About the Author
Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher currently coordinates the ELT methodology programme at the Centre for English Language Teaching (Department of English) of the University of Vienna. Her research interests focus on ESP methodology and pre-service language teacher education.
Susanne Reichl is associate professor at the Centre for English Language Teaching (Department of English) of the University of Vienna. Her research interests include the teaching of literature and culture in secondary and higher education, and literature for children and young adults.
Barbara Schiftner currently works as a research assistant for the Centre for English Language Teaching (Department of English) of the University of Vienna. Her recent research activities are concerned with coherence and cohesion in learner writing.
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Theory and Practice in EFL Teacher Education
Bridging the Gap
By Julia Hüttner, Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher, Susanne Reichl, Barbara Schiftner
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2012 Julia Hüttner, Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher, Susanne Reichl, Barbara Schiftner and the authors of individual chapters
All rights reserved.
Closing the Gap, Changing the Subject
Henry G. Widdowson
Teachers teach subjects. English is a subject, like history or physics. So how is this subject to be defined? What aspects of the language should be focused on, and what kind of classroom activity is most appropriate for the activation of learning? Over the years, different answers to these questions have been proposed and promoted, and the subject thereby redefined. The rationale behind these different proposals for changing the subject is not always clear, and when clear it is not always convincing. There is therefore a need for teachers to resist being too readily persuaded by these proposals, and instead to submit them to critical appraisal so as to establish their validity in principle and their relevance in practice. In this way, they would not so much be bridging the gap between theory and practice as closing it by taking their own theoretical perspective on the subject they teach.
Theory and practice are often perceived as quite different, indeed opposing kinds of activity: this as opposed to that, them and us, East and West and as Rudyard Kipling has it: 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet'. As far as the difference between linguistic theory and language teaching is concerned, however, there are people who feel that some meeting of the twain can be managed by building bridges. But bridges do not, of course, diminish gaps. They are a way of crossing from one side to another. The gap is still there and the difference remains on this side linguistic theory and on that side the practice of language teaching.
I would want to suggest another way of perceiving the twain, not as distinct domains in need of connection in this way, but rather as inseparably fused together not so much two different sides of a river as two sides of the same coin. As I have argued before (Widdowson, 1990, 2003), all pedagogic practice presupposes theory of one kind or another. Whatever activity English language teachers introduce in their classrooms is based on ideas and assumptions about language and learning. They may be second- or thirdhand ideas and assumptions, established by custom, received wisdom, taken on trust, dogma disguised as common sense, so their theoretical nature may not be at all apparent. Language teaching practice then is bound to be informed by theory of one kind or another, and in this respect it can be understood as a kind of implied linguistics. If this intrinsic relationship is not recognised, then inevitably the gap between theory and practice will always remain to be bridged. If it is recognised and made explicit, however, the two are integrated and the gap closes.
Of course, some teachers may not want to know about any theory that might be implied by their practice, complacently content with what they do in the classroom, without feeling the need to enquire into the reason why. Why make practice problematic? If there is an underlying dogma or two, never mind, leave them undisturbed. Let sleeping dogmas lie. Some teachers may think in this way, but not, I assume, those who will be reading this chapter.
One obvious advantage in closing the gap and making explicit the theoretical implications of practice is that teachers are less prey to persuasion, less ready to accept approaches to teaching on somebody else's authority, whether this be supposedly based on linguistic expertise or pedagogic experience. If teachers can raise critical questions about theoretical assumptions that underlie the approaches that are proposed, they are in a position to establish their relevance to their own local circumstances and adapt rather than just adopt them. It is a common complaint in the English teaching field that fashions come and go, as if teachers had no choice but to conform. But they can resist too, of course. Fashions come and go, alas, and the pendulum swings to and fro. But where do the fashions come from and why should they be followed? Why does the pendulum swing? These are questions that teachers need to ask, and they are essentially theoretical questions.
In 1886, the German scholar Wilhelm Viëtor published a celebrated pamphlet, Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren! (Viëtor, 1886[D1]). This is generally rendered in English as Language teaching must start afresh! (see Howatt, 2004) and as such it has been used in our field often enough since then as a rallying cry for change. Fresh starts, or better perhaps fresh fits and starts, have been much in evidence: the way we teach now is old-fashioned, is the cry; we must change the subject, start afresh. But 'to start afresh' is not an entirely satisfactory translation of umkehren. A more literal translation of umkehren would be 'to turn back', 'to retrace one's steps'. This suggests going back in the direction you came from, but looking out for where you went astray. This kind of critical pathfinding is rather different from the idea of just giving up and starting afresh by returning to square one. But changes in English language teaching over the past half century are better characterised as fresh starts rather than a retracing of steps. Ideas and proposals have generally been heralded as entirely new departures, new approaches, new directions, new ways, without going back to see how they might link up with paths that have already been taken. No development of critical enquiry, but just a change of subject.
What I want to do in this chapter is to carry out an umkehren exercise and do a little critical pathfinding, a little theorising about various changes in the subject that have been proposed over the years. It will be convenient to have a framework of reference to give some overall coherence to the exercise. The one thing about the subject English on which we can all agree is that, however we go about teaching it, its ultimate objective is to develop in learners a proficiency or competence that enables them to put the language to communicative use. If we can agree that this is the objective, it would seem to make sense to use a model of communicative competence as our frame of reference for investigating different ways that have been proposed for achieving it.
The best-known model is, of course, that of Dell Hymes and it is the one that is always cited as giving warrant to communicative language teaching (see, for example, Brumfit & Johnson, 1979). So it would seem particularly appropriate for our purposes. In a frequently (if not always accurately) cited paper, Hymes (1972) proposed that communicative competence involved the ability to make four kinds of judgement about something some bit of the English language in our case.
(1) Whether (and to what degree) something is formally possible.
(2) Whether (and to what degree) something is feasible in virtue of the means of implementation available.
(3) Whether (and to what degree) something is appropriate (adequate, happy, successful) in relation to the context in which it is used and evaluated.
(4) Whether (and to what degree) something is in fact done, actually performed, and what its doing entails (Hymes, 1972: 281).
We can take these then as the essential elements of communicative competence and we can take them as bearings as we retrace our steps.
By formally possible, Hymes means what is well formed according to the encoding rules of a language. So, one part of communicative competence is knowing the degree to which a sentence is grammatical or not. And it was this factor, of course, that was the focus of attention in the so-called structuralist approach. Now because this approach has so often been dismissed, uncritically, as obviously misconceived, it is important to consider the rationale on which this approach was based. In the first place, there was the recognition that what was essential about English as a foreign language was that it was indeed foreign.
A language is a way of conceptualising different aspects of reality, and different languages encode reality in different ways: English encodes reality in a different way from Spanish, German, Turkish, Chinese and so on. In other words, what is formally possible in one language is not in another: the sound systems are different, the words are different and the grammars are different. That is what makes a different language difficult to learn, and the greater the difference between ways of encoding, the greater the difficulty.
Now if this is so, then it would seem to make good sense to focus on this difficulty in teaching the language, to focus on the formally possible, the encoded features of English, the words and grammatical structures that make it different as a conceptualisation of reality and so difficult for learners who are accustomed to another kind of encoding.
So the structuralist approach, in focusing on the formally possible, can be seen as taking account of the crucial conceptual aspect of communicative competence. This is not, however, much acknowledged. On the contrary, the approach has usually been dismissed as conceptually vacuous, an arid exercise that focuses on form rather than meaning. But, as I have often pointed out before (most recently in Widdowson, 2003), even a cursory glance at structuralist procedures would make it clear that the focus is very definitely on meaning:
Book. This is a book.
I match the structure with the situation so that it becomes clear that the word ' book' means this object. This is a book, the book is here, as opposed to that is] a book, the book is there. This and here are words that mean 'close to me', 'proximal'. That and there are words that mean 'away from me', 'distal'.
The door is there.
The word the means 'something we all know about'.
I am walking to the door/She is walking to the door.
The action is matched with the linguistic forms to demonstrate their meaning. This form of the verb means continuous and concurrent action. And so on.
Now notice that this procedure brings two other of Hymes' factors into play. The situation that the teacher contrives serves as a context appropriate to the demonstration of meaning, and in such a way that it is feasible in that it can be readily processed by the learners. But of course the meaning that is thus demonstrated is semantic meaning, meaning encoded in the language form, informed meaning, and for this demonstration to be effective, that is to say feasible for learning, the context has to be designed to match up with the form and duplicate its meaning. If the context does not correspond exactly with the language, it ceases to be appropriate to the purpose and the demonstration fails. So in this procedure, you start with a bit of language and then invent a context appropriate to it.
But of course, this goes against the natural communicative process of language use. We do not in the ordinary way have bits of language in our head and then cast about for contexts in which they might be appropriately used. On the contrary, it is contexts that regulate the language we use and not the other way round. And the language does not duplicate the context but extends or complements it. We do not normally go around stating the obvious. We use language to say things that are not apparent from the context (for further discussion of this, see Widdowson, 1990). So although we might accept that it is of crucial importance to make learners aware of how semantic concepts are encoded in the foreign language, the very feasibility of this procedure for doing so requires a reversal of the usual relationship between the possible and the appropriate in the normal pragmatic use of language.
And there is another problem. Learners do not only have to be made aware of these semantic concepts, to notice them, but they also have to internalise them, to know them. And here we come to a second feature of the structuralist approach: after presentation, practice.
So in the structuralist approach, the language had to be made feasible in two ways: it had to be presented so that it was readily processed for understanding, and it had to make provision for practice in the language so that it could be processed for learning.
But this makes the language even more remote from what normally makes it appropriate for communication. We do not normally fixate on encoded forms and go around with them in our heads hoping that some context will turn up to use them in, nor do we go around repeating them for no apparent purpose. So, the kind of pattern practice that the structuralist approach went in for seems to be self-defeating.
Nothing could be more enslaving and therefore less worthy of the human mind than to have it chained to the mechanics of the patterns of the language rather than free to dwell on the message conveyed through the language. (Lado & Fries, 1957)
This we might readily endorse: out, then, with pattern practice. But this quotation continues to come to a quite different conclusion:
It is precisely because of this view that we discover the highest purpose of pattern practice: to reduce to habit what rightfully belongs to habit in the new language, so that the mind and personality may be freed to dwell in their proper realm, that is on the meaning of the communication rather than the mechanics of grammar. (Lado & Fries, 1957)
This makes clear that as far as Lado and Fries are concerned, pattern practice is designed to meet a communicative objective by ensuring that knowledge of the formally possible, the semantic encoding in the language, is acquired as the essential resource for communication. The problem is that the focus on this particular aspect of communicative competence, the possible, results in language that is not appropriate in normal contexts of use.
This is a book. I am standing up. You are sitting down.
Nobody uses language in this way. So it is all very well to say that learners need to know what is possible in a language before they put it to use, but how do they internalise this as a communicative resource if it is presented and practised in uncommunicative ways and therefore in ways, of course, that conflict with the learners' own naturally communicative experience of their first language. The very procedures in structuralist teaching that are designed to make the second language less conceptually foreign have the effect of actually making it more communicatively foreign.
So we can say of the structuralist approach that it deals with one aspect of communicative competence in the Hymes scheme, the formally possible, but at the expense of another: the contextually appropriate. Thus, learners may acquire linguistic forms without knowing how to put them to use, may internalise what is formally possible without realising its communicative potential. So we need to consider how to bring the appropriate factor into our teaching: we need to change the subject.
We come to communicative language teaching. This focuses on how language functions in use and so seeks to restore the normal relationship between the possible and the appropriate. The procedure here is to first identify or invent contexts of one kind or another, social transactions and interactions or tasks, for example, which would naturally motivate the use of certain linguistic forms to achieve a communicative purpose. The assumption here is the very opposite of that of structuralist language teaching. In the structuralist approach, the idea is that if learners get to know the language code, they will subsequently be able to infer how it is put to appropriate communicative use. In the communicative approach, the idea is that if learners put the language to appropriate use, they will be able to infer a knowledge of the code that enables them to do it, and therefore, of course, acquire this code not as an abstract system but as a communicative resource, thus realising the potential of the possible.
There is no doubt that the communicative approach, in realigning these two factors of communicative competence in this way, does bring the language subject into closer correspondence with the reality of actual language use. There is, however, a problem. In normal communication, as I have already noted, context does not duplicate linguistic information but complements or extends it. In the social interactions and transactions we engage in, we only use as much language as is contextually required, and no more, and sometimes we need very little language to be communicatively effective.
You can often function effectively in a language without making much use of what is formally possible in the code. So the learning of what is formally possible in a language, its potential as a communicative resource, does not necessarily follow from the achieving of communicative purposes. One way around this problem is to design contexts so that they constrain learners to focus on the possible, as is done in task-based instruction, but of course to do this is to compromise with the naturalness condition by contriving to make the context appropriate to the language. As a consequence, the kind of language that results, though it may not be as unreal as that of the structuralist approach, nevertheless falls short of the kind of real language that actually and naturally occurs in normal contexts of use.
Excerpted from Theory and Practice in EFL Teacher Education by Julia Hüttner, Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher, Susanne Reichl, Barbara Schiftner. Copyright © 2012 Julia Hüttner, Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher, Susanne Reichl, Barbara Schiftner and the authors of individual chapters. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Julia Hüttner, Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher, Susanne Reichl and Barbara Schiftner,
Part 1: Conceptualising the Issue of Theory and Practice,
1 Closing the Gap, Changing the Subject Henry G. Widdowson,
2 The Dialectics of Theory and Practice in Teacher Knowledge Development Amy B.M. Tsui,
3 Moments of Practice: Teachers' Knowledge and Interaction in the Language Classroom Joachim Appel,
Part 2: Developing Language Teachers' Knowledge Base,
4 Creating Language-Assessment Literacy: A Model for Teacher Education Armin Berger,
5 Grammar Teaching: Theory, Practice and English Teacher Education Penny Ur,
6 Cognitive + Communicative Grammar in Teacher Education David Newby,
7 Towards a Stronger Intervention: The Role of Literature in Teacher Education Susanne Reichl,
Part 3: Assisting Language Teachers' Knowledge Construction,
8 Supporting the Transfer of Innovation into Foreign-Language Classrooms: Applied Projects in In-Service Teacher Education Sandra Hutterli and Michael C. Prusse,
9 Developing Student Teachers' 'Pedagogical Content Knowledge' in English for Specific Purposes: The 'Vienna ESP Approach' Julia Hüttner and Ute Smit,
10 The EPOSTL (European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages): A Tool to Promote Reflection and Learning in Pre-Service Teacher Education Barbara Mehlmauer-Larcher,
Part 4: Addressing Established Paradigms,
11 NESTs Versus Non-NESTs: Rethinking English-Language Teacher Identities Irena Vodopija-Krstanovic,
12 Multilingualism Pedagogy: Building Bridges between Languages Eva Vetter,