies that anticipated today's best practices. The main difference I see today is a greater sophistication in listening tasks and perhaps more complexity of tasks overall. But, again overall, I think the differences are relatively small. I suppose this proves that the teaching art, as well as the teaching science, progresses gradually rather than in leaps and bounds.

References
Abbs, B. and Freebairn, I. (1979). Building Strategies. London: Longman.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., Omanson, R.C. and Pople, M.T. (1984). Improving the comprehensibility of stories: The effects of revisions that improve coherence. Reading Research Quarterly 19, 263-277.

DeKeyser, R.M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In C. Doughty and J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition (pp. 42-63). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (1999). Learning a Second Language through Interaction. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Foster, P. (1998). A classroom perspective on the negotiation of meaning. Applied Linguistics, 19, 1-23.

Foster, P. and Skehan, P. (1999). The influence of source of planning and focus of planning on task-based performance. Language Teaching Research, 3, 215-247.

Helgesen, M., Brown, S. and Mandeville, T. (2004a). English Firsthand 1: New Gold Edition. Hong Kong: Longman.

Helgesen, M., Brown, S. and Mandeville, T. (2004b). English Firsthand 2: New Gold Edition. Hong Kong: Longman.

Helgesen, M., Mandeville, T. and Jordan, R. (1986). English Firsthand. Tokyo: Lingual House.

Helgesen, M., Brown, S. and Mandeville, T. (1988). English Firsthand Plus. Tokyo: Lingual House.

Just, M.A. and Carpenter, P.A. (1992). A capacity theory of comprehension: Individual differences in working memory. Psychological Review 99 (1), 122-149.

Long, M. and Porter, P. (1985). Group work, iterlanguage talk, and second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly 19, 207-228.

Long, M. (1990). Task, group, and task-group interactions. In S. Anivan (Ed.), Language Teaching Methodology for the Nineties (pp. 31-50). Singapore: SEAMCO Regional Language Centre.

Long, M. and Ross, S. (1993). Modifications that preserve language and content. In M. L. Tickoo (Ed.), Simplification: Theory and Application (pp. 29-52). Singapore: SEAMCO Regional Language Centre.

Plough, I. and Gass, S.M. (1993). Interlocutor and task familiarity: Effects on interactional structure. In G. Crookes and S.M. Gass (Eds.), Tasks and Language Learning (pp. 35-56). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Porter, P.A. (1986). How learners talk to each other: Input and interaction in task-centered discussions. In R.R. Day (Ed.), Talking to Learn: Conversation in Second Language Acquisition. (pp. 200-222). Rowley MA: Newbury House.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook and B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics (pp. 125-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, I. and Rubin, J. (1996). Can strategy instruction improve listening comprehension? Foreign Language Annals, 29, 331-342.



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