“Leveraged Learning” – Part 2

It’s taken a few weeks, but I’m getting back to the book “Leveraged Learning” by Danny Iny.

In “Leveraged Learning” – Part 1, I took a look at the introduction to the topic as well as taking a couple of excursus (or excursuses, if you prefer) on different aspects of education, including a bit of history.

As we come to chapter 1, we see Iny making his argument that the education system is somehow failing. As noted, he concentrates on post-secondary education.

Iny’s first contention is that the “signal” of education has eroded over time. That is, a degree signals that the possessor has achieved a certain level of knowledge and skill, commands a certain amount of knowledge, and exhibits a baseline of mental faculties, dedication, and willingness to work. (Otherwise, the degree holder would not have successfully completed the course of study.)

According to Iny, the signal has eroded for a number of reasons, including ubiquity, disconnect from substance, and cost to value ratio.

“Ubiquity” means that college and university degrees have become so commonplace they no longer send the same signal of excellence that they once did. This argument is similar to the argument, “If everyone is special, then no one is special.” I’m not certain that either argument is entirely cogent.

In the case of education, the implication of the argument is that increased availability and access to a degree somehow invalidates the signal that a baseline of mental faculties, dedication, and willingness to work has been achieved. For certain instances, this may be the case, but there is a major assumption involved in applying the assertion across the board.

The “disconnection of signal from substance” argument seems a bit specious to me. It begins with the assumption that the purpose of education is to prepare people for business. Iny writes,

This misalignment with the needs of our graduates as individuals and economy as a whole is especially true with the degrees that you don’t specifically need for any job, but check the box of “requires an undergraduate degree,” no matter how unrelated to the task at hand. These non-vocational degree programs, like liberal arts and even business degrees in the absence of a career track headed for accounting or consulting or investment banking, simply aren’t designed to make their students valuable in the workplace. (Iny, p. 5)

Notice that one of the criteria for value is what you “need for any job”. We are also told that certain degrees have little to no value because they are “unrelated to the task at hand”. And “these non-vocational degree programs … aren’t designed to make their students valuable in the workplace.”

He is by no means the only person to hold this position. I have seen it reiterated numerous times in articles, advertisements, and other writings by entrepreneurs. Quoted in “Leveraged Learning”, Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, states, “Most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market.” (Iny, p. 6)

These writers fall into the trap of utilitarianism. In an article titled “The Utilitarian Trap“, DV observes the following:

College is an opportunity to evaluate oneself intellectually, socially, and existentially. By reducing it to a career path, we do a tremendous disservice to those who hope to transcend trade and vocation. The concepts we learn in college do not guarantee us jobs. Rather, jobs are a byproduct of much more significant intellectual development. … Essentially, we ask college to be something it was not intended to be: a job creation center.

This objection to the trap of utilitarianism should not be seen as an excuse for shoddy educational practices. A bad education is still a bad education. However, one should not blame education for human nature. Caplan goes on to say, “Students fail to learn most of what they’re taught. Adults forget most of what they learn.” One might lay a certain amount of blame on the educational process for the failure of students “to learn most of what they’re taught”. However, holding education responsible for adults’ forgetfulness is a bit misleading at best.

Another bit of disingenuous argumentation is the assertion that this “disconnection from substance” “… is at least partially responsible for the unimpressive employment rates of recent graduates. In 2011, 50 percent of college graduates younger than twenty-five were jobless or underemployed, and those who were working were more likely to be waiters, waitresses, or bartenders than engineers, physicists, chemists, or mathematicians (100,000 versus 90,000).” The role of the near-depression, longer careers of Baby Boomers, and other factors receives no mention, yet they contribute significantly to underemployment and unemployment among younger workers.

Excursus (“Rabbit Trail”) 1: The education system has become a whipping boy for economic and other ills in American society. Iny’s arguments here are reminiscent of the education reformists’ attempt to lay the blame for “low international test scores” on teachers and public schools while ignoring the impact of poverty on all areas of life. The fact is that socio-economic status is a far more accurate predictor of academic success than any other single factor. [In all fairness, we have to admit that some individuals overcome the effects of poverty, just as some individuals overcome the effects of debilitating illness or catastrophic injury. Does that mean we should not attempt to eliminate diseases such as smallpox, diabetes, coronary disease, or cancer? The arguments are analogous.] When we correct for poverty, the US does not lag behind the rest of the world. We simply find it more convenient to use education and teachers as the scapegoat rather than address the systemic and endemic ills of our society.

Back to the Book.

Iny attributes education’s alleged “disconnection from substance” to five primary factors:
1. The lecture format
2. Accreditation
3. Course design by “non-practitioners”
4. Tenure
5. Program design “by and for academics” or big businesses

Let’s address just one of these. Iny’s problem with tenure is that   it “allows academics to focus on their passion for particular topics rather than the areas that the market needs most.” (Iny, p. 5) I hope we see that Iny once again falls into the trap of utilitarianism. In addition, he seems to fault “academics” for having passions that are not his. As noted before, he is blaming education for not doing what it was never designed to do. Perhaps I should blame Iny, a successful entrepreneur, for failing to prepare his students for success in the global economy because he fails to teach them a foreign language. After all, the largest markets in the world don’t speak English as their first language.

I hope that everyone noticed I just did something similar to Iny. I highlighted his primary deficiency and said nothing about his other points. So, let me be more forthcoming than Iny.
1. The lecture format often leaves a great deal to be desired as far as retention of knowledge is concerned. It is, however, not the paradigm of instruction at the secondary level. Nor was it used overwhelmingly in my courses when I was at university. I suspect that Iny is addressing a straw man.
2. Accreditation is a signal for educational institutions, much like a degree is a signal for students. Iny probably has at least some legitimacy in decrying the constraints placed upon institutions by the accreditation process. However, we should also acknowledge that accreditation entirely voluntary for non-governmental schools. There are numerous accrediting agencies, and they are composed of the schools that they accredit. If the agency is not responsive to the needs of its clientele, that is a matter that can and should be addressed.
3. As he does in other areas, Iny makes a broad generalization for the sake of his argument. While it may be true that some courses are designed by non-practitioners, this is false for many others. I have not done the research (and neither has Iny) to determine which is in the majority. My suspicion is that course design by non-practitioners is the minority rather than the majority.
5. Program design is often dictated by non-academics. The most egregious problems that I observed in my teaching career arose from the dictates of politicians and non-academics rather than those who were closest to the instructional process. It would be better for Iny to address outside interference in education, much as many entrepreneurs decry the restrictions and requirements placed upon them by non-entrepreneurs. (Of course, we can debate the relative benefits and drawbacks of those restrictions and requirements as we consider the larger picture of the environment, society, the overall economy, etc. – but that is an entirely different discussion.)

I agree with Iny that the cost of education is increasingly exorbitant. Prior to the twentieth century, education was for the “elite”, i.e., the wealthy. A combination of factors, including massive government funding, made post-secondary education something that larger numbers of people could access. Unfortunately, that government assistance also fueled a rise in the price of education for a number of reasons. As a result, education is once again becoming too expensive for the “average person”. According to Iny,  “In the US and UK, education is now priced as a luxury.” (Iny, p. 8)

That is a significant problem if we believe that an educated citizenry is important to the working of a democracy – or democratic republic, to be more precise.

We haven’t even finished Chapter 1 in “Leveraged Learning”, but we’ll have to stop here for now.

Contra Iny, I do not believe that education is quite the disaster he paints it with his broad brush. In the remainder of his first chapter, Iny admits that higher education is still useful in a number of areas. If this work and the observations of others provide a corrective to the near idolization of education in our society, it is good. However, if it serves to demonize education, then it is bad. We’ll have to see where it goes.

The PACE Model of Focusing on Form

This week, I responded to a question about the PACE model in one of the Facebook groups to which I belong.

The question was simply to elaborate on the PACE model. So I did. I thought the reply was worth sharing with a wider audience, so I am posting it here as well.

In their book “Enacting the Work of Language Instruction”, Glisan and Donato describe PACE as:
Presenting a short text, orally or in writing
Attention calling – to a particular form in the text
Co-Constructing an explanation
Extending and using the form in a new context
(I had to make the second point sound unwieldy because the word “Attention” is part of the acronym but didn’t come first in the explanation in the book.)
This may be a good way to teach students who have already acquired a language (or at least a good bit of a language) information that will help them edit their production (i.e., employ the Monitor function). It does not, however, aid acquisition because it is conscious learning. If Krashen and VanPatten are correct, then the PACE model supports acquisition only insofar as 1) the initial text is in the target language (so learners are receiving additional comprehensible input) and 2) the co-construction of an explanation is done in the target language (once again providing additional comprehensible input). But there does not seem to be any expectation that the co-construction of an explanation of the form will be done in the target language. It could just as easily be done in English (or the students’ native language). Any gains in acquisition are the result of exposure to the target language, not the focus on form.
Otherwise, this is essentially a hybrid (inductive-deductive) variant of the Present – Practice – Perform model, which is a skills model of language learning.
Why do I call it a hybrid? On the one hand, students extract, with the help of the teacher, the rule or principle from the text. That is inductive. On the other hand, students then take the principle and apply it to specific instances in the Extension phase of the model. That is deductive.
I find it interesting that Glisan and Donato hold this model up for emulation when they condemn both inductive and deductive instruction in the same chapter. (Glisan and Donato 2017, pp. 90-91) They espouse “Focus on Form as a Social Process” based on the presupposition that “the essence of language [is] social action”. (p. 91) (That is a presupposition that ought to be debated, btw.) Yet, the process they put forward uses both inductive and deductive instruction. Perhaps they are condemning purely inductive and purely deductive instruction, but that is not clear. Instead, they present their view as a tertium quid, not just a hybrid of the two recognized methods of reasoning.
I took part in a phone call with BVP at ACTFL2017. During the conversation, the PACE method came up, and BVP rejected it on essentially the same grounds that I do: it is a variant of the old Present – Practice – Perform model that does not support acquisition.
The main difference between PACE and PPP, as far as I can tell, is the process involved in arriving at the “rule”. PPP in the classic form is purely deductive instruction: state the rule or principle, apply it to individual instances (practice), prove that you understand the principle (perform).
PACE, on the other hand, arrives at the principle through inductive instruction – similar to the idea behind the old Audio-Lingual Method. That is, you look at individual instances of a phenomenon and extract the general principle from them. ALM generally stopped there. (All of those substitution and chain drills were designed to lead the learner to an understanding of the principle behind the form.) PACE continues with an application of the principle to specific instances, thus adding a deductive element to the inductive process of deriving the principle.
I hope all of that makes sense.

“Leveraged Learning” – Part 1

Last week, I took the week off from posting.

The previous week, I posted about the California World Language Standards and registered my concern about the use and priority of the term “authentic texts” with the definition of “by native speakers for native speakers”.

The week before that, I finished my commentary on Bill VanPatten’s book While We’re on the Topic and invited people to make suggestions about what they would like for me to address.

Other than notifications that a couple of people liked my post, the only comments I have received since then have been from people offering to improve my SEO and get me more readers. I chose not to follow up on those.

During the past week, I came across a Quora question asking what people think about a “no zero” grading policy. This brought me to some work I did some time ago on the history of grades and grading. That brought me to a book that I started reading recently. It’s titled Leveraged Learningand is by Danny Iny. Danny is an online information provider, and he has done his research in preparing this book.

Since I did the initial research on the history of grades and grading, this broader view of the education system looked interesting. It is.

An ongoing debate is the state of education in the United States. The one thing that nearly everyone seems to agree on is that the current system is not designed or implemented to take us into the future. Precisely what is wrong and what the solution(s) may be are hotly debated. Even though the “education reform movement” and its opponents have not been in the news recently, the ongoing conflict is very real.

However, before we can suggest a solution, we have to understand what the problem is. This is where a bit of historical perspective can be helpful.

So, today I’ll summarize some of the information that Danny provides about the history and current state of education in the United States. Although he concentrates on post-secondary education, Danny makes comments about all of education. In this, he tends to reflect and repeat common perceptions.

What we consider “modern education” has its beginnings in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when universities were established. (Bologna in 1088, Paris in 1150, Oxford in 1167; Heidelberg is a latecomer in 1386)

Excursus (aka “rabbit trail”) 1:

The course of study consisted of the Trivium (grammar, or mechanics of language; logic/dialectic, or mechanics of thought and analysis; rhetoric, or application of language in order to instruct and persuade) followed by the Quadrivium (arithmetic, or pure number; geometry, or number in space; music (harmonics and not performance), or number in time; and astronomy, or number in space and time). This looks, at first, very different from our modern curriculum, but many aspects of modern university education are developments from the medieval system. In addition, the universities themselves were based on cathedral schools and monastic schools. If this seems highly theoretical to you, you’re probably right.

Before the development of a large middle class, higher education – indeed, education in generally – was the domain of the wealthy. Poor people had neither time nor resources to pursue education. They could not afford private tutors, and children who were able to work had to help support the family, so even the cathedral and monastic schools played a limited role in educating the poor.

Back to “Leveraged Learning”:

The elite nature of education nearly ensured success for the person who managed to obtain a degree. Having a diploma from a university was nearly a guarantee of a better, more successful life. To a large degree and for over two hundred years in the United States (Harvard issued its first degree in 1813), higher education more than delivered on its promise.

Within the last few years, however, education has lost some of its luster. For one thing, ubiquity has undermined differentiation. Whereas a bachelor’s degree used to make a person stand out, now that a four-year degree has become commonplace, that no longer holds. The BA holds the same place that a high school diploma used to hold; the MA holds the BA’s old place. This is a kind of “academic inflation”. Consequently, “the majority … of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed …” (Iny, p. viii) Another problem is the rising cost of education, which has by far outpaced inflation. The average debt of over $30,000 for graduates is compounded by the opportunity cost.

If the only consideration for getting a college degree is earning power, then that degree is beginning to look less useful and seem more like a liability. This, of course, is the standard position of entrepreneurs, especially online entrepreneurs: our education system has failed us. Of course, to come to this conclusion and maintain its viability, the critics have to craft their definitions carefully and ignore large amounts of mitigating information.

Excursus 2:

Now, I will not deny that there are significant problems within education, not least of which is the high cost. Another problem is the one-size-fits-all approach to elementary and secondary education. Individual teachers are encouraged to “differentiate instruction”, but the system as a whole is designed to look, feel, and operate the same wherever we may go. Federal incentives (e.g., “No Child Left Behind” and “Race To The Top”) and reform initiatives (e.g., Common Core State Standards) are intended not only to establish standards but also dictate the means for achieving them. Through PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a series of exams throughout the school career have been developed and are administered each year. (We know that what you test is what you teach.) A limited number of textbook publishers, most notably Pearson, provide not just the tests but also the textbooks for the curriculum. I see many problems with this arrangement, not least of which is that the publishing giants are setting the curriculum so that we have not just “standardized tests” but “standardized teaching”. Don’t get me started here.

The federal Department of Education’s push toward standardization, which I consider beneficial in manufacturing but not in education, stalled a bit in 2015 with the passage of “Every Student Succeeds”. Currently, 39 states are either full or partial members of one of the two assessment consortia (PARCC and SBAC), but some have repealed their membership, and others are reviewing participation. A few years ago, only a handful of states and territories were not members.

Back to the book:

Danny Iny joins other critics of education in declaring the system “broken” and therefore detrimental to us all.

He first defines “education” and “learning” primarily in financial terms: “designed experiences that are meant to act as a short-cut to achieving whatever job prospects, financial rewards, upward mobility, social contribution, and personal fulfillment we might aspire to.” (Iny, p. xii) Three of the of the five objectives in the definition are financial: job prospects, financial rewards, upward mobility. One implies financial success: social contribution. Only one is generally interpreted apart from finances: personal fulfillment – although even here finances are often perceived as the means to fund doing the things that lead to personal fulfillment.

According to Iny, the situation is so dire that “When the fringes and outliers are the only ones achieving success, they do so in spite of the system rather than because of it.” (Iny, p. xiii)

To me, Iny makes the same mistake that many people make: he blames the education for not doing something that it was not really designed to do. That, of course, takes us to the question of what the education system was intended to do. The answer to that question is complex indeed because so many different people with so many different understandings of education have been involved in shaping the education system. Maybe we’ll get there in another post.

Where Iny does get it right is in his recognition of diversity in information gathering and instructional settings. The university or college is no longer the sole provider of education, and the university degree is no longer the sole sign of competence. Our society as a whole is a bit slow in recognizing other signs of competence and excellence, but that recognition is growing. Some of the resources available include the following:

  • Repackaged university courses like The Great Courses or free massive open online courses (MOOC);
  • Intensive coding (and other) courses at places like General Assembly;
  • Continuing or executive education programs from established educational; institutions like universities;
  • Courses offered at community centers;
  • For-profit colleges (of dubious credibility and standing);
  • Courses from celebrity instructors;
  • Corporate internal training;
  • Self-study e-learning programs, apps, and software;
  • Supplemental education videos on sites like YouTube and Khan Academy;
  • Online video courses presented by individual experts.

I believe Iny also identifies correctly three important drivers of success: knowledge and skill; meaningful insight (analysis and creativity); balance of emotions and habits of fortitude (persistence, consistency). (Iny, p. xiii)

At the conclusion of his introduction, Iny admits that he has painted the world of education with a “fairly broad brush”. In addition, his focus is higher education, and my experience is secondary education at a public high school, so our perspectives are different. Furthermore, my experience with higher education is far different from the picture that Iny paints. This may be because my student experience was over 40 years ago, and a lot has changed in that time. It may also be because my experience has been in areas that stressed performance: music and teaching. When I graduated as a sacred music major, I was equipped to work in the field and even had a job offer, which I declined – but that is a story of its own. When I got my credential, the courses were very much geared toward being a teacher. It was not the fault of education that the career path – public school teaching – is not remunerated in a way that is commensurate with the value created. Of course, those same skills can also be used to develop instructional units as an individual expert – something I am currently working on.

So, I will be evaluating this look at the current status of education with a bit of a critical eye and from a perspective that is different from many in the online communities, especially the internet business community.

California World Language Standards

Today I submitted my comments for the draft of the new World Languages Standards for California Public Schools, Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve.

The State of California is updating its World Languages Standards. The current standards were adopted in 2009, so this is a fairly quick update – especially given the fact that there were no standards until 2009. There was a Framework, but no standards.

Overall, the standards are pretty good. There are some problems with the manuscript that should be cleared up through a thorough proofreading and editing process, but that is form, not content.

One of my primary objections in the section on Communication Standards was the emphasis on “authentic texts” and “authentic materials” to the exclusion of anything else.  This objection was intensified by the definition of “authentic materials” in the Draft Glossary:

authentic materials– Materials created by native speakers for native speakers of the target language and cultures [lines 1128-1129]

My two immediate objections are as follows:

  1. This definition excludes anyone and everyone who has produced anything in a language other than their native one. That means that Eva Hoffman (“Lost in Translation”), Yann Martel (“Life of Pi”), and Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”) never produced authentic materials in English. Samuel Beckett (“En attendant Godot” – “Waiting for Godot”) never produced authentic materials in French, despite winning a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. (The prize included his French writings.) I hope we can all agree that this is absurd.
  2. A language learner can never have an authentic conversation in the target language because, as a learner, he or she is not a native speaker. Once again, this is absurd.

I was surprised to see this definition because the profession has attempted in recent years to get around its limitations by substituting “native speaker” with “member of the language and culture community”. While that may resolve the issue in number 1 above, it does nothing for the problem in number 2. Learners at the Novice and Intermediate levels are not, and cannot be, “members of the language and culture community”. Do we then discount classroom conversations, which can be quite effective vehicles for language acquisition, because they are not “authentic”?

μὴ γένοιτο! (God forbid; may it never be.)

We need to change our understanding of the word “authentic” as it applies to teaching and acquiring languages.

We also need to stop confusing the end with the means.

We need to take the research seriously and start giving our students the data they need to acquire a language, i.e., target language that they can understand and find interesting, if not compelling.

Okay, that’s it for today. Rant over.

For anyone who is interested in the California World Language Standards, you can download the draft here.

CLT Principle 6: Focus on Form – Part 6

So far, we have taken a look at Bill VanPatten’s basic premise for even considering focus on form:

Any focus on form … should be input-oriented [and] … couched within meaning-making.

This premise excludes traditional grammar-based teaching and many other practices that focus on form (or forms). The basis for this premise and the subsequent rejection of commonly used practices is the nature of language and language acquisition, to wit that
– Language is abstract and complex
– Acquisition is slow and piecemeal
– Acquisition is stage-like and ordered
– Instruction does not affect the stage-like or ordered nature of acquisition
– There are (several) internal constraints on acquisition
– Input provides the data for acquisition.

Then we noted that VanPatten questions the efficacy, and therefore the desirability, of Input Enhancement and Focus on Form as generally understood and practiced. I noted that from personal interaction, I know that VanPatten rejects the PACE model advocated by Glisan and Donato.

Next, we took a look at Structured Input, both referential structured input activities and affective structured input activities. I noted my concern that the examples that VanPatten provides look a lot like Activities (partially communicative and intended to teach language), something that he dismisses in a previous chapter. One thing that commends Structured Input is that it attempts to address ways in which learners make sense of language, including the Lexical Preference Principle and the First-noun Principle.

At the end of the discussion, VanPatten repeats an important dictum:

Nothing replaces input and the processing of input.

The chapter continues with a presentation of “Other Possibilities”  for “tools that teachers might use to push acquisition along without losing sight of meaning and the role of input”. (2017, p. 109)

The first of these is the Input Flood. That is, the teacher saturates the input with whatever he or she wants to “push along”. In general, this aligns with the principle that repetition is important to acquisition.

However, I wonder how the strategy aligns with the Natural Order of Acquisition. VanPatten maintains that the order acquisition cannot be changed, but perhaps it can be accelerated. However, Input Flood means choosing a particular feature of the language to “flood”. What if that is not the next item in the students’ order of acquisition? Will it accelerate acquisition of the feature at a later time? I’m not certain how someone could measure that.

It seems to me that Dr. Beniko Mason is correct: Providing students with rich, interesting, comprehensible input will take care of these concerns. There are many ways in which teachers can provide their students with rich, interesting – even compelling – comprehensible input. They are easier to implement than the strategies that VanPatten presents in this chapter. Why not use them?

A second strategy that VanPatten presents is the Dictogloss. In this strategy, students listen to a short passage and then work in pairs to reconstruct what they think they heard. They write out their text. One pair of students share their text aloud, and the class compares other versions, discussing differences. The teacher shows the original passage, and the class discusses the content.

VanPatten notes two issues with the Dictogloss:
1. It is less useful for lower and intermediate learners than for advanced learners. (This in and of itself removes the strategy from the repertoire of most secondary school teachers.)
2. Dictogloss results in explicit learning (not acquisition). (This should also make the strategy a non-starter in any classroom dedicated to acquisition.)

The third strategy that VanPatten presents is the Input-Output Cycle. It is similar to a Dictogloss but typically involves written texts. Rather than reconstructing a text, students interact with questions designed to “push learners to focus on particular forms or structure”. (2017, p. 112) Following his presentation of the strategy, VanPatten notes that there is a great deal of speculation about its efficacy, “Still, there is some evidence that input-output cycles can be useful if structured carefully.” (2017, p. 113)

Once again, it seems to me that the difficulty of implementation far outweighs the potential benefits that may accrue for any secondary school teacher to see this as a useful strategy.

In closing this section of the chapter, VanPatten writes, “… like the other interventions we have reviewed in this chapter, they clearly focus on meaning, involve input, and engage learners in using language to learn new information. This is the cornerstone of acquisition.”

Personally, I believe that VanPatten overstates the case. They seem to focus on something other than meaning although meaning is included in the process.

Finally, VanPatten discusses Implications for Language Instruction. He notes the following:

“Focus on form is not a singular thing. There is no one way to do it. Instructors have options.”

One of those options is not to do it. VanPatten notes this as well:

“Because we can focus on form does not mean we have to.”

VanPatten supports this second statement by noting, “Given how both language grows in the mind and communication develops over time, a communicative and proficiency-oriented classroom is already doing what it must do: helping the learner’s internal processes.” (2017, p. 114)

If that is the case, then why are we adding to the burden of both teachers and students?

For those teachers who find themselves in a situation in which they must do some focus on form, VanPatten’s final suggestion is worth considering and investigating: have students work on focus on form activities outside of class. Unfortunately, the interventions provided by publishers will disappoint the teacher who is interested in Contemporary Language Teaching.

VanPatten notes that one of the [main] outcomes of the chapter is to provide teachers with questions to ask about online materials. While that is a good thing, his questions are rather general and do not provide a great deal of guidance.

As I noted at the beginning of the discussion, I consider this the weakest chapter in the book.


The epilogue is far too short to warrant a separate post, so I am adding it to this one.

VanPatten leaves us with some advice and a lengthy example. I won’t try to reproduce the example, but I do consider the advice worth passing on.

If you must assess, assess how you teach and teach the way students will be assessed.

The goals of communicative, proficiency-oriented instruction are not the goals of traditional tests.

Throw out the old tests.

Become an expert in communicative language teaching and assessment.

Then you can explain what you are doing to administrators, students, and parents. A solid foundation of knowledge is your best ally in combatting myths and misunderstandings about language acquisition and teaching.

Next week I’ll take up another topic. Any requests? I hope you have enjoyed and benefitted from my in-depth look at two important books form ACTFL.

CLT Principle 6: Focus on Form – Part 5

Last time, I indicated that Bill VanPatten seems to be advocating Activities (class procedures that are partially communicative and have the purpose of teaching language) in his referential structured input activities that form part of Structured Input.

Referential structured input activities are not the only form of Structured Input that VanPatten presents. He also describes affective structured input activities. These activities occur during affective activities, that is activities in which the communicative purpose is to elicit information about students or to elicit their opinions, beliefs and attitudes. (2017, p. 106) [Is anyone else bothered by the number of times that the word “activities” occurs in this explanation? We have “activities” within “activities”.] The distinction between this and simple communication lies in the fact that the teacher “uses the form in focus in a structured way to elicit information …” (2017, p. 106)

Once again, an example probably clarifies the practice better than a description. An affective structured input activity proceeds as follows.

The teacher reads a series of activities in the past tense that he may or may not have done the previous evening. Students also have the statements in written form. Following the reading, which is also a review of the verb forms previously encountered in referential structured input activities, students discuss with a partner which activities they believe the teacher actually did. After students discuss the activities and indicate their choices, they discuss with the entire class. There are no right or wrong answers because the question is “What do students think?” Following the discussion, students put the activities in the order in which they think the teacher did them. This activity becomes a “test” of how well students know their teacher.

Once all of this has been done, the teacher will reveal “the truth” about the activities.

Once again, this looks very much like an Activity (upper case) because its purpose is to teach language, albeit while taking into consideration a “processing problem” that learners have. This, according to VanPatten distinguishes Structured Input from other techniques “used to foster the development of formal properties of language.

Somehow, I can’t help but think that Stephen Krashen would advocate providing learners with more comprehensible input rather than doing all of the preparation necessary for Structured Input.

In addition, I can certainly create communicative contexts that prompt past-tense forms without the use of artificial and only partially communicative Activities. For example, the affective structured input activity described in the chapter could be an activity that the teacher uses to become better acquainted with students, giving it both a cognitive-informational and a psychosocial (as well as entertainment) purpose within the context of the classroom. The fact that the class is discussing actions in the past provides a communicative context for using the past tense and is much more natural.

Before leaving the discussion, VanPatten provides another example of a processing problem that language learners encounter. It is the First-noun Principle. “Learners tend to tag the first noun or pronoun they encounter in the sentence as the subject or agent of the sentence.” (2017, p. 108) This is true for speakers whose first language is of the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) variety; there are other kinds of languages. The result is that learners encounter problems with the passive. English speakers have problems processing German sentences when the first element of the sentence is not the subject. Let’s illustrate.

English relies heavily on word order for meaning because we do not use inflected forms (except pronouns). “The dog chased the cat” means something different from “The cat chased the dog.” However, in German “Die Katze jagte den Hund” and “Den Hund jagte die Katze” both translate as “The cat chased the dog.” How can this be? German uses case to indicate function in the sentence. “Den” indicates that “Hund” cannot be the subject or agent of the sentence; “Hund” must be the entity being chased, no matter whether it comes first or last in this sentence. However, students who rely on the First-noun Principle to process meaning will misidentify which animal is chasing the other when “Hund” comes first.

How do we help students overcome this processing error? VanPatten suggests creating structured input activities to “foster the development of formal properties of language.” (2017, p. 107) He notes, however, that Structured Input is “cumbersome and requires substantial background knowledge for teachers. And it takes time to create activities.” (2017, p. 109) Then, he notes that

Nothing replaces input and the processing of input.

Krashen would say, “Give them more comprehensible input in which the problematic construction occurs.”

I prefer Krashen’s solution.

Next time we’ll finish our look at this chapter.

CLT Principle 6: Focus on Form – Part 4

Thanks for your patience. I’m running a day late in getting this posted.

Just as a reminder, the full title of this chapter is “Any Focus on Form Should be Input-Oriented and Meaning-Based”.

Last time (Focus on Form Part 3), we saw that there are two very different perceptions of what Focus on Form means. Glisan and Donato present one that requires purpose and planning, whereas VanPatten presents Focus on Form as being spontaneous, not pre-planned, and not purposeful. For Glisan and Donato, Focus on Form includes a class discussion of the form in a way that seems very reminiscent of a traditional grammar class. For VanPatten, Focus on Form “does not derail the teacher from a primary focus on meaning.” (2017, p. 104) The PACE model is Glisan and Donato’s chosen vehicle for incorporating Focus on Form, whereas VanPatten strongly rejects the PACE model for language acquisition.

Finally, Glisan and Donato include Focus on Form in its pre-planned, purposeful manifestation in their list of HLTPs (High-Leverage Teaching Practices). VanPatten notes that “it is not clear to what extent such events actually ‘speed up’ or ‘help’ acquisition.” (2017, p. 104)

This brings VanPatten and us to a type of “Focus on Form”, the research on which “is very promising”.

That is Structured Input.

Unlike VanPatten’s understanding of “Focus on Form”, Structured Input “requires much more preparation on the part of the teacher, thus is much harder to include in any curriculum.” (2017, p. 105)

We will return to this aspect of Structured Input later. For now, let’s see what it is, the research behind it, its purpose, and how it works in the instructional setting.

Structured Input is part of processing instruction, a pedagogical intervention that VanPatten pioneered in the 1990s. That is, it incorporates strategies for processing language input as an initial stage of acquisition that learners unconsciously use. In simpler terms, processing instruction helps teachers design lessons that use those strategies as support for learners. I think the term is unfortunate because it doesn’t seem to mean that the instructor teaches strategies for processing language, rather the instructor designs a lesson that incorporates the strategies that the learner already uses. An example will make this clearer.

But first, what is “processing”? It is simply linking form and meaning during comprehension. This, of course, takes us into the heart of the acquisition debate. If, as Krashen and VanPatten maintain, acquisition is an unconscious process, then as long as the input is comprehensible (and preferably compelling), the learner will process it by unconsciously linking what is seen or heard to meaning. If, on the other hand, “noticing” is important in acquisition, then drawing learners’ attention to certain aspects of the language can be helpful.

This is where I have difficulties with the entire discussion. Since I accept the research and conclusions presented by Krashen (Comprehensible Input Hypothesis) and VanPatten (language is implicit and abstract and so cannot be learned consciously), I question adopting a practice that “requires much more preparation on the part of the teacher, thus is much harder to include in any curriculum.” (2017, p. 105)

But let’s return to Structured Input.

One of the strategies that learners use to process input (understand the language) is the Lexical Preference Principle. For novice learners, essentially everything is vocabulary. Learners zero in on content words because they carry the greatest meaning and ignore the parts that are “less meaningful” (i.e. provide nuances of meaning for which the learner is not yet prepared to cope), such as time indicators (e.g. tense markers on verbs). Because of lexical preference, lexical time indicators (yesterday, tomorrow, next week, last week, always, later, etc.) can actually interfere with learner acquisition of tense endings. (2017, pp. 105-106)

To overcome lexical preference and help students process tense markers, VanPatten suggests sets of “activities”. He uses lower case to mean simply something that you do during instruction. At the same time, these seem to be Activities (capitalized) in the sense of being only partially communicative and having no communicative purpose beyond “teaching language”. (cf. Van Patten’s discussion in 2017, pp. 83-85) Thus, they seem at odds with VanPatten’s own position on second language acquisition and instruction.

The first activities (Activities) that VanPatten suggests are referential structured input activities. They are input because the learner is trying to understand and does not have to give any output. They are structured “because the input is manipulated to push learners to process something they might miss otherwise.” (2017, p. 106) [This seems rather like the “Noticing Hypothesis” to me, although for VanPatten this “noticing” is not necessarily conscious.] They are referential “because they have an immediate right or wrong answer.” (2017, p. 106)

In the example that VanPatten gives, the activity looks something like this:

The teacher displays three designators of time for each sentence. The designators indicate present, past, and future.

The teacher then reads a sentence with no context and no indication of time. Students choose the time designator they think is appropriate for the sentence.

[This is why I believe this is an Activity. Students must process language in order to do the activity, so it is partially communicative. However, the purpose is to “teach language” rather than communicate.]

The teacher displays two possible reactions to a statement, e.g. follow-up questions.

The teacher reads a statement, and students choose the “correct” response.

For this example, not only do we have the problem with it being an Activity, but VanPatten has chosen an example that is ambiguous. Here it is.

Teacher statement: “My buddy hates tea.”

Student choices:
a. So why does he have it in his kitchen?
b. So why did he order it with lunch?

Do you see the problem? Both responses are equally reasonable in normal conversation. Let me illustrate by providing hypothetical contexts.

The “right answer” is, as we expect, the present-tense response. BVP and I are talking about tea. We have both visited SK and noted that he has a variety of teas in his kitchen. Naturally, he has Earl Grey for BVP, but he also has Assam, English Breakfast, and others. While we’re talking, BVP mentions, “You know that SK hates tea.” My response is, “So why does he have it in his kitchen?” [And the conversation continues.]

BVP, SK, and I go to lunch. At lunch, SK – a notorious coffee drinker – orders tea (probably ice tea). Later, BVP and I are discussing what kinds of tea we like. I might say “Assam, Darjeeling, or Oolong.” BVP, of course, states that he drinks Earl Grey and then adds, “You know that SK hates tea.” My response is, “So why did he order it with lunch?!” [And the conversation continues.]

Both responses are equally “correct”, plausible, and logical from a strictly communicative standpoint. However, since this is a referential structured input activity and has “an immediate right or wrong answer”, the reason for the right answer must be something else – and that reason is grammar. The “correct answer” is “correct” because its tense matches the tense of the prompt.  That’s grammar, and this looks like grammar instruction with the benefit of occurring in the target language. So, it is partially communicative but has the purpose of teaching language.

VanPatten’s other example is equally problematic because the responses are also equally “correct” when using criteria other than matching the tense of the verb. To me, this is a grammar Activity.

Perhaps I am missing something here and someone else sees it. If so, I would welcome comments and corrections.

VanPatten has a great deal more to say on the subject, but we will stop here for now. Thanks for reading.

CLT Principle 6: Focus on Form – Part 3

Last week we looked at Bill VanPatten’s comments on “Input Enhancement” and saw that he gives it a tepid endorsement at best but acknowledges that it at least seems to do no harm.

This week we’ll take a look at Focus on Form in this chapter of Van Patten’s book While We’re On the Topic.

Here are VanPatten’s opening remarks about Focus on Form:

Focus on form can be called a type of input enhancement but was developed as a separate idea by Michael Long. The idea behind focus on form is that during a communicative event, teachers might draw learners’ attention to some property of language in a way that does not break communicative flow. Unlike input enhancement in its original concept, focus on form is not pre-planned or purposeful. It arises incidentally during a communicative interaction. (2017, p. 103)

While he uses the same term, “Focus on Form”, VanPatten has a very different take on it from Glisan and Donato. For my discussion of their presentation of Focus on Form, see here, here, here, and here. In their book Enacting the Work of Language Instruction, Glisan and Donato champion the PACE model of focus on form. Just to review, here are the steps in PACE:

  • PRESENTATION of a text that contains the form on which the teacher wishes to focus
  • ATTENTION is drawn to the form that is important to understanding
  • CO-CONSTRUCTION of an explanation of the form through discussion and dialogue
  • EXTENSION and use of the form in a new context

A fundamental difference between what Glisan and Donato present and what VanPatten presents is the idea of planning. For Glisan and Donato, Focus on Form is highly planned and extremely purposeful. VanPatten maintains that “… focus on form is not pre-planned or purposeful. It arises incidentally …”

I know that VanPatten rejects the PACE model. At the 2018 ACTFL convention, I was able to be part of a group telephone call to VanPatten. During the conversation, someone mentioned the PACE model. VanPatten categorically and strongly rejected the validity of this model along the same lines that I outlined in my discussion of it: it relies on some form of the Output Hypothesis, it involves conscious learning and knowledge of language (which do not lead to acquisition), and it is really the old Present – Practice – Perform model in modern dress.

Nonetheless, VanPatten advocates some very common practices as part of his understanding of Focus on Form. These include

Recasts: The teacher “unobtrusively recasts” what the learner says so that it sounds like a native speaker. This raises some questions, but we’ll get to them in a moment. Most importantly, VanPatten maintains that the purpose is not correction but affirmation of the message and a continuation of the conversation.

One of the questions that VanPatten’s statement raises is the efficacy of recasting. If the purpose were error correction, then recasts would not be very efficacious (if at all). Students often do not even recognize that a recast has been made, especially if the recast is “unobtrusive”.

Another question is whether or not the recast accomplishes the purpose. As an affirmation of understanding, i.e. as part of the negotiation of meaning, the recast can be useful in that it allows the conversation to continue. And this brings us to the next strategy for “focus on form”:

Negotiation of meaning: If a student uses a present form of a verb but the sentence seems to indicate a past action, the teacher (or other interlocutor) may need to clarify which is meant. This will generally involve some rephrasing, if not recasting.

“According t0 focus on form, this negotiation may draw learner attention to an aspect of language through a natural facet of communication: clarifying meaning. In a nutshell, any attempt to negotiate meaning could be a focus on form.” (2017, p. 104; emphasis mine)

Here, it seems to me that VanPatten is hedging his bets. Once again, his endorsement is tepid at best. He also places strictures on the use of “focus on form” that are far different from the mainstream understanding – and Glisan and Donato’s presentation – of focus on form. VanPatten notes that “focus on form fits within the parameters of how acquisition happens:

  1. The event is couched within some kind of communicative interaction; it is not an ‘explicit teaching moment.’
  2. Somewhere in the interaction, the learner receives focused input that may provide more data for the internal mechanisms responsible for acquisition.” (2017, p. 104)

Thus, we see VanPatten returning to the unconscious, abstract, and implicit nature of language and language acquisition. There is still no ringing endorsement of focus on form. VanPatten notes that “As with input enhancement, it is not clear to what extent such events actually ‘speed up’ or ‘help’ acquisition.” (2017, p. 104)

I’m still trying to figure out why VanPatten has included these two strategies or practices in his book, given his unenthusiastic presentation of them.

Next time, we’ll look at Structured Input. For now, though, I’ll end this post with a reminder from Bill VanPatten that I find apt:

We can’t force the learning of mental representation – or the learning of communication, for that matter. We can only provide oppourtunities for it to develop.

CLT Principle 6: Focus on Form – Part 2

After reviewing the nature of language and language acquisition and presenting three basics facts about the nature of instruction (see the discussion here), VanPatten poses a series of questions that are the core of the current chapter.

Acknowledging that input, not explanation + practice, is the data for language acquisition, is it possible to help acquisition along? We can’t alter stages or ordered development. We can’t override the internal mechanisms that guide and constrain acquisition. We can’t alter the piecemeal nature of acquisition. So what might be possible? We can start by asking ourselves the following:

What aspects of language do learners seem to have trouble with, and which ones are “easy”?

If we can’t alter natural processes, can we speed them up in some way?

VanPatten’s answer to the first question is rather straightforward: Students have trouble with those “aspects of language that take a long time to acquire or are protracted in their acquisition.” (2017, p. 101)

In other words, the aspects of language that cause problems are not the ones that most teachers identify because students struggle with them on paper-and-pencil tests. They are aspects of language that are not amenable to reduction to textbook rules of grammar.

Perhaps “late-acquired” items are late acquired simply because we need more exposure to them than to “early-acquired” items. Obviously, then, learners will struggle with these aspects of language until they have had sufficient exposure to them. Conscious memorization of rules does not help, and the order of acquisition is not subject to rearrangement.

The response to the second question, “If we can’t alter the natural processes, can we speed them up in some way?”, forms the remainder of this chapter. That response entails an investigation of “Input Enhancement” and “Focus on Form”.

Today, we’ll look at Input Enhancement.

Input Enhancement “refers to any attempt by instructors to draw learner attention to more difficult aspects of language by manipulating input.” (2017, p. 102) This manipulation may be oral or written.

For example, one form of Input Enhancement is simply adding emphasis on a word while speaking. This can be done through voice stress, inflection, pausing, or something else. Van Patten gives the following example:

… the class is engaged in a discussion about a colleague’s schedule. At one point the instructor says, “no, he leaves at 5:00, not arrives,” emphasizing the verbs and perhaps slightly lengthening the final consonant that indicates third-person. (Note: the teacher is actually emphasizing content, but in doing so he is making the verbs more salient through stress and pitch.)

Beyond the discussion that VanPatten provides, the example prompts the question of what is efficacious here, if anything. Does this “Input Enhancement” work because students become more aware of the verb forms or because they receive more comprehensible input through the negotiation of meaning?

Input Enhancement can also consist of bolding, color coding, or otherwise “highlighting” particular things in written texts.

Whether oral or written, Input Enhancement must meet two important criteria:

  1. Learners are working with input, not practicing language in the traditional sense. Real communication is going on.
  2. The primary focus is on meaning, trying to interpret input for its content.

So, what is the verdict on Input Enhancement?

The jury is out on the relative benefits of input enhancement.

(2017, p. 102)

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the strategy. However, as VanPatten points out, at least it does no harm as long as the focus is on meaning. It provides content for classroom discussion and interaction, and it can be used outside of class in online environments. And it is easy to use.

VanPatten does not mention this, but some sort of “Input Enhancement” is also something we do unconsciously as part of our natural process of expressing and negotiating meaning.

I agree here with VanPatten’s final evaluation:

As long as educators don’t slip into using it to explicitly teach grammar, and as long as they keep their sights on the roles of input and meaning-making in the communicative classroom, there’s nothing wrong with making use of input enhancement.

To this, I would add: But don’t expect too much from it.

That’s it for this post. Next time we’ll take a look at Focus on Form and its variants.

CLT Principle 6: Focus on Form – Part 1

Today, we come to the last principle and the penultimate chapter in Bill VanPatten’s book, While We’re On the Topic.

I consider this the weakest chapter in the book. I think this for two reasons: 1) It contradicts the idea that VanPatten has put forward in his other chapter, i.e. that language is acquired by providing the learner with comprehensible/comprehended input in the target language and 2) VanPatten seems ambivalent in his presentation of Focus on Form. I will elucidate both of those points.

But first, the full title of the chapter is “Any Focus on Form Should be Input-Oriented and Meaning-Based”. VanPatten expands on this with the following statement:

Any focus on form – that is, somehow drawing learners’ attention to aspects of language – should be input-oriented as opposed to traditional presentation + practice orientation. In addition, all focus on form should be couched within meaning-making. (2017, p. 97)

Before getting into VanPatten’s discussion, let’s add a little context.

“Focus on Form” is another way of saying “Teach Grammar”. It is, however, used to represent a departure from the traditional grammar-driven syllabus. That is, traditional grammar teaching derives from the old Grammar-Translation Method in which a series of discrete grammar rules and paradigms (e.g. declensions of nouns, conjugations of verbs) are presented without regard to meaning or context. Then, the learner applies these rules by translating disconnected and often nonsensical sentences between L1 and L2. Meaning is, at best, irrelevant to the process.

Focus on Form, however, often accompanies an inductive rather than deductive presentation of grammar. That is, the learner sees numerous examples of a particular grammar point and derives the rule from the examples. How, you might ask, is this different from the idea of presenting the language to the learner and allowing the learner to construct a mental representation of the language? A key difference is the fact that constructing a mental representation is a natural and unconscious process whereas extrapolating and formulating conscious rules of grammar is entirely conscious and does not become the unconscious mental representation that is necessary for acquisition and fluency.

There is, of course, a spectrum of opinions on the role of grammar in language acquisition. The Grammar-Translation Method represents one end of this spectrum: learn a language through conscious memorization of rules of grammar and syntax as well as vocabulary. It is all conscious learning and requires great mental effort.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who maintain that learning explicit grammar is not only unnecessary to acquisition but can, in some instances, be detrimental to it. Dr. Stephen Krashen is probably the most widely known representative of this position.

[Here it should be noted that Dr. Krashen does not say that learning certain grammar rules has zero benefit. The Monitor Hypothesis states that conscious learning is beneficial under a particular set of highly circumscribed circumstances. One must know the rule, one must be thinking of the rule, and one must have the time to apply the rule. Thus, at least some rules of grammar can be beneficial to someone who is writing in the language. That is when the strictures apply. These rules, however, still do not lead to acquisition.]

VanPatten simplifies this spectrum of opinions and presents two alternatives:
1. Many students, parents, teachers, and administrators believe that the correct model for language acquisition is “presentation + practice”. Sometimes this is expressed as Present – Practice – Perform. This model has dominated the educational establishment for generations, and anyone who has attended a public school in the United States and most European countries probably “learned” a language this way.
2. Other teachers (and it is primarily teachers) hold the opinion that focusing on grammar does little or nothing to advance either acquisition or communicative ability in learners. This may be expressed by the injunction to learn a second language the same way you learned your first language.

Essentially, VanPatten has presented the two extremes of the spectrum of opinions and beliefs about the role of grammar in language acquisition. He then asks the questions
– Which position is correct?
– Is there some middle ground?

As a foundation for answering the questions, VanPatten reviews some basic facts about language and language acquisition that he presented in earlier chapters. These basic facts are as follows:

Language is abstract and complex.

It is “too abstract and complex to teach and learn explicitly. … There is no mechanism that turns explicit ‘rules’ into the abstract, complex mental representation we call ‘language’.” (2017, p. 98)

Acquisition is slow and piecemeal.

By the time a child is about six years old, the child has mastered the basics of the adult language system. This represents about 14,500 hours or more. If, as VanPatten and others maintain, the acquisition process is the same for second (and third, etc.) languages, then this slow and piecemeal nature of acquisition applies in these instances as well. In other words, acquisition is not linear, and it does not happen quickly.

Acquisition is stage-like and ordered.

Learners go through stages and acquire in a set order. “There is no evidence that stages can be skipped or orders altered; attempts to do so have failed.” (2017, p. 99)

To these basic facts about language and language acquisition, VanPatten adds three basic facts about instruction that have been gleaned from research.

Instruction does not affect the stage-like or ordered nature of acquisition.

You can’t skip stages or alter the order of acquisition. Repeated studies have shown this. You can use the Monitor (see above) to apply conscious learning, but spontaneous output remains unchanged. Nor does instruction affect the piecemeal nature of acquisition.

There are (severe) internal constraints on acquisition.

No matter what we call it, “Something inside the learner’s mind/brain processes and organizes language in ways that ouside forces such as instruction and practice cannot manipulate.” (2017, p. 99)

Input provides the data for acquisition.

We might even add “and only input”, i.e. “Input, and only input, provides the data for acquisition. As VanPatten states, “Language that learners hear and see in communicative contexts forms the data on which the internal mechanisms operate. Nothing can substitute for this.” (2017, p. 99)

From these basic facts – and VanPatten reminds us that they are empirical observations, not opinions – VanPatten draws the following conclusions:

“The explicit learning and teaching of traditional grammar does little to assist the development of the implicit, abstract, and complex mental representation this is language.”

Here, I believe VanPatten is being generous. If his basic position is true, that explicit rules of grammar not only look nothing like the “rules” that the brain constructs and that conscious knowledge of grammar cannot become the complex, abstract, and implicit mental representation, then the statement probably ought to be, “… traditional grammar does nothing to assist …”

The kernel of every spontaneous sentence of any learner comes from the implicit system. The explicit system is, at best, window dressing.

This conclusion is the basis for VanPatten’s addressing Focus on Form. While it is, at best, window dressing, the explicit system does dress things up a bit and can be offered as a sop to those students and administrators who demand at least some traditional instruction. The teacher should remember, however, that it does little or nothing to foster acquisition.


If acquisition and communication are your goal, explicit teaching is not the best use of your time.

We’ll leave the matter at this point for now. This is, however, where I find one weakness in this chapter. Having concluded that there are better uses of instructional time, VanPatten goes on to discuss different types of Focus on Form.

Until next time, I hope the active teachers enjoy a smooth start to the school year, teachers in training receive useful mentoring, and retired teachers enjoy their respite from the exigencies of the educational establishment.