Another repost from Robert Harrell. He raises the right points and has a way of exposing stinking thinking in language instruction as no other person can. Enjoy!
Thanks to the feedback from the PLC, I have revised the Eight Traps document, adding some additional information, names, and sources. Here it is.
Opponents of Teaching with Comprehensible Input in general and TPRS in particular will often raise a number of issues. Since one of the premises of the method is that second language acquisition is the same as or very similar to first language acquisition, practitioners may well hear an argument such as the following:
“If you teach like a baby learns its first language, your students won’t say their first word for three years.”
Anyone making this statement reveals a great deal about his or her view of language instruction and has fallen into a number of traps related to language acquisition. Some of the traps into which people fall when thinking about and discussing (second) language acquisition are the following:
- The first trap is equating Route and Rate. While the route of acquisition may be the same for acquisition of first, second, third, or twentieth languages, the rate is not. Nor is the rate the same for every learner. There are of course, many reasons for this, including but not limited to the following: infant production depends on the development of motor skills, but older children, teens, and adults already have these motor skills and need only refine them; neurologically, learning and acquisition depend on the establishment and strengthening of neural pathways, so infants begin with extreme brain plasticity but few established neural pathways, whereas older learners already have many established neural pathways – both a boon and a bane; language processing occurs in part in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, parts of the brain that need to be developed in infants but are already developed to one degree or another in older learners. Perhaps an analogy will help to understand this: If I want to get from Point A to Point B with my car in an unsettled area, I may have to create a rudimentary roadway. That will take quite a bit of time. If I then drive alone at night on that winding dirt road with no lighting, I will not drive very fast. The second time I drive on the same road, I will travel a bit faster. If I then drive it again in daylight, I will drive even faster. If I widen and pave the road, I will travel much faster. The Route, i.e. the actual course from Point A to Point B did not change, but the Rate certainly did. Establishing and strengthening neural pathways is analogous: the brain must first establish them, and then more often they are traveled, the faster and stronger they become. Thus, if I acquire all languages the same way, it is logical that subsequent acquisition becomes more rapid because many of the neural pathways have already been established, and the language-processing areas of the brain have already been developed.
- The second trap is a misunderstanding of the nature of language and assuming that acquisition of each new language must begin from ground zero. This simply is not true. As Wolfgang Butzkamm puts it, “You only learn language once.” What we call “languages” are really only dialects of Language. Thus, once a person has acquired Language, learning languages is, at least in a sense, merely adding new information to what has already been acquired plus continuing to develop the neural network that processes language; it is certainly not starting again from the very beginning.
- The third trap is confusing formal grammar with mental representation. Bill Van Patten, a leading second language acquisition researcher, summarizes a great deal of research when he states that as learners acquire a language they create a mental representation of the language, but this mental representation does not correspond to or resemble the rules of grammar presented in a textbook. For example, whereas the rules of grammar found in textbooks are concrete and explicit, the mental representation of a language is abstract and implicit. http://revistas.um.es/ijes/article/viewFile/113951/107941
- The fourth trap is speaking without an awareness of recent research that shows the efficacy of Teaching with Comprehensible Input. As Wynne Wong of Ohio State University puts it, “A flood of input must precede a trickle of output.” Stephen Krashen, James Asher, Tracy Terrell, and many others have established that comprehensible input is the single most important element in language acquisition. Even those who believe that some output (Output Hypothesis) or interpersonal exchange (Interaction Hypothesis) is necessary for acquisition recognize the primacy of comprehensible input for acquisition. All second language researchers agree that without quality messages that are understandable, interesting – even compelling – and personalized to learners, acquisition does not occur, though some learning in the form of memorization might. However, acquisition is long term whereas memorization in the classroom setting is generally short term. The World Language Content Standards for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve state that our students can no longer afford to learn about languages (i.e. rules of grammar, essentially courses in linguistics) but must learn languages for use in communicative settings.
- The fifth trap is thinking that acquisition is linear and follows from deductive reasoning rather than experience. This is not true. Researchers remind us regularly that acquisition is non-linear, progresses at different rates for different aspects of language as well as for different individuals, and often involves a “step backward”: just before a language breakthrough, a learner’s speech may actually become simpler; when a new concept or element is being incorporated into a learner’s mental representation, an earlier element may appear to get worse; in moments of stress, learners may revert to something from an earlier stage of acquisition. The typical school curriculum, including scope and sequence, and even individual lesson design is built on the 19th-century factory model of the conveyor belt, and this linear model is both highly arbitrary and diametrically opposed to how human beings learn naturally and have learned for hundreds of thousands of years. http://ken-carroll.com/2007/12/13/linear-and-non-linear-learning/
- The sixth trap is thinking that acquisition depends on attention to forms. Some researchers see a place for attention to form in the sense of drawing attention to linguistic features after learners are able to use the form or structure communicatively, i.e. can already manipulate the language and know what it means. Focus on FormS, on the other hand, focuses explicitly and solely on the language features and is perhaps best represented by the Grammar-Translation and Audio-Lingual Methods. The concept of Focus on Form arose because of the lack of evidence on Focus on FormS, i.e. nothing shows that this actually works in terms of language acquisition. Michael Long lists six major problems with Focus on FormS instruction, not least of which is that “it ignores language learning processes altogether or else tacitly assumes a long discredited behaviorist model.” (http://woucentral.weebly.com/uploads/7/4/6/9/7469707/long_1997_intro_focus_on_form.pdf) The third position, which rests on anecdotal and study evidence, is that attention to meaning alone is efficacious in language acquisition. The situation is this: Focus on Meaning and Focus on Form both have evidence that indicates they lead to language acquisition, the debate being which is more efficacious; there is no evidence that Focus on FormS leads to acquisition.
- The seventh trap is thinking that Semantic Sets provide the best and fastest method of organizing material for acquisition. As attractive as this thinking is, it simply is not so. Rob Waring and Paul Nation, for example, cite research indicating that organization by Semantic Sets is less efficient than encountering words randomly. Nation goes so far as to write that “research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, … shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as “clothes” or “chores”] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.” http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/2000-Lexical-sets.pdf
- The eighth trap is thinking that language consists of “Building Blocks” that, if learned individually, can be fitted together to create fluency and achieve acquisition. Research in many areas has shown this to be false. For example, just in the area of listening comprehension, Stephen Camarata, Professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt, describes how working on isolated skills such as intonation patterns and phonemic awareness does not lead to increased listening comprehension, merely greater facility in the isolated skills. If a learner is to acquire the whole language, then the learner must be presented with language as a whole, not bits and pieces of it. Dialogic Reading is much more efficacious for listening comprehension than skills practice because the learner deals with natural language in a broad context and receives input that leads to acquisition. http://www.salon.com/2015/08/15/this_is_how_your_kid_learns_the_amazing_new_neuroscience_of_brain_plasticity_and_how_to_make_your_child_smarter/
As a result of falling into at least some of these traps and using them as the basis for the statement in opposition to Teaching with Comprehensible Input, the speaker has created a straw man to attack, and this neither furthers genuine discussion nor benefits anyone, least of all our students.