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The Impact of Placement Practices on English Language Learners
Research Study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, 2006
Freeman and Freeman (2002) identified three distinct subgroups of ELLs: newly arrived with adequate formal schooling, newly arrived with limited formal schooling, and long term English learners. These subgroups require significantly differing approaches in instruction and vary extremely in terms of prior education, literacy, and English oral language proficiency. But what happens when these students are placed together in one classroom with one teacher attempting to use “differentiated instruction” to maximize each student’s learning rate and academic success? We contend that this effort is analogous to placing 20 students into one classroom who all need a credit in science, except that some need a credit in astronomy, others in biology, yet others in earth science. Meanwhile, the teacher assigned to the class is certified in elementary science education and provided with state science standards for physics and requested to provide differentiated instruction such that all students will maximize their learning in the areas in which they need help while making progress toward achieving high scores in the standardized state science test in physics.
We decided to take a look at these three groups in terms of their characteristics and instructional needs, and identify some of the causes for the failure of our secondary schools to provide the kind of help that allows them to be successful academically and economically. Our premise was simply that differentiated instruction cannot take place without differentiate placement when student characteristics are too varied to allow for successful implementation of such instructional strategies.
Table 1 summarizes some of the characteristics of these distinct ELL subgroups as identified by Fresno Unified School District, Office of Multilingual/Multicultural Education and Lenski, Ehlers-Zavala, Daniel and Sun-Irminger (2006). For discussion in this work, these three groups are classified as: Highly Literate New Immigrants (HLNI), Under Schooled New Immigrants (USNI), and Long Term Literacy English Proficient (LTLEP).
The primary goal of all language learning methodology literature is to help teachers become better at what they do. Better teachers help students learn a second language more efficiently (faster and easier) and more effectively (they do it better) while assuring that the learning process is a pleasant experience (they like learning). Methodology refers to the practices and procedures used in teaching, which are generally based on theories of learning and an understanding of the nature of language. Teachers just want to know what works. Unfortunately, things are never as simple as they appear, and the best attempts at providing guidance have resulted in an excessive wealth of materials, all supported by research as promoting “the best” in curriculum and instructional design. And although some authors insist they are providing a “more empirical footing” for the field (Nunan, 1998, p. 15), that empirical footing comfortably supports many approaches and methods.
It is not enough to provide a menu of alternatives. Successful language learning is measured in a variety of ways and includes mastering skills in listening comprehension, speaking, reading, writing, pronunciation, vocabulary acquisition, and grammar usage. Each of these skills relies on potentially different cognitive skills which may warrant different teaching approaches or methodologies. On another level, language learning methodology is connected to general principles of learning, and there is no strict consensus on precisely how learning occurs or even what constitutes knowledge (Rowland, 1999, p. 5). To further complicate matters, methodologies are connected to philosophical perspectives that may focus on the learner, the teacher, the nature of language, the nature of learning, or a combination of these. Beyond this, research is embedded in historical trends and cultural influences that affect research design and the interpretation of results. The complex nature of language forces us to consider and apply developments from related fields of inquiry, including the biochemical processes of the brain, motivation theory, the nature of perception and reality, culture and meaning, systems theory, and evolution. So while we attempt to develop the specialized area of linguistic research and apply what we can glean from qualitative and quantitative studies, we must recognize the dynamic web of interdependent disciplines which inform us and influence our search for teaching methodologies.
We need an improved methodology which can address the diversity of learners and transfer knowledge regardless of the particular linguistic skill being taught. It must be consistent with developments in related fields of inquiry and promote a comprehensive language learning philosophy, one that supports language learners in all environments. Given the complexity of interacting considerations and impacting factors, is it possible to provide such a tool for thinking about and teaching language? This paper purports to provide just such a new perspective, which we call Range. Although used herein in a broader context and with a slightly expanded meaning, the term itself as well as its primacy in language learning was consistently referred to by Rod Ellis, whose studies focused on vocabulary acquisition and the understanding of word meanings. Despite the fact that current language learning assumes the necessity of interaction and an appreciation for the “communicative” approach, Ellis tells us that “one of the conclusions based on research reported in previous chapters is that learners do not need to engage in social interaction in order to acquire the L2; they can benefit equally, and perhaps in some cases, to a greater extent by simply attending to non-interactive input.” (Ellis, 248). If interaction is not the primary impetus for language learning and the development of meaning, what is? We propose that the key to language learning is Range, whose definition (in vocabulary acquisition) was proposed by Mackey as “the number of samples or texts in which an item is to be found.” (Ellis 182). The notion that Range is the principal force behind learning vocabulary is repeatedly reinforced and evidenced in research study after research study. In some studies Ellis notes that both in ‘premodified and interactionally modified groups’ the measure of “range” was significantly related (positively) to acquisition scores. (104) And again, “As might be expected, Range figures as a significant predictor in a number of analyses, often in conjunction with Frequency” (111) Although we already know that repetition (frequency) plays a critical role in language learning, Range outdistances even Frequency. In summing up, Ellis states related to the characteristics of input and interaction that were associated with incidental acquisition of word meaning: “Only one factor – Range – figured in significant correlations with vocabulary acquisitions by both premodified and interactionally modified input groups. Hearing words used in a variety of different contexts aids their acquisition. Interestingly, Range emerges as a more important factor than word frequency” (108) And again, “Range was also a strong predictor of follow-up test scores.” (105) Ellis concludes with the following statement: “The most important factor contributing positively to the acquisition of word meaning was Range.” (112). The question that needs to be addressed is why this is so. Ellis provides a hint to the answer when he says, “”I have suggested that researchers adopt a broader view of interaction such as that afforded by sociocultural theory. From this perspective, the key construct is that of scaffolding”…. (251) We shall expand on this point and address the connection between Range and scaffolding further on. For now, suffice to say that Range as we use it refers to the diversity (or variety) of presentations provided which contain the item to be learned. Presentations can be types of sentences when we refer to vocabulary, or types of media when promoting the same discrete learning outcome, or types of activities used to develop a skill. It is the VARIETY or DIVERSITY of presentations that maximizes target item learning efficiency, effectiveness, and maintains learner interest. Range will allow for maximizing “comprehensible input” for the greatest variety of learners in any given learning environment.
The basic and rather simple proposal of this paper is that Range is to language learning as complexity is to systems and evolution. It is where “learning” occurs. The concept of Range can be applied at any level, it can direct specific activities in a particular learning mode such as reading or writing, it can direct the choice and variety of instructional methods such as group work versus teacher “input”, and it can direct the choice and variety of media such as computer based multimedia and paper and pencil exercises. This paper will take the reader through a path of understanding based on current models and theories in the related fields of evolution, neural networks, computer dynamics, information systems, learning, and motivation. It will connect Range to traditional and current methodologies in language learning, and to the critical commonalities in language learning (age, the affective domain, L1, metacognition, repetition, and multiple intelligences). On the practical side, it will provide examples of how Range can be implemented in addressing each skill (reading, writing, etc…). Hopefully, with an understanding of Range, teachers will be able to better appreciate and draw upon the potpourri of possibilities offered by the research and theories in applied linguistics, while feeling more empowered than ever before to engage in situational decision making (action research) regarding what they choose to do within their classrooms.
Review of Methodologies
A brief overview of the history and definition of Language Learning Methodology is warranted. Today’s focus on the learner has changed the officially promoted title of the field from Language Teaching to Language Learning, but both express concerns about how teachers influence language learning (acquisition) and both are part of applied linguistics. A few statements are in order before we begin with the most often cited and reviewed methodologies. When we review a current field of specialization (methodology), we use the lens of today’s perspective, current technical terms (buzzwords), and make judgments and distinctions based on the categories of knowledge and research that have recently developed. Language teaching and learning did not begin at a particular time that we can pinpoint with accuracy. Linguistics was a word used already by Plato, despite the fact that we consider “modern linguistics” to have begun in the 17th century. Our criticisms of past practices must be made with extreme caution, and the span of generations always ends up being too wide an area to cover with justice and depth, so we grossly gloss over the varying trends that did exist. While “official” study in linguistics as a field unto itself may have begun in a particular decade, practitioners in various countries and from antiquity may have initiated and used many of the methods we consider “modern” and new. Even our newest focuses, be they “communicative”, “learner-centered”, or “postmodern”, are NOT new. All that we have done is created new systems to categorize different approaches based on newly created “fields of study”. There really is “nothing new under the sun” beyond our classifying and re-ordering things into “models”. Language teaching in antiquity had its own heroes, many of whom used the same “methods” based on the same underlying “ideas” we consider “modern approaches.” Some had common sense or intuition, and some perhaps had experience on which to base their efforts. What they did not have, and what most of our current researchers write about is “officially sanctified” approaches based on “scientific theories”. These theories belong to the realm of “formal linguistics”, where the structure and process of language is studied. But as we move into the future, we see that our most scientific theories, and the scientific approach itself, is in question. As we continue to borrow from the many fields of study we have arbitrarily created, we see signs of the growing “complex” web of interactions among them, all of which point to an underlying deeper unity. Leonardo da Vinci was a generalist, in more recent history we have promoted specialists in narrow academic fields. It may take the reintegration of those many specialized fields of study to re-express what was known by some (like da Vinci) before we segmented knowledge into fields of specialty. The growth of the internet and the exponential growth of interaction among researchers is leading us back to knowledge that has been presented to us for ages, albeit not under the guise of an academically sanctioned theory. Information, knowledge and understanding evolve no less than biological systems over time, and they do so in a complex spiraling growth pattern which is reflected in the Fibonacci series and fractals. We will simply rediscover (as we have done in physics) that the powerful oak tree truly exists within the seed. To return to the ensuing historical accounts, note that there is no “true” beginning point, that each methodology in use overlaps with the one before and the one after, and that the methodologies we use today are mostly reinterpretations of earlier methods. Methodologies today are essentially borrowed from the past with new labels and an expanding scope of application. This is important to know because an understanding of Range and Complexity will allow us to borrow with freedom and license, and support theoretical study as well as teacher pragmatism.
Most historical accounts of LL Methodology begin with a look at the Grammar-Translation Method, credited to the Germans from the mid 1800’s through the mid 1900’s. In those years, education was primarily geared toward the upper classes, who studied classical languages such as Latin and Greek, and focused on reading literature (Richards & Rodgers, p. 3) Since these languages were not in common use, students studied grammar rules and vocabulary, translated texts and wrote sentences or essays in the targeted language. The end purpose of this teaching was to promote a certain mental discipline through memorization, develop analytical ability in comparing underlying rules of the L1 and L2, and contribute to what was considered part of the rigorous academic nature of a “good education”. To the degree that memorization (knowledge) forms the base of Bloom’s Taxonomy and that translation forces pattern recognition (analysis), and that such ability demonstrates some problem solving skill (application), the Grammar-Translation Method contributed to developing intellectual capacity. If the more complex behavior of synthesis requires a hierarchical approach to teaching and learning, then this approach did successfully address the first steps needed for attainment of higher order thinking skills. Given that the method was teacher oriented and relied on repetitious routines, it did not address the affective domain, or take the learner’s perceived needs into account. There are still occasions when the Grammar-Translation Method may be the most appropriate instructional technique, such as when reading is the primary goal, when there are few resources available, and when Adult Learners desire to focus on grammar rules. To the degree that this method assumes a “real” world out there, that knowledge is organized, and that learners have to recall information, it is part of the cognitivist orientation toward learning. To the degree that it focuses on grammar and rules, it belongs to the structuralist tradition pioneered by Saussure. And finally, to the degree that this method highlights the historical and comparative aspects of language it belongs within the framework of diachronic and historical linguistics, Although there are positive aspects to using this method, it fails to address individual learner differences in motivation, ability, learning style or preference. In terms of linguistics, it focuses on translation (language comparison) and grammar (language structure) rather than discourse (interaction) and communication (meaning). A few learners enjoy the challenge of successfully mastering requirements, but most recall this type of language study with distaste and their stories of success sound like the stories of survivors of war. In summary, Grammar Translation was neither efficient (it was the opposite of fast and easy), nor effective (fluency was not even the goal), nor pleasant (learning was not meant to be enjoyable).
Political realities, shifting national borders, and increased travel created the need to communicate in foreign languages around the turn of the century. This allowed for the acceptance of ideas in Language Teaching methodology which had been espoused by earlier reformers, of whom the best known was Francois Gouin. Gouin focused on naturalistic principles of language learning, namely, observing how children learn languages. (Richards & Rodgers, 9). This resulted in the development of the Natural Method, also known as the Direct Method, which was successfully applied in schools by Berlitz and Sauveur. The Direct Method was developed in opposition to the Grammar Translation Method and had already been used, but was not popular until other reformers joined in publishing and promoting a more “natural” way. Using the principles of child L1 acquisition, the Direct Method consisted of teacher directed conversation in the target language, the use of demonstration and mime, and an inductive approach to grammar learning. While this method employed effective techniques, it depended heavily on teacher fluency in the L2, demanded intense individual interaction that could not be realized in larger classrooms, and lacked a distinct connection to principles in applied linguistic theory or a sound methodological base (R&R, 11). In American society, there was less perceived need for verbal fluency than what this method promoted, and hence, within decades, this method’s popularity declined. Although communicative, the Direct Method was teacher directed and failed to take into account learner differences. It worked better for lower levels of proficiency and laid the groundwork for TPR (Total Physical Response), a still popular and effective approach to introducing vocabulary at the early L2 learning stages. To the degree that this method assumes that learners “build” their knowledge with limited explanation (translation), it adopts a constructivist approach to learning. To the degree that it focuses on language use in the “here and now”, it is synchronic although it does not belong within Saussure’s structuralist framework of linguistics. In summary, however, the Direct Method was simply not efficient (never allowing for L1 use can be counterproductive), not effective (complete fluency may require “understanding” of structures), and not necessarily pleasant (complete immersion isn’t comfortable).
Recognizing the problems with the Direct Method, British applied linguists Palmer and Hornsby developed the theoretical foundations for an offshoot of this method called the Oral Approach, alternatively known as Situational Teaching. This methodology was similar to the Direct Method in that it used speaking activity to teach language, it differed significantly, however, in that it followed a structural system which provided direction and order for teaching and learning activities. This development of “content” and structure came by means of research in linguistics which created principles for vocabulary selection and grammar acquisition via “sentence structure”. The difference between the Direct Method and the Oral Approach are not too different from those between proponents of “immersion” (total) and ESL classroom instruction. In each case the first allows for more free practice and exposure, albeit at the expense of content control, while proponents of the second believe that control and structure of content increase learning. The British structuralists promoted “situationalism” in which oral practice was linked to the situations in which such speech could be practically used. (R&R, 35). The Oral Approach already relied on components of behaviorism and viewed language learning as “habit formation”, practicing progressively more difficult sentences until enough knowledge of the L2 had been acquired to allow for freer form expressions initiated by the student. The focus on situational learning expressed an interest in the cultural context and as with the Direct Method, the Oral Approach uses an inductive approach to learning grammar. This method and variations thereof are still widely used, in part because it bridges aspects of earlier and current language teaching philosophies. Focusing on speech within given situations, this method resembles the “communicative” approach used today, and yet incorporates the practice and repetition which formed the bedrock of the audio-lingual approach. By now we can see the trends in the evolution of language learning and teaching methodologies. The pattern is repeated everywhere in evolution. Each trend (thesis) creates an opposing trend (antithesis), which highlights the trend’s deficiencies and promotes an alternative approach. A new thesis emerges, which borrows some from each trend and becomes a new trend (thesis), and is really a synthesis of what was before. These pendulum swings create new adherents of “schools of thought”, new terms, and in this oppositional method, slowly expand and “complexify” the field of research. Evolution and learning exemplify this Hegelian dialectic. Increasing complexity is driven by this dialectic, and increasing complexity (Range in LL) drives adaptation and growth (learning). Although the Oral Approach was both effective and efficient, and not unpleasant, the evolution of Methodology began to incorporate elements of research in Psychology, which focused on more efficient learning, based on behavioral aspects of conditioning.
Politics influenced the development of the Audiolingual Method. World War II created a need for Americans to develop rapid fluency in foreign languages, and the U.S. Government took it upon itself to provide funding for language research and training. These programs focused on conversation rather than reading or grammar, tenets of previous methods. Structural linguistics , using contrastive analysis to establish a syllabus, combined intensive imitation and repetition (the result of behaviorist techniques borrowed from the field psychology based on the stimulus-response nature of learning), to form the body of audiolingualist teaching methods. Contrastive analysis, promoted by Fries and Lado, looks at different languages to see which elements they have in common and which differ, in order to assess where learners will have difficulties based on transfer. Structural linguistics emphasized the oral nature of language and sought to identify sentence structure, based on phonetic, phonemic, and morphological entities of increasing sequential difficulty. (R&R, 49) In using this methodology, learners repeat simple phrases until they have been reinforced in memory, using dialogues as the basis for developing contextual, situational, and cultural understanding. The emphasis here is on proficiency, not grammar or literature, and instruction is teacher centered, not learner driven. Although, as with each earlier methodology, this method created a backlash which reasserted the cognitive versus habit-formation nature of language, it’s efficiency and effectiveness warranted its continued use in the classroom. The decline of this approach’s popularity in the late sixties was influenced by two serious criticisms. First, behaviorism and Skinner fell dramatically out of favor, in part based on fears of how his theories could be used against various ethnic groups, a lesson learned from the political realities in Europe. Secondly, this method dismissed affective learner aspects as irrelevant, guaranteeing success in learning only for the most self motivated of students. Students did not tell war stories, they simply got bored to death.
The sixties was a time of radical change in many spheres, and past practices in most fields were challenged, primarily by a new orientation in education which was learner-centered and humanistic. As language teaching and learning evolved, it became wedded to principles and practices coming from psychology. In psychology and education, the ideas of Carl Rogers, Piaget, and Vygotsky took hold; in linguistic theory, the ideas of Noam Chomsky reversed the notion of habit-formation back toward a cognitive approach. While Chomsky insisted that children have an innate ability for languages, which supports an underlying basic Universal Grammar, Piaget linked cognitive development to underlying biological development, Vygotsky focused on the social interaction aspects such as scaffolding, and Carl Rogers promoted the underlying self-worth of the learner (humanism) These authors, along with Dewey and Bruner, form the foundation of constructivism in education. Communicative Language Teaching incorporates, therefore, a focus on meaning and the learner’s interests and abilities, rather than just focusing on language in abstract or the teacher’s role as instructor. It was not the product of one specific reformer, but the result of influences by researchers in different countries and fields, including British functional linguists Firth, Halliday, and Wilkins, American sociolinguists Hymes, Gumperz, and Lamperz, and philosophers Austin and Searle. (R&R, 64-65) It highlights the functional, interactional nature of language, and the learner’s desire for meaning in communication. The syllabus is of central concern in this methodology, and a variety of language theories are compatible with it, which include both cognitive and behavioral aspects. (R&R, 73) The focus of this methodology is creating “communicative competence”, and while practice involves repetition and imitation, it takes place within the context of natural interaction, and includes both structural and functional aspects of language. Communicative Language Teaching is more of an approach to teaching than a strict methodology and embraces habit formation, grammar instruction, and translation, all under the umbrella of developing communication ability. The orientation toward communication and the emphasis on the learner’s desire for “meaning” sets this method up to be a more pleasant means of acquiring language fluency, since it relies on learner motivation and attempts to create environments where learners will be motivated by their desire to understand and to be understood. Communicative Language Teaching empowers the learner, promotes social interaction, and moves the teacher into a facilitator role.
The historical evolution of methodologies (dialectic), coupled with new developments in other fields, is now noticeably creating an ever widening array of acceptable activities for classroom instruction. Thus the co-evolution of systems of inquiry (fields of knowledge) is creating a growing complexity in the structure and design of language education. This development, while creating a wider net of possible solutions and strategies, does not lend itself as well to the analysis and control traditionally advocated by a strict science. Becoming more inclusive in theory results in a loss of precision. Recognizing that learning involves the whole body and not just the brain, and that communication is expressed through and reinforced by the body’s expressions led the way for the reintegration of body and mind in the work of James Asher, the psychologist who introduced Total Physical Response. This methodology traces its roots back to teaching procedures espoused as early as 1925 by Harold and Dorothy Palmer. (R&R, 87) Although rooted in theories of comprehension and affective factors in learning, and supported by language theorists such as Krashen, it fails to include some levels of language learning and has an inadequate base in the theory of language. If methodology is in some sense a broader or more inclusive term than technique, then TPR is more of a technique than a strict methodology and works best with learners at the early stages of Second Language acquisition. Its premise is that the learning of a second language is similar to that of learning the first language, that comprehension precedes usage, and that learner stress should be minimized, particularly in the early stages of language learning. Although considering affective factors, it is teacher directed and makes use of habit formation, the underlying principle of the audiolingual method. It supports Vygotsky’s scaffolding strategy by creating support for the learner through feedback and prompting by the teacher. TPR assumes a a nativist stance in that it presupposes a natural or innate language learning ability. Learners carry out simple commands, repeat and imitate teacher initiated words, sentences, and actions. The focus, based on child language learning, is on learning through listening, then imitating, then initiating original expressions. The end goal is developing speaking skills, and grammar is taught inductively. It is constructive in that it assumes the teacher merely sets the stage for learning, “natural” both because it is based on the way an infant learns language and because it allows language to develop at the learner’s pace. In reality, TPR is mostly a valid set of teaching practices that effectively supplements rather than replaces any other methodology. As we have seen with each preceding methodology, TPR reinvents and expands upon earlier theories, while incorporating aspects of other methodologies. TPR is effective and efficient for early language learning, but much less so as skill increases. While it purports to minimize affective filters, this is more true for kinesthetic learners than any other learning style. Although TPR belongs to the “nativist” family and the “natural approach” to language learning (innate bio-program much like the LAD), it uses primarily behaviorist (stimulus-response) teaching pedagogy to stimulate comprehension.
The Silent Way was developed by Caleb Gattegno, who insisted it was not a method, but simply a common sense approach to learning. His background was originally in mathematics, and his method of teaching focused on learner self-discovery. As a scientist, Gattegno embraced evolution and as a philosopher, he explored spiritual truths in Eastern traditions. His own desire to learn and to teach others how to learn formed the underlying philosophy of this “non-method”. Just as the borders between science and spirituality began overlapping in second half of this century, the synthesis of these opposing realms began expressing itself in an ever increasing and unapologetic manner in language teaching methodology. The Silent Way included principles from structural linguistics, going from easier to more difficult sequences and sentence structures. It assumed that learners must address learning language in the same open, self-discovering, and self-directed manner they learned as a child. This method minimized the directive role of the teacher, maximized learner enjoyment and responsibility, and assumed that evolution in learning is a natural and ongoing process which simply needs to be encouraged through the acceptance of the learner’s desire for self-fulfillment through self-awareness, which leads to discovery and growth. As with evolution, the learner is provided with a variety of tools to address levels of sensory input, including visual, oral, and physical stimuli. The study of linguistics now imported ideas from physics and mathematics, and these disciplines will continue to increasingly affect teaching and learning methodologies. Originally a physicist and influenced by the works of many who were seeing connections between discoveries in physics and theology, Gattegno emphasized the inner transformation that occurs in learning, and placed a high priority on involving learners in the process and in an awareness of the process rather than focusing on outcomes. He believed that the inner self already has the knowledge of how to learn language since it had done it once before in learning the first language, and that by allowing learners to become aware of the natural process they once employed, they would apply the same knowledge to learning a new language. It incorporates aspects of complexity, introducing materials on various levels, ie. written and oral, and emphasizes the sound (melody) of language. It introduces the most functional vocabulary first (color coded and on a chart), so learners may begin exploring usage quickly to communicate. In this sense, the method is, at least initially, very controlled in terms of activity and materials, which include colored wooden rods and word charts. The teacher is guided by what the student needs to learn, which is prescribed by the student. Correction is indirect via feedback on the nature of the language and the area of the error, grammar is learned inductively, and practice provides for the internalization (automaticity) of what has been learned. The Silent Way is more of an approach based on a philosophy which places learning above teaching, than a method, if method allows for no contradiction and must be procedural. Its goal is to develop an increasing awareness within the learner of their own learning processes and inner knowledge, by using very distinct tools that minimize the teacher’s need to explain and “teach”, while relying on the learner’s problem solving skills and natural drive to learn (evolve).
The cycle of evolution in research and the increasing overlapping and complexification of fields of study led to Community Language Learning, whose founder, Fr. Charles Curran, came from the field of psychology. This method is humanistic in approach, recognizing the interactive nature of learning, and the primacy of the learner. It borrows from previous methodologies which concern themselves with the “whole person” (The Silent Way), and derives its underlying philosophy from the work of Carl Rogers, who developed client-centered therapy and was influenced both by his early training in theology and by John Dewey. Community Language Learning promotes group interaction, which became popular as a means of therapy in the 70’s and 80’s, and rests on ideas about learner’s “self-actualization“, a term initially promoted by Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm, and embraced by Rogers. The teacher is now more than just a facilitator, he/she is a counselor, purposely working on diminishing learners’ fears and expressing understanding and concern, while allowing the learner to discover solutions to problems. It assumes that learning is a creative process in which equals engage to promote well-being and growth, and that the foremost need is to remove “fear” (the affective filter) which hinders cognitive development. This idea is congruent with Krashen’s ideas in language learning. It views language learning as a social process, and the teacher’s function is to create an atmosphere of warmth and understanding which is conducive to developing security and the willingness to take risk. (R&R 122) This methodology does not precisely address an underlying theory of language, but is framed around a counseling theory and a theory of the learner. Most syllabi are topic based, and learning progresses either structurally, with an introduction to grammar and phonetics, or less systematically, with instructional points developed as a result of classroom interaction. Textbooks may be used, but are not a necessary component of this methodology. (R&R, 123) Both Gattegno’s Silent Way and Curran’s Community Learning continue to have enthusiastic adherents, however, neither has been widely adopted in school systems, in part because both depend more on a teaching personality and style than on any, particularly well defined technique, and both are based more on the general learning atmosphere conducive to learner participation than on studies related to nature of language.
Finally, in the late 1970’s, Krashen (an applied linguist) and Terrell (a practicing teacher) joined forces and combined everything that they had learned from all previous methodologies, buffered it with new linguistic concepts proposed by Chomsky, and expanding on the Direct Method, introduced The Natural Approach. The Natural Approach borrows from Curran by insisting that the affective filter must be taken into consideration for learners to be willing to engage in learning, and that meaning is central to communication acts. It borrows from the Gattegno by providing for learner initiated speaking rather than forcing output, especially early on in language learning, as well as by promoting the use of visual aids and hands-on activities, and by engaging the learner in self directed problem solving (negotiation of meaning in interaction). It also borrows from and promotes Asher’s concepts by utilizing mime and action routines, especially during the beginning stages of learning. The Natural Approach, like its predecessor, The Oral Approach, is structural, situational (topic driven), and communicative (group activities). And like the Direct Method, The Natural Approach insists it conforms to the “natural” way that language is successfully learned by children, although it provides greater variety and less repetitious routines than its predecessor. Although this method proposes to be in contrast to the Audiolingual Method, it also views language learning as the mastery of structures by stages (R&R, 130). And while insisting that grammar need not be taught directly, this method does borrow from the earliest Grammar-translation Method by providing two levels of learning called acquisition and learning, the latter being the sole ability of adults, for whom grammar instruction can be helpful. In addition to borrowing from previous methodologies, Krashen and Terrell adapted notions from Piaget and Vygotsky, by creating the idea of the input hypothesis, which is analogous to the zone of proximal development. Next is a very brief overview of this method’s basic ideas. Language competence is directed in two distinct ways, through acquisition and/or learning. Acquiring a language is what children appear to do naturally (perhaps because we simply don’t quite understand how they do it), without regard to structures and grammar, while learning is what adults can do, by bringing their problem solving ability and previous knowledge into play and consciously examining the rules underlying a language (the part of language learning we do understand). The conscious learning of adults takes place through “monitoring” their expressions and self-correcting based on the known rules. Since there is a natural, universal order to structures and their acquisition (Chomsky‘s LAD and UG), learners progress through stages which can be predicted regardless of their L1. Emotional states are critical to receptivity of instruction (Rogers and Curran), and the affective filter must be lowered for language learning to occur. The teacher is responsible for helping create and open, warm environment. Input must fall within the zone of proximal development, which means learning cannot take place unless it is “comprehensible input”. This method addresses the nature of the learner, the interactive nature of language, the situation, and the nature of language and language learning. It allows for variety and spontaneity in syllabus and activity selection, for teacher and learner responsibility and influence, and promotes a flexible system rooted in both linguistic and learning theories. It is a system resulting from the evolution of methodologies and research in many fields, and allowing for the evolution (learning) of language through a guided complexity which balances chaos (too many possibilities and too little control) and order (limited possibilities excessively controlled). This Method has been attacked by those, like Swain, who insist “production” or “output” is required as well as comprehensible input, and by others who disagree with the distinction between acquisition and learning, and by those who insist on a higher priority for grammar instruction. Some have even argued against the necessity of comprehensible input. The Natural Method belongs to cognitivist, connectionist, and constructivist frameworks, depending on which aspect we look at, and refers to itself as a comprehension-driven methodology with a communicative view of language. Although Krashen has been criticized by both sides (rational scientists seeking stricter research based guidelines and post-modernists seeking complete learner freedom), his Natural Method has been both popular and successful.
Studies in other fields of research had been ongoing during the evolution of Language Learning Methodologies. Much of what was learned in other arenas eventually was incorporated in the framework of methodologies and specific linguistic research. Humanism brought the learner to center stage, and with it, came studies into the role of affective (emotional) aspects, along with interest in the connections between the mind and body. The Unconscious was seen as a resource for conscious knowledge, and environmental and sensory stimuli were known to impact on the brain’s chemistry and resulting thought. Neural patterns and their interconnectivity with visual, auditory and physical stimuli resulted in parallel processing of information (simultaneously), all of which influenced learning. The emotions were not just stimulated by pleasant interpersonal situations, but were seen to be highly receptive to inputs from music and art. Building primarily on the receptivity of learners to suggestion (hypnosis) and the phenomenal impact of rhythm and music on learning, Bulgarian psychiatrist Lozanov introduced yet another approach to language learning which focused on the need to remove impediments to learning while maximizing unconscious influences. (R&R, 142) Although its initial founder did not promote a particular theory of language, current research into language does indicate a strong rhythmic pattern underlying languages, and studies of learning had historically connected language and music, a successful pedagogical technique in teaching nursery rhymes to children. Suggestopedia promotes the primacy of vocabulary and the act of communication, using intonation, rhythm, a musical background, and drama to encourage language competence. Unlike previous approaches, this method insists on the teacher’s role as an authority figure, recognizing that learners must depend on and trust the superior knowledge and ability residing within the instructor in order to be receptive to his/her direction. This is reminiscent to psycho-therapy, where the counselee seeks help from one who is more knowledgeable in solving problems. The choice of music is strictly limited to classical music, which has been known to stimulate neural connections in pre-born infants, and lately been indicated in higher resulting mathematical ability. Class size is limited and homogeneous, with learners sitting in circles, activities include role playing, memorization and dialogue, while materials are comprised of texts and audio-tapes. Central to this approach is the need for learners to “relax” and allow themselves to be overtaken by teacher and environment, in a manner that minimizes resistance to the learning process. Critics of this method resist the need for intensive teacher training by master teachers, and the strict adherence to only Lozamov’s techniques. While this method has been sometimes labeled a “pseudo-science”, it has been highly successful, and more recent research has supported its basic tenets.
Labels can be confusing and history is the story of what we choose to emphasize and what we choose to forget (not to mention whom we credit or blame). Have we addressed the methodologies that were most popular, most effective, or most in line with current ideas? Certainly we have not included all of them, and while we included some that were neither popular nor strictly “methodologies”, we omitted others of equal import. These include the “Reading Method”, which focused on language learning for the purposes of scientific or graduate study, where discourse in the target language is not emphasized. As its title indicates, it provided heavy emphasis on reading materials, with a graduated difficulty level in vocabulary and grammatical structures. For this method, translation is acceptable, and the goal is to create rapid reading comprehension. We also omitted some current methodologies, including Project Based Language Learning, which focuses on language development through group activities. This method is community oriented, and promotes social interaction with the purpose of accomplishing meaningful, common goals. It is in line with current ideas about constructivism and connectionism, and highlights teamwork and negotiation of meaning through collaborative efforts, while allowing for creative applications of multiple intelligences. It was developed in line with Goals 2000 and the recognition of the importance of skills and workplace competencies in the emerging economy. And lastly, I mention Theme and Task based methodologies, which emphasize learner interests and needs, while incorporating situational contingencies and allowing for more eclectic selection of materials and techniques. These newer frameworks combine ideas about systems design, affective learner variables, feedback (metacognition – focus on form), and approach language teaching in a holistic manner, whereby teachers and students together determine goals and needs and determine what tasks and themes are most conducive to reaching the learning-instructional goal. The latest discoveries in many fields preclude the proposal and any new methodologies which are “tight-knit”, systematic, or grounded in defined certainties about language acquisition or ideal techniques to the exclusion of any other techniques. This is in part because we are finally moving away from the pre-eminence of the scientific method and our understanding of the nature of learning and development is changing. We are moving from static toward dynamic models which are holistic, integrative, and fluid. As we recognize the dynamic and integrated nature of all that is, we are forced to be very careful about prescriptive conclusions drawn based on the observations made using the scientific research models of the past. Each development in the evolution of knowledge about language learning and all other fields has increased compflexification of each field, and noted the relatively seamless interwoven nature of all life and learning. We are losing the ability to “define” things as they are or to prescribe things as they “should be” in an “ideal” situation. Our perspectives are changing in an evolutionary manner, resulting in a “paradigm shift” in all fields of study. It is this paradigm shift which has precipitated the rise of “communicative language teaching” and driven education towards learner autonomy, integrated curriculum, authentic assessment, and a focus on “process” rather than “products”. SLA is impacted by this paradigm shift as well, and many pragmatic, situational, and eclectic styles have evolved as a result. Many of these new styles and methodologies incorrectly focus on completely self-directed or fragmented learning and misinterpret the underlying implications of complexity. Before randomly or pragmatically choosing any approach, it is important to look at the foundation and progression of the discoveries that have led us into the direction of the new paradigm, for although the new ideas have a certain “fuzziness”, they present a distinct and cohesive pattern, which is vital in choosing the most appropriate “patterns” for teaching and learning languages.
Many Second Language Theorists have equated Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Theory (I+1) with Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development. “. Dunn and Lantolf contest this identification and maintain that the theories are not only not “unrelatable, but also… rooted in incommensurable discourses” (p. 411). Incommensurable, in their use, means having virtually nothing in common, being based on differing constructs or worldviews. What is proposed here, however, is that Dunn and Lantolf are mistaken, since they are looking at these theories from a perspective that assumes these concepts are working at the same level, whereas they are reflections of each other, the one (I+1) being a lower level (micro/subcomponent) than the realm in which Vygotsky’s concept operates (macro level). Beyond this, it is maintained that Dunn and Lantolf have attempted to negate comparability by debating the impact of “learning” in each theory, without applying the definitions of these words, as used by the original authors. Had they used the definitions of the authors, they would have realized that the words denote different ideas, and are not talking about the same thing. It is Krashen’s term “acquisition” that most closely approximates the meaning of Vygotsky’s “learning”, and a comparison of these two terms as used by the authors does reflect a parallelism.
Krashen’s basic construct “I+1 is defined as I, which is the Second Language learner’s current level of (acquired) competence, and +1, which is the next phase of acquisition which contains aspects of the language which the learner is about to acquire along the axis of a “natural order” or developmental progression. According to Krashen, learners acquire language by understanding language that contains elements of I+1, which they do through engaging in interaction, most specifically, hearing or reading, with the help of the surrounding ‘context’. Although Krashen does not focus on the need for mutual interaction in an ‘external’ manner (learners are not required to talk until they are ready to do so, especially at the early stages), he does maintain that acquisition occurs best in a natural exposure setting, where learners engage in ‘seeking meaning’ through interaction. In fact, he has been accused by SLA authors of promoting the idea that natural exposure (interaction in L2) is superior to classroom instruction in promoting language proficiency. The meaning seeking involves mutuality between the learner and native L2 speaker (or other L2 learners), and an ‘intrapsychic’ process which involves the learner’s inner abilities. The actual process of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) is NOT amenable to scientific analysis, since it does not occur on a ‘conscious’ level. Learning, according to Krashen’s definition, is knowing ‘about’ language, that is, grammar rules and related concepts. Formal learning, or knowledge about grammatical structures does not contribute to SLA, although it helps learners “monitor” their interlanguage, or level of proficiency and correctness.
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is a construct that identifies the learner’s potentiality for all learning. It is defined as the “the distance between the actual developmental level and the level of potential development” (p. 415) which is reached through collaboration with those who are above the learner’s level of knowledge or capability. Vygotsky, according to Dunn and Lantolf, believes that “children develop only to the extent that they are taught” (p. 419). His theory is used to conclude that children who are exposed to reading at an early age and to literacy activities, begin school with a higher IQ. Despite IQ, however, the child may have a greater or lesser ‘zone of proximal development’. Learning occurs through “meaning making” in a collaborative process, whereby the learner “borrows the knowledge and consciousness of the tutor to enter a language”. (p. 420) Learning leads development.
Dunn and Lantolf insist that Krashen’s theory is incommensurable with Vygotsky’s because it belongs to the “scientific tradition” begun by Saussure, who “laid the foundation for the modern science of linguistics”. (p. 424) Vygotsky, they maintain espoused a “romantic-science view of mental behavior” (p. 428), which allows for a ‘richness’ which Krashen denies. The authors accuse Krashen of “reducing complex phenomena to basic elements and constructing abstract schema to explain its object of study”. (p.428) Within the field of SLA, however, Krashen is accused of precisely the opposite. He is seen as a non-scientific author who fails to clearly define his terms, and whose theory is founded on psychological workings that are not measurable. He has been taken to task repeatedly for insisting that language acquisition processes can’t be broken down to purely ‘external’ factors, and for using an immeasurable (i) plus another vague immeasurable (I+1) to represent what should be a scientific theory. Thus, they accuse, his is not a theory at all, but a romantic idea founded on complex psychological phenomena. To the degree that SLA is a struggling new field of inquiry attempting to legitimize itself within the sciences as worthy of study, it is understandable that early authors attempted to phrase their writing in scientific terminology, lending legitimacy to a field of inquiry that defies true dissection. In this respect Psychology and Sociology and Development are no different; as they emerged as fields of study, various authors provided legitimacy of inquiry by encasing the concepts in scientific jargon, coupled with attempts at measurement. Beyond this lies that fact that Vygotsky’s idea is a ‘macro’ level idea, namely it encompasses all of learning and growth, which makes it impossible to completely decipher components as exclusive items. Krashen’s idea, which is a subset of Vygotsky’s, relates only to language acquisition, that is, the production of fluent speech. This narrowing of subject matter, is much more amenable to descriptive measures and analytic type discourse.
Dunn and Lantolf’s contention that Vygotsky relies on a “fundamentally human process of meaning making in collaborative activity with other members of the culture” (p.420), while Krashen believes that “whether the person engages other individuals in linguistic interaction is more or less irrevelant” (p. 423) is a misrepresentation of both. While learning (for Vygotsky) is collaborative, the end result is as much the possession of the learner, as is Krashen’s acquisition. Both focus on “meaning making through interaction”, the difference being that in studying components of early language acquisition, Krashen recognizes that the learner has very little knowledge in order to begin communicating verbally in the L2. This recognition is precisely the same as that proposed in learning (by Vygotsky) for young children, where language “entails the creation of the very tools used to make meaning”. (p. 427) The authors refer back to Krashen’s influence by Chomsky, whose concepts were affected by Saussure, resulting in the “ideal speaker/hearer, in which all human beings possess the same abstract linguistic knowledge or universal grammar”. (p. 425) While they accuse Chomsky and Krashen of hard scientific bent, they admit that Chomsky “acknowledged that such idealizations are not real-world phenomena but assumptions necessary for theory construction”. (p. 425) In Western civilization, in order to be taken seriously in academic circles, it is necessary to present new thought in terms of theory and the rational, scientific-inquiry model. This attempt has Krashen doing exactly what Vygotsky thinks he should be doing, since, according to Vygotsky, “mental activity is the consequence of the dialectic interaction between natural and cultural/historical forces”. (p. 426)
Dunn and Lantolf indicate that these theories are incompatible because Vygotsky insists “on the dialectic unity of learning-and-development” while Krashen maintains “a clear separatist position on learning and development (i.e. acquisition)”. (p.422) The authors are equating the wrong terms. Krashen’s definition of learning is “the formal rules of the language, i.e. grammar rules”. This is not the learning Vygotsky is speaking about; rather, Krashen’s concept of ‘acquisition’ is the term to equate with Vygotsky’s ‘learning’. Krashen’s term ‘acquisition’ is not the same as Vygotsky’s ‘development’, as the authors imply. Acquisition is the end result of a process (language fluency) and cannot be equated to the whole of developmental processes. Just as Vygotsky’s ‘learning’ occurs as a dialectic exchange between members of a society with differing levels of knowledge, Krashen’s ‘acquisition’ occurs as a dialectic exchange between members of society with differing levels of knowledge engaged in meaning making. Dunn and Lantolf insist that “for Krashen, an individual’s linguistic future is certain; for Vygotsky, the future is open, uncertain and depends on the material and interactional (i.e. cultural and historical) circumstances in which the individual is situated”. (p. 422) To the degree that language itself evolves through historical-cultural changes, Krashen’s “linguistic future” for an individual is also uncertain and changes as the meanings of words change. But to the degree that Krashen is talking about acquiring a specific language, which has set constructs and syntax/grammar, it is as fixed as Vygotsky’s ‘learning’ would be when speaking of a child learning to put together a predefined product (toy). Since they are engaged in different levels (macro vs. micro application), there cannot be ‘identical’ transfer of terms and definitions, only a general equating of concepts. When we speak of making something, we refer to that something as an open-ended potential product. But when we apply the term ‘making’ to ‘making a giraffe’, the giraffe is culturally predetermined as a specifically defined entity, as is Krashen’s ‘language’. The term ‘making’ is, however, the same and implies a similar process. Finally, the authors state that for Vygotsky “specifically human forms of mental activity are not processes that occur invisibly inside someone’s head but are instead the activity of socio-historically constituted people engaged in the historically situated activity of living”. (427) This is a poor attempt to create opposition between Krashen and Vygotsky, for while Krashen does state that acquisition occurs as a mental process (meaning making) which cannot be seen, it occurs through an interactional process that occurs within a socio-historical context of people engaged in the historically situated activity of living. Precisely the invisible, mental activity of ‘making meaning’ reflects the ‘unscientific’ and ‘romantic’ side of Krashen’s SLA process. While Vygotsky’s ‘focus’ is socio-cultural and Krashen’s ‘focus’ is on the individual learner, again this reflects the move from one level (learning in general throughout society) to another (specific ‘learning’ of a particular, defined item). Krashen and Vygotsky are looking through the same lens, but each is looking from a different angle at a different aspect of the same basic process. I would venture to guess that Krashen himself would agree to having borrowed from Vygotsky in the creation of his I+1 concept, particularly since he himself was so thoroughly exposed to and knowledgeable of Vygotsky’s theories throughout his career as an educator.
To summarize, Dunn and Lantolf are making distinctions and implying incommensurability based on false comparisons and presumptions about both Vygotsky and Krashen. While their goal may be to uphold a less-than-scientific tradition that is more wholistic, it does not warrant speculation of intent or meaning, and harms further study of SLA as well as detracting from further application of Vygotsky’s concepts to the field. Perhaps in its infancy, second language acquisition must go through developmental stages that allow researchers to give priority to the emerging field. As with all fields (including psychology), once cherished scientific and hard notions eventually will give way to new interpretations that allow for greater freedom in determining what constitutes ‘legitimate knowledge’. For this to happen, it is not Krashen’s ideas that need to be dismissed nor his terminology debated. Rather, society/culture must evolve from a Western, scientific and hard context, where only ideas presented in a (perhaps false) scientific theory can be accepted, to a more holistic context with a different paradigm.
Critical Commonalities of SLA
The Impetus for my research project came directly from my own ignorance. Teaching is both an art and a science, and I want to be good at it. I may be naturally good (or well trained) at the “art” of teaching, but without understanding how people learn or what factors make for maximum learning in minimal time, none of us can expect to “know” that our approach to teaching is either the most efficient or the most effective. On the other hand, without understanding how to implement whatever knowledge I have within the classroom setting, I can’t “make use” of that knowledge in a way that has an impact on my teaching practices.
So, with all the readings and “theory” of Second Language Learning, it both amused and irritated me to find so much research being done in what I saw as a “haphazard” manner. What I saw were a bunch of Republicans and Democrats fighting each other to promote the ideas of their “candidate” – Krashen, Long, Pica, Ellis, Swain, Wode – Input, Output, Reading, Grammar, Social Discourse, foreigner-talk, interlanguage, negotiated meanings, motivation, immersion, natural order, and on and on. I posed two basic questions for myself throughout my travels into this field of study. The first was this: Regardless of what “theory” this author is promoting, or what variables are being tested in a particular study, are there some basic “commonalities” I can find throughout ALL the research available? In other words, are there some common threads that appear in every study? And second: If there are, and if I can pinpoint and prove them, how can these “basics” be phrased in such a way as to be “practical” for a teacher? This second requirement means that while I found some truths to be true and meaningful, such as the relevance of socioeconomic background, previous language learning, motivation, personality type, etc…, I couldn’t waste my time focusing on these. And I couldn’t do so because these are not factors that we, as teachers, have any control over. These types of concepts serve to help us “understand” more, but not to teach better. In the end, we are all about “teaching”, and finding a “truth” is only as useful as it is “applicable” within the framework of a teacher’s ability to “make use” of it.
I read a lot. I thought a lot. And I found 3 incredibly meaningful, basic concepts that run rampant throughout all the literature. I named them “reaction”, “repetition”, and “range”, with range being the most important of the three. We can’t control someone’s motivation in general, but as teachers and “public performers”, we have tremendous capacity to learn how to “get their attention” in a classroom. This attention is a prerequisite for any further teaching or learning process. If they aren’t listening, and we don’t have their “interest”, we can’t continue to impact on their learning process. No matter what a study purported to do or investigate, every one implicitly or explicitly included the idea that students paid “attention” to what was going on. Without “attention” we have nothing. With attention, we have a beginning. I preferred to use the term “reaction” (although perhaps “reception” would work equally well) because it implies that something is being done with the input given. In SLA, that something produces a “reaction” within the learner. Although not all reactions help the learning process in the long run (for example, you can make a student “angry” and cause early termination of the desire to learn from you), the student must “respond, react to, or receive” the communication being offered.
The second important concept is “repetition”. This repetition may take a variety of forms. It may be the result of “forced output,” it may be the effect of reading, of repeating new vocabulary, of hearing words again and again. But repetition is a critical key to learning, and without it, learning never moves from short term memory (where reaction may occur) into long term storage for retrieval later on. Again, regardless of the study or theory I read about, there was a “repetition” type component, which facilitated the learning (or acquisition) process. As with attention, repetition does not always result in learning. There is both a minimum and a maximum level. At the minimum, things need to be repeated in some form at least 7 times. But beyond a maximum (which may vary for learners), there is “boredom” or excess, which then may contribute to a latent or subtle “turning off” process within the learner. Despite these parameters, however, repetition is a primary requirement without which language acquisition simply cannot happen.
The third and most important concept is “range”. Ellis explicitly addresses this term (and it is “his” term, not mine) in his latest work. Range is best explained by another expression, called “complexity-consciousness”. This phrase, which is attributed to Pierre Teilharrd de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, refers to an evolutionary process. In this process, he noted that life developed along lines of increasing complexity and a parallel increase in consciousness. Simply put, the amoeba is simpler in terms of molecular structure, and has little, if any consciousness. As we move up the line of life, through plants, to animals, and humans, we see increasing levels of molecular complexity and accompanying higher levels of consciousness. In life as we know it on earth, man has the most densely packed and complex web of molecular structures, as well as the highest form of consciousness. Thus we have the highest levels of complexity-consciousness. Teilhard posed that the next level of evolution would occur within the intellectual and spiritual realms, where man’s consciousness continues to evolve. But that’s a subject for another day. His theory’s applicability within the realm of SLA is what we want to look at.
If in fact, this model of complexity consciousness is valid and true, and if it applies to life’s processes, then it must apply at every level within life. Then we can rephrase this biological model in terms of learning. Learning occurs in leaps (as does evolution) within the mind that lead to understanding and permanent change (knowing – increased consciousness), when something within the mind changes as a result of attaining a required level of complexity, or density of structure. This density of structure or complexity is composed of the maximizing of all inputs that are related, and which contain the same “new” meaning. Let’s get practical. Range, then (or complexity) is that which allows the learner to maximize their “view” of a new item of learning, or, it is the constant increase in “contextual” elements within the learning process. Range is provided when a student sees the same word in many different sentences, all of which add to the “perception” and understanding of what that word really means. This I call the “micro” level of range. Range is also the variety of methods and forms we use in conveying a piece of knowledge. It is increased when we not only express new words, but have students express them, have students read them, have students recognize them, have students write them. This is what I call the “macro” level of using range to increase understanding and learning. It is not to be confused with another, similar concept. It is not re-explaining in 5 thousand ways what a particular word might mean when a student doesn’t seem to understand it. The more we try to explain, the more new words we may introduce, the more confused the student may become. Rather, it is providing different “modes” or views of the same thing through variation in methods used to target the same item of knowledge.
Of the three, range (or complexity) is the most effective and most critical. Effective because it already incorporates reaction and repetition components. The more varied the stimulus we provide in approaching the same item, the more likely one or more will cause a “reaction” within the learner. And of course, the varied stimulus all point to, or contain the new item, which means “repetition” is occurring. Unlike reaction and repetition, there aren’t any downsides to using range to maximize the potential for increased “consciousness” or learning/permanent change. In all research and studies, range is the component that most affected positive learning outcomes. It also gives us a new vantage point for our understanding of theories of SLA; one which doesn’t lead us into different, conflicting camps. The concept of range allows us all to acknowledge the value of every major researcher’s concepts and initiatives, since all of them provide us with a greater “variety” of methods to use for maximizing learning in our students.
Reaction, repetition, and range; and the greatest of these is “range”. Without them, we have nothing; with them, we have, as teachers, all the tools required to maximize our effectiveness in providing students with what they need to learn.
The 3 R’s of SLA
There are over 40 theories of Second Language Acquisition (Larson-Freeman & Long, 227) and thousands of studies assessing the value of various teaching methods. The motivations of authors may vary, but the end purpose of all SLA research studies is to find ways to maximize teacher effectiveness and student learning. Nativist theories, most closely connected to Chomsky and Krashen, focus on innate learner variables. Environmentalist theories, associated with Skinner and Schumann, focus on the impact of experience. Interactionist theories, represented by a wide diversity of authors, have fathered “discourse analysis” and attempt to balance the “nature-nurture” scale. Within each of these traditions lies some aspect of truth related to SLA, and each has spawned hundreds of studies to evaluate the forces which impact on the development of language fluency.
Notwithstanding much heated debate, some concepts have become “common knowledge” within the SLA teaching community. These generally accepted ideas have catapulted SLA into a major new discipline and provide the groundwork for current approaches to curriculum development and implementation. Learners who tend to succeed are motivated (Gardner and Lambert, 1959) and affective variables have “visible effects on learning results” (Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982, 54). Input is required and must be “comprehensible” (Long, 1981; Krashen, 1985). Interaction is more effective in providing comprehensible input than non-interactive input (Pica, 1987). Foreigner talk, which appears similar to motherese, “facilitates comprehension of meaning by learners” (Galloway, 226; Hatch, 1978; Ellis, Tanaka, & Yamazaki, 1994). Developmental stages must be taken into account when teaching a second language (Clahsen, Meisel, and Pienemann, 1983). There is a similarity between first and second language acquisition processes (Wode, 1981). Grammar instruction promotes writing effectiveness (Scott, 1989) and also “helps” learners acquire language (Terrell, 1989). There is a need for “negotiation of meaning” even among early learners (Freed, 1991, 35) and a “natural order” of acquisition (Gass & Selinker, 1994; Dulay & Burt, 1974), which cannot be significantly altered by instruction (Pienemann in Pfaff, 1987, 161). Forced oral practice of the target language results in “comprehensible output”, which also aids in the development of language fluency (Swain in Gass and Madden, 1985, 252). Reading facilitates language acquisition and supports the teaching process (Elley, 1991). More intense and varied exposure supports rapid language acquisition (Collins, Halter, Lightbrown, & Spada, 1999). These are some of the most widely accepted and relatively well understood ideas that teachers already include in their challenging roles as guides to second language learning.
But common knowledge cannot always be readily translated into meaningful techniques for classroom teaching. While motivation, socioeconomic background, and personality traits make a significant difference in the end results of language acquisition, teachers do not control these factors. Although age and previous exposure to other languages impacts on the facility with which learners can absorb new language information, no teacher can make use of this knowledge in a meaningful way. Teachers simply cannot alter history or change “aptitudes”, or provide for maximum exposure outside the classroom. This does not make research in unalterable variables meaningless or imply that such research should be abandoned. But teachers who practice their profession on a daily basis seek to know about those things that can be effectively turned into tools for improving their impact as teachers. They need “practical” knowledge from research, knowledge that will help them in any environment and support all types of curriculum. What the paper purports to do is focus on three variables, which have been shown to impact significantly on language acquisition. These three factors: reaction, range, and repetition, are the primary ingredients of any successful learning process, and understanding exactly what they are, how they occur, and how to maximize their effect will significantly improve learner progress in any environment.
We have posited three terms, which we claim are factors that play a primary role in SLA, and which we, as teachers, can control within the classroom environment. Further, we will claim that these factors play a principal role in ALL learning and form the foundation of human growth, which is an evolutionary process. We are not here debating whether the earth was “created” or “evolved”, but rather looking at a well documented and accepted scientific fact involving the processes of change. Teilhard de Chardin put this process this way:
“that if the universe, regarded sidereally, is in process of spatial expansion (from the infinitesimal to the immense), in the same way and still more clearly it presents itself to us, physico-chemically, as in process of organic involution upon itself (from the extremely simple to the extremely complex), —and, moreover, this particular involution ‘ of complexity ‘ is experimentally bound up with a correlative increase in interiorisation, that is to say in the psyche or consciousness.”” (Teilhard de Chardin, 1975)
Let’s simplify these words. Life appears to progress, from the smallest (amoeba) to the highest (man) level or organization in a manner which systematically increases molecular complexity and is accompanied by an increase in consciousness. Why is this important for SLA? If in fact, this process is a “truth” and forms the foundation of life’s processes, then this truth permeates all levels of growth, including the individual’s ability to intellectually process information. This theory is known as “complexity-consciousness”. A rise in consciousness (learning) results from the growth of complexity (range) within the system in a punctuated manner. “Punctuated” means that a new form (new understanding) emerges at certain intervals when “complexity” reaches a required “maximum” density. The precise amount of complexity needed (for maximization) may not be known, but the process itself is known and predictable. This is a fundamental law whereby all change and growth (learning) occurs. It will become, for us, the central core of SLA and the most critical aspect which teachers control; the development of complexity, or “range” for learners.
Before we delve into a more detailed understanding of what “range” means for SLA and why it actually is the MOST critical factor in language acquisition, let’s discuss the other two important aspects of learning, “reaction” and “repetition”. Reaction is another term for what we sometimes call attention or focus. There has been much discussion about the processes of perception and cognition, and whether learning can occur without conscious attention to input. We know that information must somehow be “processed” before it can become internalized and recalled by the learner for use or application. Gass discusses “selective processing” which turns input into “intake” (Gass, 5). “Literature in experimental psychology indicates that memory requires attention and awareness.” (McLaughlin, 1990). There are well defined theories about how and why we pay attention or become conscious of input provided to us. One of these is called “Adaptive Resonance Theory (ART)”, which both discusses the processes whereby information is selected for “intake” and how information moves from temporary awareness and storage into long term storage centers within the brain. It is founded on systems theory applied to human beings. According to ART, input is selected for attention based on previous notions and stored information. “Somehow the sound that we expect to hear based upon our previous language experience influences what we do hear,…” (Grossberg, 1998). ART supports Krashen’s concepts regarding “comprehensible input” and is in sync with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” theories. Our drive for meaning initiates attention to input based on previously assimilated knowledge. Debates on the definition of consciousness as intention, knowledge, or awareness, and how to understand levels of consciousness aside, we know that “intake is that part of the input that the learner notices” (Schmidt, 1988). The reason “attention is paid to something” is often connected to motivation theories, and these “affective domains” are what influence discussions about what type of input serves the interests of learners best. Social interaction, ethnic identity and relationships are factors impacting on what “input models” learners actively choose to attend to. (Beebe in Gass & Madden, 411). For our purposes, it suffices to understand that the process of learning requires a measure of attention, focus, noticing, or, as herein described, “reaction”. Reaction is the term chosen because it most effectively focuses on the fact that “something must be done” with the information presented, that is to say, input must be “acted upon” or “responded to” by the system in some way for it to become fixed in memory and retrievable for later use.
Comprehensible Input becomes comprehended, or intake, based on the learner’s “reacting” in some manner to the stimulus given (information/words). Ellis discusses this “reacting” in terms of increasing the “depth of processing” that occurs through intrapsychic work performed by the conscious attention of learners. Providing interpersonal situations for interaction (although not necessarily “social” interaction) increases learner control of discourse, which promotes “interpersonal interaction” or “private speech”, which mediates the learning process. (Ellis, 239, 252, 255). His conclusion is supportive of Krashen’s theories; the negotiation of meaning that serves learning best is not necessarily the result of “external” discourse negotiation, but the “inner” negotiation of meaning through the attention (reaction) given to input. “Those who notice most, learn most, and it may be that those who notice most pay attention most” (Schmidt & Frota, 1986). To the degree that anything supports this attention/noticing/“reaction”, whether it is teaching metacognitive skills, giving learners greater control through social discourse, reading interesting materials, or teaching about language (grammar/syntax), it encourages and accelerates language acquisition. While teachers do not control learner motivation, aptitude, or socioeconomic background, they can control their choice of delivery style, curriculum content, classroom design, and interaction setup (activities) so as to elicit this “reaction” on the part of learners.
Repetition, which is the third critical component of SLA and learning in general, is founded on concepts which link the embedding of new information into the system through reinforcement. This reinforcement allows temporary storage items to become more “fixed” so that they can become part of the automated network of knowledge, capable of being recalled without significant conscious effort on the part of the learner. In management/leadership theory, there is a great deal of literature about creating new “habits” to maximize time use and efficiency. A common concept used to ingrain new habits and patterns, is that of doing something seven times in order to “imprint” it in memory. The minimum “repetitions” required to make something automatic is seven. In Latin, there is a saying, “repetitio mater studiorum est”, which means “repetition is the mother of learning”. Learning theories agree on the fact that repetition somehow enhances the underlying processes of learning. Ellis, in reviewing a study about frequency related to SLA noted that “words that occurred seven or more times in the course books of Indian learners were known by most learners” (Ellis, 46) Frequency, or repetition, increases the “meaningfulness” of information, increasing the potential of moving such information from Short Term Memory (STM) to Long Term Memory (LTM). Long Term Memory requires “deeper processing” and results in permanent imprinting of knowledge for later retrieval, while STM is a relatively temporary storage space, where information “waits” to be acted upon. If STM data is reinforced through repetition/practice, it moves into permanent storage in LTM. If it is not reinforced, it becomes available for recall only temporarily, eventually being “forgotten”.
Krashen notes as well that while “creative language” can be lost when the left hemispehere is damaged, routines and patterns appear to remain intact, even when they are far beyond the level of the developing rule system in children, if these “unanalyzed” expressions have occurred with “high frequency” within the learner’s environment. He implies that this high frequency occurrence results in their being available “in both the left and right brain hemispeheres” (Dulay, Burt & Krashen, 242). Use of repetition by mothers of children has been positively correlated with L1 language development (Conti-Ramsden in Galloway & Richards, 186) while a facilitative feature in early SLA development is teacher self-repetition (Ellis in Gass & Madden, 82). “Young children often repeat part or all of their partner’s preceding utterance in conversations” (James, 117).
Repetition can occur in any number of ways. It occurs when learners “drill” or repeat phrases or vocabulary, when they write or read for reinforcement of information, when mothers “expand or recast their child’s utterances” (Loritz, 186), when native speakers repeat non-native speakers sentences, when clarification requests are made in discourse (Pica, 1994), or when “forced output” is used to promote language acquisition. Repetition has been shown to be a component of all successful learning programs. TPR, as promoted by Asher relies on repetition coupled with physical enactment to maximize retention. Repetition in the form of “imitation, is postulated to be a universal discovery procedure for first and second language learning” (McLaughlin in Rosenberg, 235). It is pivotal, regardless of the learner’s age. While young children use repetition for learning in an automated or “intuitive” process, older children and adults use it equally, and often add an internal repetition system to their repertoire, as they utilize metacognitive skills to think about or analyze what they hear. Giving learners control and encouraging modified output increases both the probability of “meaningful” interaction, and therefore, motivation; and provides opportunities for extensive repetition as well as for the likelihood of creating input that is more comprehensible to the learner (closer to their I+1 level), that is to say, within their zone of proximal development (Ellis & Xien in Ellis, 129).
Reaction (attention/focus) has been shown to be the first step in successful instruction, and repetition (practice/reinforcement) is required for embedding new information in the deeper structures of the mind, for “permanence” of learning. In between these two, lies the crux of learning, which is range or “complexity”. In evolution, complexity is the “density of molecular structure” required for a change of state to occur, or increased consciousness (learning). In learning theory, we define range as the “variability of input containing that which is to be learned”. This variability allows for “understanding” or comprehension of new material. A simple analogy renders this definition comprehensible. An elephant may look like a barn from behind, like a snake from up front, or like a hippopotamus from the side. Increasing the number of directions (or angles) from which an observer can view an elephant, increases the likelihood of imparting to the observer the true sense of what an elephant is, or of helping the observer “understand” that the word elephant has all the dimensions we commonly associate with that word.
ART informs us that incoming signals are perceived in a “top-down” process, whereby what filters through our selective attention and storage systems is consistent with our previously stored expectations, or knowledge. This “process of resonance binds together information about both meaning and phonetics” (Grossman, 10). Neural networks develop rapidly in early life, and they do so based on the connections formed by the brain as new knowledge is processed and kept in LTM. Subsequent learning seeks to “understand” by recalling what is known and linking new information to those segments that most closely correlate to the new data provided. This biological process is the foundation for Vygotsky’s learning theories and the idea of “scaffolding”. Private speech, inner speech, and social interaction all are based on the concept of scaffolding, in which the learner’s comprehension is aided either externally (via tutors, teachers, and native speakers use of foreigner talk), or internally (via metacognitive processes) by helping place new information within “reach” for the learner. The greater the variability, or range provided, the more likely that the brain will find the connections required to make new information “meaningful”, or to “comprehend” it. Although not adequately highlighted in SLA literature, the concept of range has been addressed by various authors. Ellis, in reviewing research studies regarding modified input, quotes Mackey (1965) and concludes along with Carpay (1975) that range is the quantity of samples in which a new item is embedded, and that new words need to be introduced from the venue of at least four different contexts in order to be learned (Ellis, 98). It is not whether learners have social interaction, classroom teaching, reading, or proficiency-oriented training that makes them successful in learning. The relative success of each approach is directly correlated to the amount of variability or range that each provides the learner with. Range, as used herein, is also alluded to as “redundancy” in SLA literature, and it has been shown to be critical in developing understanding
“In our data, it appears that what the professors are doing in their second language classes is precisely this – exploiting the potential of language and the supporting extralinguistic content to increase the redundancy of the signals through which they communicate their meaning” (Wesche & Ready in Gass & Madden, 112).
In other places, the focus is on “recasts” by teachers and “self-recasts” by learners, which provide greater “richness” by increasing complexity in language structure, and which have been shown to effectively accelerate learning (Richards in Galloway & Richards, 82). TPR is so successful with beginning learners because it provides an alternate way to maximize “range” for learners whose lack of basic vocabulary precludes the extensive use of verbal language, which is beyond the beginner’s “zone of proximity”, since their scaffolding is so bare yet in terms of previous knowledge on which to hang new information presented in the L2. Instead of using “contextual referents”, TPR uses “concrete referents” (Dula, Burt & Krashen, 26) to assist the learner with creating meaning and comprehension. Transitional constructions (Krashen) and interlanguage are the visible aspects of the “organizer’s” processing, or the ongoing effort that takes new information from the realm of “unknown” to “understood”. Fossilization may result from the loss of reaction to input that is meant to create continued progress, or because excessive repetition of incorrect forms of the L2 have so strongly imprinted these forms as to preclude the inclusion of information meant to correct errors. In either case, it is related to the lack of provision of adequate “range” during the learning process. We will come back to why this is so later.
Humans are complex, adaptive systems and their language development reflects this. New structures (species or learning) occur when a threshold of complexity is reached, which develops through the weaving of connections between the old and the new, in an efficient search for patterns and systems useful for adaptive/functional purposes. The species evolved in this manner, language in general evolved in this manner, specific languages evolved in this manner, and individual SLA evolves in the same manner. The goal of language is communication, and to that end, the brain seeks to understand and connect new language information to previous linguistic and cognitive structures of meaning. Learning, similar to evolution, exhibits sudden, pervasive changes. When an “upper boundary” of complexity is reached, a higher level of organization emerges. In this manner, development and language learning cooperate with one another. SLA progresses via this constant reorganization, whereby a new “level” of organization results in understanding, or “a reorganizational jump whose characteristic is that the emergent system is somehow greater than the sum of the parts that constituted it” (Barber & Peters in Hawkins & Gell-Mann, 347).
Krashen’s theory of “roughly tuned input or net” (Terrell & Krashen, 33) is founded on the concept of providing maximum range or complexity within the learner’s I+1 or “proximal zone of development”. His emphasis on comprehensible input and inflexibility in assigning a greater role to any forms or methods that are not centered on “range” (output, the necessity of interaction, etc..) indicate his understanding of range as the “primary” requirement/necessity for SLA. Of course, all other theories contain components that also enhance language acquisition, but they do so primarily by increasing range on a microcosmic or macrocosmic level. As used here, the microcosmic level is that which provides information to the learner about the meaning of a word or form through its varied use in different sentences. This type of variation supplies the learner with both an increase in frequency (repetition), and with more angles from which to gain meaning about new input (range). In his latest work, Ellis agrees with Krashen regarding the pre-eminence of input and the workings of the brain for SLA.
“I have argued above that the kind of interaction that is crucially important for acquisition is the intrapsychological activity that results from learners’ attempts to process input for comprehension and acquisition. Such activity is not dependent on learners’ ability to interact socially, although, doubtlessly this is one way in which it can be stimulated” (Ellis, 242).
Ellis further notes that in terms of production or forced output, “there does not appear to be any obvious advantage for either the acquisition of vocabulary or grammar of actively participating in interaction” (Ellis, 245). The macrocosmic level is that aspect of complexity or range, which increases the situational contexts in which the learner sees a particular word or form; such as reading, social interaction, forced output, classroom instruction of rules about language, teaching thinking strategies, etc.. “There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the frequency with which novel words appear in a text affects acquisition” (Ellis, 155). Reading, again, provides the learner with both an increase in repetition of the targeted knowledge and an increase in range, or perspective (angle) from which to view the targeted knowledge. Ellis notes near the end of his work, “range, in particular, emerged as an important factor; learners need the opportunity to experience a new item in a number of different contexts” (Ellis, 249).
We have seen that the three primary factors that accelerate learning or SLA are reaction, range, and repetition. Of these three, range stands out as the most important. The reason for this is simple and obvious. First, reactions can be both positive and negative, and excessive attention to one particular can preclude openness of the system to further input while it “overfocuses” on one aspect of all that is being presented. Although teachers can do many things to gain attention or to motivate students, there is no guarantee that simply focusing will result in learning or acquisition. It may result in temporary focus and place new information only in the STM, which can eventually extinguish. It may also result in inappropriate focusing, for example, a teacher who dresses as a clown in order to teach things about the circus also produces “static” or distractors for the learner, whose thoughts may wander to ideas that are not related to the particular task at hand. Repetition suffers from similar problems when viewed as primary. Studies have concluded that there is a minimum requirement, but there is also an upper boundary or maximum within which frequency must fit. Too much repetition can exhaust the brain’s ability to pay attention, or to react, to a given input. Further, excessive repetition can actually diminish the potential of learning, or become an irritant as boredom sets in. It can be tricky business for a teacher to know the precise amount of rote repetition that is useful for acquisition, without risking loss of attention or harming the acquisition process.
Range, however, provides the learner with “variety” and thereby stimulates reaction, or maximizes the probability that the learner will react to the new information presented. By incorporating varied tasks at the macrocosmic level, teachers can implement the concept of range to impact on all learners by presenting instruction in such a way as to make use of the “multiple intelligence” theory, which tells us that different learners function better with differing approaches. Thus, reading, social interaction, participative activities, and overt grammar instruction, all maximize the probability that most learners can connect new information in a meaningful way to previous information and understand new ideas/concepts/words.
Further, range provides for maximum frequency/repetition, but because it does so within the context of “variation”, it minimizes the probability that learners will “burn out” from repetition. In this respect, then, range encompasses both reaction and repetition variables, which are subcomponents of range or “complexity”. Fossilization, which truncates full language acquisition is often the result of the lack of range. When the learner’s environment lacks sufficient range; either because interaction is limited to the language provided by other non-native speakers or native speakers whose language use is neither correct grammatically nor rich in vocabulary, or because not enough varied resources are utilized in teaching (reading, production, hands-on activities), incorrect and limited SLA occurs.
Understanding the impact of range on learning not only provides a framework from which to evaluate theories of SLA, but links all theories together in a comprehensive whole, which diminishes the need to emphasize one over the other, except to the extent that those which allow the most range for learners become recognized for providing greater acceleration in SLA. Each focus, however, is seen as valuable, and each contributes to eventual language acquisition. More research needs to be done which identifies range as the primary critical factor in the underlying studies, which compare various theories of SLA. In doing so, researchers will be able to connect SLA research to advances in learning theory, as well as make use of the discoveries of other fields of study, including physics, cybernetics, economics, sociology, and archeology. Meanwhile, teachers need to understand the concept of range and recognize its importance in second language acquisition. By doing so, they acquire the ability to significantly enhance their potential to successfully assist learners in acquiring language fluency.
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