My Most Viewed Posts Of 2018

Year on year, I write between around 100 to 150 blog posts. Most years I do a round-up of the ones which have been most viewed. I say "viewed" because I have no guarantee that they were actually read! On the whole, though, I try to keep my posts clear and concise, recognising the way many readers flit from one thing to another online (as I do myself).

Here are my top five most viewed posts, with the most viewed first.

1.     The latest research on teaching vocabulary

This post was a summary of a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. Here is a short section of the blog:

Incidental picking up of vocabulary is not enough, however important that may be. Specifically, the authors suggest:
Provide rich and varied language experiences through the four skills, including through independent work beyond the classroom, e.g. homework.Provide multiple encounters with words, compensating for any lack thereof in textbooks. Provide instruction of words using clear explanations, explicit methods, simple definitions, then make sure words are recycled in various contexts. Different words may require different teaching methods. (My note: e.g. flashcards for simple concrete nouns, collocations for adjectives.)Teach strategies for independent learning, e.g. explain how students can use morpheme clues, infer from context, use dictionaries and so on.Foster the active engagement of students in vocab learning - promote interest and involvement.Extensive reading and listening will help develop vocabulary. Graded readers are a good idea.For collocational knowledge and restrictions on use massive exposure is needed - provide as much as possible at higher levels.Consider setting awkward words for learning before the class so that they are better understood when seen in context.
2.     A zero preparation fluency game.

This was actually based on a game devised by Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield (at the time of writing). the essence of the game is this:

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. For more detail:

3.     Dissecting a lesson: exploiting a set of PowerPoint slides 

Many teachers use PowerPoints - a lot! Some frown on them or at least believe they are overused. PowerPoint can certainly lead you down a path of too much talking, explanation and not enough interaction, but I continue to believe that, when used well, PowerPoint is a powerful tool. This post provided a possible teaching sequence for making the most of a set of slides, with a focus on scaffolded development and interaction.

4.     Book review: While We're on the Topic by Bill VanPatten 

In this post I reviewed Bill VanPatten's little book for teachers in which he summarises very succinctly and somewhat evangelically his view of an updated form of Communicative language Teaching and coined the phrase "communicative input". Here is part of my conclusion:

Overall, from a teacher's point of view, I feel ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it's led by research, passionate to the point of evangelism (always a concern for me) and challenges many pre-conceived views held by teachers, especially those with little knowledge of second language research. It provides a fresh look at CLT (where the C can stand for Contemporary as well as Communicative) and a lucid view of how languages are acquired along with some handy insights in how to create task-based lessons. There is no doubting where VanPatten stands and many teachers will be swayed by his recommendations.

On the other hand, although he occasionally acknowledges that scholars are not united in their views, it presents a one-sided view of acquisition in its dismissal of skill acquisition, alternatives to Universal Grammar, the critical period hypothesis (which claims that older learners do not possess the same faculties for language acquisition as children up to a certain age) and PPP as a valid way to present and practise language. Furthermore, the definition of communication seems unnecessarily restrictive to me - plenty of comprehension activities we do certainly further acquisition despite not being communicative by VanPatten's definition.  The book is also pretty short of practical classroom activities, focusing as it does on the wider view. Fundamentally I am wary of any book which seems to be saying it's all quite simple and that "this is the best way". I don't think we can know this yet. Research is only a few decades old; students, teachers and syllabuses vary.

5.     How useful is learning verb conjugations?

This, like many of my posts, was a methodological reflection. In essence I was taking the view that we overestimate the value of getting students to memorise verb paradigms. The conclusion to the post reads as follows:

My own humble view would be that you shouldn't imagine for a moment that knowing verbs by heart will of itself lead directly or even indirectly to acquisition. However, the feeling of many teachers (and pupils, I suspect) that practice of forms can lead to acquisition should not be ignored as evidence, even if it is not (yet) scientific. Is learning a second language the same as learning a first? Almost certainly not, though they have much in common.
Are verb learning and other very structured grammatical activities a short cut to acquisition? Can you by-pass the natural route of language acquisition? The balance of research opinion would say it is very doubtful. Indeed, much research demonstrates that teachers cannot even "teach" grammar at all - it develops along a natural route impervious to explicit instruction. Some argue, for example, that our traditional PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production) model is flawed because of this fact - see this blog post by Geoff Jordan for an interesting discussion about the unteachability of grammar. Geoff Jordan writes:

"No study conducted in the last 20 years has come up with evidence to challenge the established claim that explicit focus on forms such as PPP can do nothing to alter the route of interlanguage development. As Ortega (2009), in her summary of SLA findings states:

Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.
Teaching is constrained by the learners’ own powerful cognitive contribution, and to assume that learners will learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it using a PPP paradigm is false."

So is it worth spending lots of time on learning and chanting verbs? Almost certainly not. Within the limited time you get in the classroom there are always choices to be made; you have to weigh up the "surrender value" of every task. If I had to choose between verb learning and working with meaningful, teacher-led communicative activities, audio and written texts I would go for the latter if I had long term acquisition on mind.