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A Few Thoughts on Task-Based Instruction

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I appreciate Belgar and Hunt's (2002) attempts to integrate a task-based syllabus into the English as a Foreign Language curriculum of the Japanese university where they worked. No doubt, as the researchers pointed out, the students involved benefited from this alternative form of English instruction. The fact that the task required students to frequently negotiate meaning while using language for real-life (or near to real-life) communicative purposes probably served as a very useful complement to the more traditional instruction the students received in the other component of their program. Moreover, the students' largely positive responses to the project undoubtedly contributed to their gains in English proficiency, given that such an enthusiastic reception to the tasks increased their levels of motivation and lowered their affective filters.

Nevertheless, despite the positive aspects of this instructional model and the tangible benefits the Japanese students obtained from it, I question whether this and other "non-interventionist" approaches (or completely analytic syllabi more generally) have a sizeable place in my current English language curriculum. This is not to say that task-based and project-based teaching play absolutely no roles in our programs. In fact, they do, although the tasks (e.g., problem-solving activities, debates, scavenger hunts, etc.) tend to have both pedagogical and practical elements to them and involve more teacher involvement than the model contemplated by Belgar and Hunt, in which the instructor is more observer or facilitator than pedagogue. As a means of adding flexibility to the curriculum and increasing active student participation in the lesson, task-based teaching is quite welcome in our instructional model and fits nicely into our synthetic functional-notional syllabus, in which students are encouraged to interact only in the target language and grammatical structures are imbedded within the language functions and notions around which the curriculum is organized. Thus, task-based and project-based work can certainly be used in measured doses to enhance and supplement our traditional ESL/EFL curriculum.

On the other hand, I do not believe that task and project-based instruction should replace the traditional curriculum, as has been suggested as one possible approach. For one, if the purpose of a program for English language learners is to completely recreate a naturalistic language learning environment, then unless the program is situated in a purely EFL context where students have no access to a community of native English speakers, learners may be better off spending the same amount of time (and presumably, much less money) simply acquiring the language naturalistically. In other words, why should we be charging students tuition and fees to experience a simulated version (viz., quasi-naturalistic task-based interaction) of the real thing, which they can get for free? In addition, the minimal focus on form typical of purely task-based and project-based teaching may lead to serious unintended consequences, such as the provoked fossilization Skehan warns of. Thus, one matter of concern in implementing task-based and project-based teaching in my current instructional context is ensuring that it does not supplant other critical curricular components. As we are already pinched for time (in the language classrooms I have stepped into, time seems to pass faster than the laws of physics should allow), I fear that an overreliance on one single instructional approach, regardless of how well students take to it, may do more harm than good. Furthermore, I have serious reservations about charging students to participate in programs that adopt a completely analytic syllabus, at least in most ESL contexts, as explained above. Validly and reliably measuring student achievement in a program built around a strictly analytic syllabus is another potential difficulty. So it seems that striking the right balance when combining task-based and project-based teaching with traditional language instruction while preserving the synthetic syllabus at the core of the program in which I work would be a serious challenge.

Focus on Grammar

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Although the field of language education has seen many advances during the last two decades, especially when it comes to acknowledging the roles social interaction and cultural identity play in the language teaching and learning process, I fear the same cannot be said for teaching grammar. There seem to be just as many question marks now as there were when I was in college twenty years ago. In fact, the situation may be grimmer now than it was when I first studied these issues because at least back then, there was a fair degree of certainty over what "grammar" was (those were the heydays of generative grammar), whereas today, theoretical linguists cannot even agree on whether grammar rules exist at all (at least not in any psychologically real way). This is one of the reasons I am so hesitant to teach grammar explicitly in the classroom--no matter what I tell my students, chances are that much of what I tell them would be factually inaccurate. Consequently, to the extent that I approach grammar in a direct way, I carefully avoid mention of "rules" and instead focus on helping students recognize patterns and tendencies and assigning meaning to those patterns.

Perhaps the greatest challenge when teaching grammar in any instructional context is that so much of the language acquisition process still takes place in an impenetrable black box, that it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the "right" way to teach grammar is. Debates that began in earnest in the 1970s are still largely unresolved today. Which approach is more effective--inductive, deductive, or a mixture of both? Is there a difference between language learning and language acquisition? How much interface, if any, is there between implicit and explicit language knowledge? Should language input or learner output be emphasized in the classroom? Do grammar rules even exist? I could go on and on. For most of these and related questions, for every published article in favor of one position there is another arguing for the opposite. And of course, the fact that I experienced naturalistic foreign language learning and found it to be far more effective than any classroom instruction I ever encountered will constitute an enduring bias against explicit grammatical instruction that I will likely never be able to erase. So it would seem then that my greatest challenge when teaching grammar is that I am conflicted over whether I should be teaching it at all, mostly because the field itself is conflicted and has no definitive answers to my questions.

Luckily for me, the curriculum used in my current teaching context adopts a strictly inductive approach to language instruction, allowing me to minimize the impact of this intellectual conflict on my instruction (it still deals an occasional glancing blow, but one parried by a methodological framework that permits evasion of grammatical explanation). According to the tenets of our method, grammatical principles should be exemplified but not explained (unless absolutely necessary for learners to understand a target structure or form), which for the most part vitiates the question of how we should teach grammar since in the strict sense our method militates against teaching grammar in the first place. According to the details of this method, as long as students notice a grammatical structure, they should be able to acquire it provided the input is comprehensible and their output is reacted to appropriately, sans mention of grammar. This is not to say that we do not provide students feedback about whether their output is grammatical, only that we do not actually say "your output is not grammatical." We negotiate form, not grammatical rules.

I strongly believe in a meaning-based approach to language instruction, for we communicate to express meaning. Form is but a means to an end, not an end in itself. Form without meaning is of almost no value (as revealed by the Corandic Activity), whereas meaning with imperfect form is often of great communicative value. Whether planned focus on form is necessary at all is debatable, in my opinion, since authentic interactions will often produce more than enough incidental focus on form to go around. As pointed out by Ellis et al. (2001), incidental focus on form, especially when initiated by the learner, appears to be more effective than planned focus on form in generating uptake, and it may be more useful to the learner since it is directly relevant to the communicative needs of the moment. The strongest argument for planned focus on form is that complete reliance on incidental focus on form may not adequately address structures or vocabulary that students intentionally avoid, and so for this reason (and for this reason alone) I can begrudgingly concede that some planned focus on form may be required depending on the circumstances. However, throughout the long course of human history people have been learning second and foreign languages naturalistically and with great success, and in such authentic learning contexts (which must numerically dwarf all combined classroom language instruction ever carried out) most if not all focus on form is of the incidental type. Yes, I admit that it is at least within the realm of possibility that at least once or twice, some Greek struggling to speak Latin in ancient Rome walked up to a native Latin speaker and asked him to explain the ablative absolute, just like a native Spanish speaker asked me last week to clarify the difference between "hassle" and "hazard," but such interactions in naturalistic language learning settings are decidedly rare. My point is that since we seem to get so much more mileage out of incidental focus on form, why take valuable class time away from meaning-centered instruction by planning a focus on form that is of questionable value to start with?

Focus on Pronunciation and Fluency

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When I studied phonetics and phonology for the first time in the early 1990s, the academic focus was almost entirely on the segmental aspects of the language's sound system. We reviewed the articulatory and acoustic traits of each consonant and vowel phoneme in the language in detail. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was taught to us with urgency, and hours of class time were devoted to detailed phonetic transcription. Of course, we also learned about suprasegmental features (which at the time were often referred to as "prosody"), mostly at the phrase and sentence levels, but only as a short course module following our detailed segmental studies. Suprasegmentals were more of an afterthought than anything else. However, now that the pedagogical focus in the field has shifted away from an almost exclusive emphasis on individual sounds to a broad recognition that suprasegmental features such as stress, intonation, rhythm and linking play a more important role than segmental features in the language comprehension and pronunciation of English language learners, it is critical for teachers to thoroughly address suprasegmentals when teaching English pronunciation.

Goodwin (2002) argues that we should set four important realistic goals for our students when teaching pronunciation. Citing Morley (1999), Goodwin elaborates that our pronunciation instruction should help students achieve functional intelligibility (the ability to pronounce English with an accent that, while non-native, does not distract the listener), functional communicability (the ability of the speaker to achieve successful communication in the specific settings and contexts in which she or he must interact in "real life"), increased self-confidence and the ability to monitor his or her speech for errors (that is, to attend to phonetic form while not neglecting meaning). A key underlying premise behind the goals Goodwin advocates is that "perfect" or "near-native" pronunciation is not achievable for the vast majority of learners. As a result, we should not set our students up for failure by setting such an unrealistic goal. Moreover, it is important for us to conceptualize and carry out pronunciation instruction in a way that is respectful of the learner's cultural identity. This requires us to help our students acquire a new (comprehensible and non-distracting yet noticeably non-native) accent to add to their linguistic repertoire without demanding the eradication of their natural accent as a precondition for doing so.

My personal teaching philosophy holds that second language instruction should focus primarily on the development of communicative competence and that fluency and lexical command are far more important than grammatical (especially morphological) accuracy in most real-life interactive contexts. Consequently, my main goal when teaching pronunciation is to help my students produce comprehensible if imperfect English. In my current teaching context, my greatest challenge is convincing students of the soundness of this approach. I have encountered a number of students who initially insist on being corrected after every single mistake and have even had students who complained that I was not correcting enough of their pronunciation errors. While I understand that students may become comfortable with this type of instruction based on the expectations they have developed over many years of (mostly unsuccessful) language instruction using the audio-lingual method and the intuitive-imitative approach to teaching pronunciation, I fully understand that perpetuating this type of mostly ineffective pedagogy just to placate my students is not in their best interests. Yet convincing my students that perpetual correction will not help them achieve their language learning goals while at the same time respecting their beliefs is an ongoing challenge that I will continue to struggle with in my teaching practice.

Turning to the instructional activities for developing fluency through listening and speaking provided by Nation and Newton (2009), I found many of the suggestions useful and appropriate to my instructional context, especially since the language school where I work has a teaching methodology that focuses on oral communication with only a minor emphasis on reading and writing. Two of the activities that would fit quite well into our curriculum are listening to questions and rehearsed talks. Despite the frequent use of questions as a presentation and modeling technique at our school, I have found that many students still struggle to consistently and correctly identify questions. I often find myself explicitating the interrogative nature of questions by either holding up a piece of paper with a large question mark or even stating directly, "that was a question." Turning question recognition into a game, as Nation and Newton recommend, can help remove the tedium from this important but often frustrating task. Given the importance of question recognition and formation to successful communication (just think about what percentage of our real-world interactions involve either asking or answering a question), no stone should be left unturned to help our students master this essential communicative skill. Rehearsed talks would be particularly helpful for our lower and intermediate level students. I believe that one of the most effective strategies for helping learners at this range of proficiency improve their fluency is to help them add short (single phrase) and medium-length (two or three short phrases) high frequency language chunks to their lexical repertoire, which they can then internalize and use to build more fluent speech. Although I am not in favor of rote memorization à la the old audio-lingual method, I do think that lower-level learners should acquire meaningful language chunks (and not just single terms), with lots of opportunities for repetition. The rehearsed talks using pyramiding as suggested in the article would be an appropriate way to achieve that pedagogical aim.

Learning to Teach

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Richard McDorman in the early 1980s.jpg

Left: Richard preparing a "lesson" for great aunt Evelyn (October, 1980: Beckley, West Virginia)

Right: Richard and sister Crissy working on a "test" using Aunt Evelyn's manual typewriter (December, 1983: Beckley, West Virginia)

Below: Betty McDorman (image from 1978 Coal City Elementary School yearbook)

I think I always knew that I would eventually become a teacher. When I was in elementary school, I would "play professor" with my great aunt Evelyn, teaching her "lessons" about the alphabet and then preparing her tests, grading them and carefully explaining where she went wrong. She had a very old manual typewriter that I would use to carefully type her tests--I remember how excited I would get on the way to her house, just waiting to get my hands on that unique, ancient treasure.

Betty McDorman_September 1978.jpgMy grandmother Betty was an elementary school teacher in Coal City, West Virginia. She was one of the very first women in her town to earn a college degree, and some of my first memories of classrooms were of her second and third grade classes, with seasonally-themed collages neatly arranged on the walls. I have many diverse memories of school. Because my parents worked in the coal industry at time when it was in flux, we moved around a lot. Consequently, I was enrolled in three preschools, three elementary schools, two junior high schools (back when they still existed) and two senior high schools spread across three states and in very different areas, from a remote village of perhaps two hundred people (truly in the middle of nowhere) in central West Virginia with only a single seventy year-old school house in town, to the western suburbs of Pittsburgh and then to a small colonial Virginia town of about seven thousand people, where I went to high school from tenth grade on. As a result of having studied in such varied educational settings, my "apprenticeship of observation" was quite rich, as I was exposed to a great variety of ways of teaching.

I experienced similar variety in my own classroom language studies, which began when I was in grade school (a once-a-week enrichment program that included light instruction in Hebrew) and continued all the way through graduate school (the last formal language courses I took were Classical Aztec--one of the most boring classes I ever had to endure, due mainly to the instructor's dry and emotionless teaching method, which included nothing more than memorizing and translating texts--and Middle Egyptian, which I found somewhat overwhelming since I was taking the class for my non-Indo-European language requirement in the midst of aspiring Egyptologists). Sandwiched in between learning to write Hebrew letters when I was eight and studying the texts of ancient civilizations in my mid-twenties were abundant and diverse language studies that included many years of Spanish, French and Latin, along with two years of Chinese, a year of Arabic, and one semester each of Old English, German, Swahili, Old Provençal and Lakhota (the most widely spoken dialect of the Sioux). Although most of these language courses taught me what not to do when I would eventually become a language teacher myself, I was exposed to one or two excellent teachers whom I would later try to emulate (my Swahili teacher, one of most acclaimed Bantuists and in my humble opinion fantastic teachers in the United States, was particularly inspiring). I also experienced two naturalistic language learning settings when I was a teenager, first during a long summer in Mexico City and the next year at a Spanish language immersion camp for high school students. It was through these two experiences that I actually acquired the ability to use a foreign language for the first time. I made greater gains in Spanish proficiency in these two summers than during all of my years of formal Spanish classes combined. As a result of these experiences, I came to believe (and still do) that learning a language naturalistically, in situ, is a far more effective way to acquire fluency in a language than classroom-based learning. For despite our best efforts, I believe that it is impossible to recreate a truly naturalistic learning environment in the classroom. The best we can do is to simulate real-world conditions and scenarios, but I believe that there will always be an artificiality to the classroom that cannot be completely eliminated.

My first real teaching experience took place in the early 1990s, when I was teaching (or rather trying to teach) English as a second language to Mexican migrant workers and their children in Central Virginia. I remember those experiences vividly, as our small group of aspiring teachers would board a van, bubbling with enthusiasm and excitement, to travel about an hour away from the University of Virginia campus to the apple orchards south of Charlottesville. I recall being shocked upon seeing the deplorable living conditions of the workers and their children, who were huddled into what looked like (and very well might have been) dilapidated antebellum plantation workers' quarters and trying my best to present the weekly lesson to exhausted workers with perplexed looks on their faces. I remember that most of my lessons to these learners were in Spanish, not English, and that we talked about Mexico and Central America a lot. My second teaching experience took place when I was in graduate school in Chicago, where I taught two sections of first-year conversational Spanish. I received absolutely no training whatsoever for the job and was selected because I was the only graduate student in the linguistics department who was proficient in Spanish. Although I did the best I could (trying to emulate the few good language teachers I had learned from in the past while trying to avoid the habits of the bad ones), I barely managed to stumble my way through the year. What I remember most about the experience was being chastised by the program supervisor for misusing the word cuestión during a class and always struggling to hold the attention of my students, almost all of whom were in the class because they thought that taking first-year Spanish was the least painful way to satisfy their mandatory foreign language requirement.

These were the formative experiences that, at least as far as I am aware, have most powerfully shaped my ideas about teaching. By the time I started teaching English full-time at a private language school in Miami in 2003, I suppose that my ideas about what "good" language teaching should be like were already long settled. One of the common threads that runs through all of my language teaching experiences is that I had very little formal training in how to actually teach (as opposed to the subject matter itself, in which I was thoroughly well schooled), and pretty much had to figure it out own my own as I went along based on my prior observations and experiences.

The Dilemmas of Language Assessment

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I would like to share my experiences with language assessment in my current instructional context--an intensive English program for international students at a large language school in Miami, Florida. We conduct formal assessments using a full-length simulated TOEIC (a norm-referenced standardized test consisting of two hundred selected-response items measuring listening and reading comprehension skills) at the beginning of each student's enrollment for initial placement purposes, and then a comprehensive assessment at the end of each academic quarter that involves a criterion-referenced achievement test (containing selected-response and constructed-response items to measure attainment of the course's learning objectives, which involve all four language skills), another full-length simulated TOEIC and an oral proficiency interview (OPI) scored on the ILR proficiency scale (a speaking performance assessment). We spend so much time, energy and resources conducting these three different types of assessments primarily because we are required to do so by the national accrediting agency to which we must answer (I am personally ambivalent about the value of spending so much time on formal, end-of-quarter testing; by the end of the year, most students are more than "tested out"). The accrediting agency's standards require language schools to conduct regular language assessments that are valid and reliable, and so we use the TOEIC because (at least according to ETS, the test maker), the test is among the most valid and reliable norm-referenced assessment instruments available. In the past, we tried using the TOEFL iBT, but that test is too complicated to administer en masse (it requires computers, whereas the TOEIC is an entirely paper-based test) and cannot be reliably scored due to the constructed-response sections (speaking and writing), which require professional, trained raters to score consistently and reliably. The same goes for the IELTS.

Although we employ three distinct assessment instruments for our quarterly testing, only the criterion-referenced achievement test is used to determine whether students pass or fail the course (we do not believe that it is fair to use norm-referenced tests to award final course grades, since such tests are designed to produce a normal distribution of scores; we believe that all students should have the opportunity to pass the course provided that they can demonstrate minimally-acceptable attainment of course objectives, which are defined and explained to students at the beginning of the course). All students are also assessed informally throughout their course based on their continuing in-class performance and completion of homework, assignments, language lab activities and exercises, which include a wide range of item types (selected-response, constructed-response and personal-response) and assessment tools (traditional and alternative), although none of these is formally graded.

Despite the apparent robustness of this assessment protocol, we have been disappointed with the results of these assessments, especially the TOEIC, which despite its supposed validity has proven almost useless for us. The TOEIC's test maker claims that TOEIC scores provide a valid and reliable measure of the examinees' ability to use English in the workplace (since our program is general and not academic in nature, this test is better aligned to our course's goals than the TOEFL or IELTS, which mainly assess the examinee's ability to use English in academic settings). However, it has been our experience that the TOEIC substantially overestimates the test taker's language proficiency (we have had cases of students achieving high TOEIC scores who could not communicate effectively in English, at all). In my opinion, part of this problem is that the TOEIC only measures receptive skills, yet our students must be able to use the language to communicate in authentic contexts, and that obviously requires production. Unfortunately, our school's achievement tests (which are provided to us by our international headquarters in Switzerland) are only marginally better than the TOEIC (for one thing, the minimum passing score is only fifty percent according to the published scoring guide, although our school unilaterally moved that up to sixty percent for several reasons, including methodological ones that are too complicated to go into here), but at least they have the virtue of being aligned with the course content and assessing all four language skills. We (and many other language schools in the United States accredited by the same agency) have been forced into this situation due to accreditation rules and the mandatory institutional accreditation required by a federal law that went into effect in 2010. So, like Pete from this week's article, I long to break free of this administrative assessment mess and instead use what I consider more meaningful and authentic forms of assessment (I personally favor performance assessments), but our hands are tied due to the legally-enforced accreditation rules, which require that we use "nationally accepted language assessment instruments."

Cultural Pluralism vs. Cultural Hybridity

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Both cultural pluralism and cultural hybridity attempt to move beyond traditional nativist conceptions of the superiority of the language and culture of the "Self" and the presumed inherent inferiority and deficit-oriented view of the "Other." Both phenomena incorporate postmodernist notions of cultural relativism, but they do so in different ways. While cultural pluralism respects and values differences among cultural groups, it still places individuals in traditionally bounded cultural spaces and for this reason has been criticized for essentializing culture. On the other hand, cultural hybridity allows for the transcendence of traditional cultural zones and their boundaries by transforming individuals into culturally sophisticated members of a global community who have control over the formation of their own identities by selecting from an almost unlimited number of distinct cultural elements drawn from their inherited culture and the cultures in which they interact (or perhaps even cultures in which they come into only tangential contact yet willingly choose to adopt). Thus, whereas cultural pluralism places individuals into honored yet confining cultural spaces, cultural hybridity seeks to liberate individuals and their cultural identities from predefined cultural compartments, allowing them to move beyond traditional cultural spaces into highly-individualized "third spaces" forged out of their own unique cultural experiences.

Although the idea of cultural hybridity is seductive, I find it more problematic than cultural pluralism. I believe that what might be conceptualized as the weak version of cultural hybridity, that all cultures are hybrids and that all individuals have hybrid cultural identities to the extent that no two individuals exist in the exact same cultural space, is as unproblematic as it is obvious. However, the strong version of cultural hybridity as proposed (essentially as a postcolonial solution to cultural nativism) seems somewhat oblivious to the socioeconomic realities of the modern world. While cultural hybridity supports personal liberation from traditional and confining cultural spaces, only those privileged individuals with the means to move from one cultural area to another (à la Pnina Werbner's "gorgeous butterflies in the greenhouse of global cultures") can take full advantage of its liberating power. And so while cultural hybridity may be a liberating phenomenon, relatively few (as Kumaravadivelu has pointed out, it is "fairly limited to the globe-trotting citizens of the world") can avail themselves its benefits, despite its lure. On the other hand, while cultural pluralism may lack some (or even much) of cultural hybridity's philosophical attractiveness, it is a solution to nativism that is readily available to all. I personally believe that all cultures should be honored and valued, and while Kumaravadivelu (2007) has criticized even this liberal interpretation of cultural pluralism as essentialized, I am comfortable accepting the continued existence of ethnic, racial and national boundaries so long as we respect them as legitimate, valued and coequal manifestations of human cultural diversity.

Turning to model pedagogical approaches for teaching language learners about cultural hybridity, I find the Australian approach of Intercultural Language Teaching (ILT) particularly compelling. The ILT approach's attempt to create a holistic linguacultural learning experience (through the inclusion of the student's native linguaculture and the target linguaculture as pedagogical elements to be contrasted) and the development of intercultural competence through learning about cultures, comparing cultures and exploring them can empower students to see themselves as more than just language learners. I believe that this type of empowerment can motivate learners to become more deeply invested in the learning process as they experience the challenges, frustrations and joys of personal cultural development, exploration and growth in addition to simple language acquisition/learning. I would incorporate the approach's "three dimensional" teaching methods into my lessons to explore not only the how and what of language use (i.e., language structures, functions, vocabulary, etc.) but also the why (such as the cultural beliefs and values that are intertwined with and drive language use). An example of this type of teaching strategy would be the exploration and comparison of the verbal and non-verbal rituals involved in specific culturally-driven language functions (such as apologizing or responding to compliments, both of which can vary greatly from linguaculture to linguaculture but tend to be ritualized) in both the native and target linguacultures so that learners can understand and appreciate what cultural elements motivate language use in these types of personal interactions and how they do so.

In their introduction to chapter 9, Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) assert that ESL instructors should "teach their learners (1) how to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling and (2) how to come up with a plausible spelling for a word given its pronunciation" (p. 269). However, the authors provide no empirical support for the effectiveness of this orthography-based approach and apparently fail to consider the possibility that such an approach may do more harm than good. It has been my personal teaching experience that focusing on how words are spelled often interferes with the learner's efforts to acquire correct English pronunciation. For example, I have taught more than one student who was able to produce a passable pronunciation for words like would and should until learning that such words are spelled with a "silent l," at which point the learners insisted that they could hear a faint l-sound in the word. From that point on, the learners began to pronounce these words with an intrusive [l] and I could never manage to remedy that incorrect pronunciation. I have observed that this phenomenon is particularly common among English language learners whose native language is written with a fairly phonemic alphabetic writing system (such as Spanish).

One viable alternative to the orthography-based approach advocated by Celce-Murcia et al. is to teach students to conceptualize the spelling of each word as a single unit, paying more attention to the whole than to the individual letters and their often tenuous sound correspondences. This holistic reading approach, which may impose a great learning burden on students at the start, can provide long-term rewards in that it allows for a faster reading rate (research has shown that readers who have internalized words as single units can read faster than those who have learned to read words as a string of individual letters), is effective for slower learners, and may minimize the risk that the learner will adopt an incorrect spelling pronunciation given the generally non-phonemic nature of the English orthographic system. Moreover, many of the spelling "rules" presented by Celce-Murcia et al. (taken mainly from the work of Dickerson) are so complicated and abstruse that they may be of little use to the learner.

On Inflection, Derivation and Teaching Word Forms

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Although heavy emphasis is typically placed on word formation, especially inflection and derivation, in most ESL/EFL curricula, only a small fraction of the total words that appear in typical English textual corpora involve either morphological strategy. The vast majority of the words used in everyday spoken English are either short function words (mainly articles and prepositions) or monomorphemic content words, with nouns predominating. I suspect that in many teaching contexts, there may be more emphasis placed on teaching inflection and derivation than usage warrants, especially when such instruction comes at the cost of tightening the "nuts and bolts" of function and simple content words. After all, even if students make minor inflectional or derivational errors, they are more likely than not to be understood. However, the same cannot be said for learners with significant gaps in their lexicon involving function and especially content words. It can be argued that complete mastery of all derivational prefixes and suffixes in a language is worthless if the speaker is constantly at a loss for the basic content words to which said affixes should be attached. This is not to say that we should not teach our students about word formation in English, as they must certainly learn to master the relatively meager inflection that does exist in the language as well as gain a significant command of frequent derivational patterns, but rather that we need to be careful not to put the cart before the horse.

When teaching word forms to beginners, I believe that it is important to focus on simple content and function words first while gradually presenting the most frequently-used inflectional and derivational morphemes. Once students have reached a low intermediate level of proficiency and have acquired a solid core lexicon, derivation should be given more attention and compounding should be introduced in order to expand the learners' lexical range and, hopefully, increase her intuitive grasp of word formation and derivational patterns. Given the right instruction, enough practice and sufficient exposure to the language, I do believe that many students can correctly guess the right word forms more often than not, or at least develop some sense of what "sounds right" and "sounds wrong," even if that intuition is based mainly on receptive skills and passive knowledge, which Folse (2009) has indicated is often a good "first start." Although as Folse rightly points out, there is something of a chicken-and-egg causality dilemma at work here (viz., how can students be expected to guess the right word form--for example, how can they know that bookish "works" whereas *bookly does not--until they have actually been exposed to the former), I nevertheless believe that students can develop enough of a holistic understanding of lexical patterns in English to at least suspect that loveliness is word while sensing that there is something not quite right about *loveliment. I have developed this sense in Spanish, such that even though I sometimes still "invent" words to the amusement of my native Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues, I guess the "correct" word form a good deal of the time. Finally, less frequent but still useful and important word formation strategies such as clipping, backformation, blending and conversion should be explicitly addressed with more advanced learners. To be sure, the most commonly-used words formed by these strategies (such as smog, TV, gas and so forth) should be still presented to beginning and intermediate level students as discrete words and useful language chunks, but discussion of the actual mechanics of such word formation strategies are best left to higher-level classrooms.

English is not typical in its predominantly analytic (isolating) character, as languages with a relatively higher degree of synthesis (see are much more numerous cross-linguistically. In fact, outside of East and Southeast Asia, predominantly isolating languages are fairly rare. With no case other than possessive (i.e., formed by the addition of the suffix -'s), English has an especially impoverished nominal inflectional morphology, and compared to most other languages, including Indo-European languages outside the Germanic group (such as Spanish, French, Italian and Russian), Arabic, Korean and Japanese, which tend to be commonly spoken by our students, English verb forms (although not necessarily their meaning or syntax, especially when it comes to modals and phrasal verbs) are a model of simplicity. Consequently, most students are much more likely to have problems acquiring derivational affixes in English than inflectional ones, if for no other reason than English has so few inflectional morphemes to start with. In addition, prefixation is rare to nonexistent in both Japanese and Korean, so native speakers of those languages are more likely to struggle with English prefixes than with suffixes, which are rife in both of those East Asian languages. Based on my own teaching experiences, Chinese is the only native language commonly spoken by our students that is less morphologically complex than English (other than a handful of morphemes that straddle the border between full-fledged suffixes and separate words, Chinese completely lacks affixation along with many of the grammatical categories, such as tense and number, that are expressed through suffixation in English). As a result, native Chinese speakers often have particular difficulties acquiring both inflectional and derivational patterns in English. The only word formation strategies they really get "for free" are uninflected simple function and content words and compounding, which is especially frequent in Chinese. These facts have led me to become especially patient with my native Chinese-speaking students, who will almost always find English morphology to be a great challenge.

On the other hand, speakers of Romance languages, especially Spanish and French (which as Western Romance languages are rather closely related historically; see, usually have fewer problems learning English word forms than speakers of Chinese (which, as noted above, almost completely lacks affixation of any kind), Arabic (which has exceptionally complex inflectional morphology, although it is of a quite different sort than that seen in English), and Japanese and Korean (both of which are highly agglutinative languages but which use suffixation to express very different grammatical categories than those in English). Unlike speakers of most languages outside the Romance (and to a lesser extent, the Germanic) group, native Spanish and French speakers find in English both familiar derivational patterns and, thanks to the many cognates due to borrowings from both French and Latin (and to a much lesser extent Greek), the derivational morphemes themselves. Thus, the morphological challenges our Spanish and French-speaking students face are of a very different sort than the ones experienced by their Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean-speaking peers: although many of the derivational prefixes and suffixes in English are familiar to them in both form and meaning, there is never a one hundred percent overlap between languages in either respect. In addition, while cognates certainly aid their efforts to acquire English, faux amis are always lurking around the corner (thus, while English has devolve and Spanish has devolver, in which case both the prefixes and the roots are cognate, the two words do not mean the same thing at all, which can be said for dozens of similar pairs of close cognates). Still, on balance Spanish and French-speaking students usually find acquiring English word forms to be easier than speakers of languages unrelated to English.

Strategies for Teaching Articles

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I think that the most effective approach to teaching article usage depends mainly on the specific teaching context involved, since in the ESL classroom we typically teach students of diverse backgrounds and native languages, whereas in the EFL classroom we almost always have the luxury of students with the same native language, but who usually have the disadvantage of much more restricted access to comprehensible and grammatical input. Assuming the typical ESL context, in this case, a mixed class of first language speakers including Arabic (with a frequently-used definite article but no indefinite article), Chinese, Japanese and Korean (with no articles of any kind), and Spanish (with both a definite and indefinite article which are used in ways that often do not overlap with their English counterparts, including the fact that both types of Spanish articles are inflected for number), I would still use contrastive analysis as a strategy for helping students learn how articles are used in English. I believe that it is critical for adult learners to understand the differences in how articles are used (or not used) in English and their native language in order to master this aspect of English grammar (the same could also be said for many other grammar points). Since L1 interference tends to be robust and persistent in article usage (as it is in the usage of prepositions), I believe that completely ignoring the linguistic particulars of each student's native language just because of the teaching context (i.e., a class consisting of students with different and diverse native languages) would not be an effective strategy. Allowing students to explore the differences in how English and their native language deal with articles (or in the case of some languages, avoids them entirely) may also help sensitize students to the manifold ways articles can be used in different languages, thereby raising their general linguistic awareness while at the same time validating the importance and legitimacy of their native language, which can often be an issue in the ESL context.

I recommend presenting each article (indefinite, definite and null/zero) in separate lessons, with the indefinite article coming first since Folse (2009) urges that we always teach English count nouns as "language chunks" with the indefinite article included given that in English, we almost never use the singular form of count nouns without a determiner. I would then present each separate use of the articles as a discrete lesson, addressing the most common uses first. I would make sure that throughout the lessons, sufficient attention is paid to helping students of each language address their L1-specific difficulties (e.g., overuse of the definite article by Arabic speakers, underuse or random use of articles by Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers, and the specific incongruities between article usage in Spanish and English).

Sharing My Own Second Language Learning Experiences

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Because I have engaged in diverse second language studies over many years at numerous institutions, I have experienced the pedagogical emphasis of both communicative competences (academic and interpersonal), although those emphases have not been evenly distributed among the languages studied and in some cases have been combined within the same course, but usually not in equal measure. The university courses I have taken in the more commonly-studied national European languages French and German focused almost exclusively on academic competence. Little to no attention was paid to language variation (whether dialectal or sociolectal), levels of formality (other than the obligatory tu/vous and Du/Sie distinction) or pragmatics and (in my opinion) excessive emphasis was placed on "proper" pronunciation, especially in the French courses. Although I did not end up becoming fluent in spoken German and only achieved an intermediate level of proficiency in spoken French, I do believe that the academic competence I gained in both languages has served me well, especially given my subsequent academic and career paths. Being able to read academic works with ease in French and with some difficulty in German has turned out to be very useful in my particular case, although I imagine that many of my classmates cannot say the same thing, especially those who took degrees in business, engineering, legal studies and the like and were studying the language as part of their mandatory degree requirements.

Spanish is the language that I have studied the longest and most intensively, from early junior high school through graduate school. Probably because I have studied the language in so many linguacultural and academic contexts (as a second language in Mexico, at intensive immersion camps, as a foreign language in a traditional classroom setting and as the medium of instruction for academic courses in the United States), levels and institutions, I have experienced the greatest variation in which communicative competence was emphasized. Interpersonal communicative competence was emphasized in the language immersion settings, both interpersonal and academic competence were emphasized in Mexico, and some combination of the competences was emphasized in most of the university courses, especially in the graduate-level courses for which Spanish was the sole language of instruction. The fact that I acquired high levels of both academic and interpersonal communicative competence in the language has helped to contribute to my professional and personal success. Advanced proficiency in Spanish is a practical requirement for my current position as a language school administrator in Miami, a city where Spanish is the primary language of communication at almost all levels of society (the most recent United States census statistics reveal that approximately seventy percent of Miami-Dade County's 2.6 million counted residents are native Spanish speakers; given the large number of undocumented native Spanish speakers in the South Florida region, the actual population and percentage are probably significantly higher than the official numbers indicate). In addition, my academic competence in Spanish has allowed me to become a professional translator; I have earned certification in Spanish to English translation from the American Translators Association and although I mainly work on translations as a side job, translation work represents an important source of income for me. Perhaps because Spanish is such an important second language in the United States, acquiring interpersonal communicative competence in that language tends to be a more common goal in traditional classroom settings than for many other commonly-taught languages. I make this conclusion because, based on my own L2 learning experiences, it seems that interpersonal communicative competence has been emphasized much more in Spanish classes than in French or German classes at all levels (from high school to college).

Finally, turning to some of the less commonly taught languages that I have studied for significant periods of time (viz., Arabic, Chinese and Swahili), the type of communicative competence emphasized seems to have been linked to the traditional teaching methodologies for and the predominant sociocultural role of the languages in question. For example, my studies of Swahili focused almost entirely on acquiring interpersonal communicative competence in the language. Although Swahili is a written language and has a significant corpus of written literature, the language is an important spoken lingua franca in much of east Africa, especially the nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and far more people in that part of the world speak Swahili than read and write it (the fact that Swahili has only five million native speakers but more than sixty million proficient users is probably a relevant factor here). Although I never had the occasion to use Swahili in "real life" outside of the classroom, my studies of the language were nevertheless beneficial for my development as a linguist and understanding of language variation in general.

My experiences with Arabic and Chinese were quite different from each other, which I believe is partially a result of the sociolinguistic particulars of each language (the backgrounds of my instructors and the overall pedagogical philosophy of the institution where I studied the languages surely also played a role). During my Arabic studies, the object of instruction was a social construct known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is the current literary standard across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, and most printed documents in Arabic are written in MSA. However, MSA does not serve as the colloquial language of almost any native Arabic speaker and, while the actual linguistic situation is much more complex than this, native Arabic speakers use one or more colloquial varieties for non-formal interactions, although most well-educated Arabic speakers can speak MSA fluently. So, at least in part as a result of this sociolinguistic milieu, my Arabic studies focused much more on academic competence than on interpersonal competence, which would have required learning a colloquial Arabic variety in addition to (or instead of) MSA. I never acquired any significant degree of proficiency in spoken Arabic, but the knowledge I gained about the language and my limited ability to read it have proved useful in adding depth to my understanding of language. On the other hand, my university studies of Chinese emphasized the spoken form of the language more than the written form of the language. I believe that this was the case in part because the Chinese writing system is extremely complex and so there is almost always a substantial lag between the acquisition of oral proficiency on the one hand, and reading and writing skills on the other (a much more significant lag than may normally be present for other languages or at least languages that do not use different writing systems), and so not surprisingly, interpersonal communication tended to be given greater emphasis. As a result, I actually gained some proficiency in the spoken form of the language, although I can now barely read or write it at all (although interestingly, I can tell whether I used to know what a given character means--I can recognize the character, but I do not usually recall its meaning or sound value). The small "core" of proficiency in the language that has not withered away after almost twenty years of nonuse still comes in handy once in a while, and so the interpersonal communicative competence I acquired (and retained) in Chinese has been of some limited utility in my life.

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