Continuity in Language Teaching and Language Assessment Designs

Traditional ways of designing language teaching exert a powerful influence in language teaching courses. Innovation is therefore often less disruptive and revolutionary than might be expected, an observation that is borne out by an examination of the innovations in language teaching design that we have seen over the last 70 years.

The innovation of the audio-lingual method surely was that it combined all four so-called language ‘skills’: listening, speaking, reading and writing. That combination was new, but it happened on the basis of the emphasis on pairs of skills (reading and writing in the case of the grammar translation method; listening and speaking in the direct method) that we find in previous methods. It is a clear case of discontinuity (the new combination) achieved on the foundations of continuity (the existing emphases on ‘skills’).

Similarly, in the Natural Approach (Krashen and Terrell 1983; Terrell 1985), that belongs squarely within the ‘P’ interpretation of communicative language teaching, we may discover techniques that remind us of those used in the Direct Method, but that are combined in designs for language instruction for a different purpose and in a new way. The direct instructions in the Total Physical Response (TPR) component of the Natural Approach are new, in that they are designed to be non-threatening and non-evaluative. Yet they are conventional, in that they echo the kinds of instruction to learners (“Henry, stand up and go to the door”) that are associated with the Gestalt-theoretical language learning in the Direct Method. The difference is that in the latter case, the teacher’s evaluation was ever-present (“What is Henry doing?”), whereas in TPR the learner may demonstrate understanding merely by carrying out non-verbally what the instruction requires.

In the case of mainstream and other interpretations of communicative language teaching, we find several innovations: a new emphasis on function instead of on form, as well as a novel technique, the employment of an information gap. These two innovations in combination also meant that the instructional style associated with CLT encouraged teachers to take another view of learning: instead of the piecemeal learning associated with traditional methods, CLT viewed both the learning process and the instructional facilitation that made learning possible more integratively. Yet teachers sometimes misunderstood this novel perspective, and often proceeded to teach in the time-honored way: bit by bit. So where before, one had to explain, say, how a certain tense of the verb operated (“Today, we’re going to do the present continuous tense”), one now merely needed to explain how functions worked (“Today, we’re going to do the function of agreeing”). CLT, especially in those interpretations that stress language learning in the (very difficult) environment of the classroom, relies less on explanation, however, and more on practice, and large amounts of practice. That is a third respect in which CLT differs from conventional language teaching methodologies. The reluctance by teachers to use an information gap as a novel technique to stimulate more language learning practice can be further explained by the unpredictability that ensues: for teachers who are themselves not confident of their own ability to employ the target language that they are teaching, a technique that introduces unpredictability in the language being produced in class is unlikely to be adopted. There is nothing that deters one from adopting an innovation more than the fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable.

A fourth difference between CLT and traditional teaching lies in its view of ‘skills’. Also in its mainstream, British interpretation, CLT sees media rather than skills as deserving of attention. By looking at the various kinds of lingual interaction possible (face to face; removed but synchronous - as in telephone conversations; asynchronous as in writing, and so forth) as well as the variations in role (e.g. coconversationalist; shopkeeper-customer; lecturer-student; presiding officer-other participant) and type of discourse in such communication, CLT is in this respect also introducing a more differentiated perspective than was common before. This new perspective was often compromised when CLT was implemented at national level as a basis for language instruction at school. Right up to the latest incarnation of the language syllabi used in South African schools, for example (Department of Basic Education 2011a, b), there is the attempt to accommodate in the new curricula the identification of separate skills, as in conventional teaching methodologies dating back to the end of the nineteenth century. This is usually accompanied by calls to ‘integrate’ the skills, without regard to the arguments that they can hardly be separated in the first instance (Weideman 2013c; also Kumaravadivelu 2003: 226; Bachman and Palmer 1996: 75f.; Weideman and Van Dyk 2014: Introduction).

Such misinterpretation of the innovations brought by CLT explains why its adoption on a large scale has not gone smoothly: those responsible for introducing it through new syllabi themselves vacillate between compromise and accommodation (see Fig. 9.2 above), as in the South African case being referred to here, or are prepared through such language teaching policy directives to sanction only moderate change (Fig. 9.1), the less desirable counterpart of the deliberate, consistent change that those promoting innovations would be seeking. Given the assumed low coherence of teachers’ current approaches (Fig. 9.2), coupled with a good measure of resistance to chance, the new policy therefore motivates only for a cautious adoption, though it may articulate the new in sterling, widely accepted principles.

Critiques of CLT and its implementation are therefore often wide of the mark. There is nothing hemispheric about its failed implementation in contexts such as South Africa, as Heugh (2013) contends. Geography, social class or relative wealth cannot prevent something new that originates in the northern hemisphere to be used in the southern hemisphere, otherwise all new electronic devices, or new constitutional dispensations that are designed in or that were established first in one hemisphere will also be contextually inappropriate in another, which is patently not the case. To her credit, Heugh (2013 : 15) also points out a number of more realistic reasons why the implementation of CLT was less successful in South Africa: low levels of administrative support and the common misinterpretation of CLT as having to do with only that kind of communication that is done orally and face-to-face. To this one may add low levels of training, and equally inadequate mastery of the target language by teachers, that leave them without much confidence to be able to adopt the new and professionally challenging approach.

In all, despite innovations we may observe in twentieth century language teaching, resistance to change, not only on the African continent (Weideman et al. 2003; Weideman 2002) , but also further afield (cf. Karavas-Doukas 1996 for Greece; Littlewood 2014: 350 for Australia) makes continuity in design the norm rather than innovation. With reference to an even wider, global context, Karavas-Doukas (1998: 27) notes “examples of innovations that were implemented as intended as few and far between”. In fact, among the teachers of Japanese that Littlewood (2014: 350) refers to, the investigation not only found the same misinterpretation of CLT as in South Africa (that it is only about speaking and listening), but also that teachers “mainly adopted a teacher-fronted approach with little interaction among students”. In addition, Littlewood (2014: 358) also refers to Chinese and Korean teachers, despite policy injunctions to the contrary, using the mother tongue for “as much as 70 % or even 90 % of the time”. No amount of research, persuasion or even threat can overcome such levels of resistance.

Continuity in design is the case not only for language teaching, but also for language assessment. By intending not only to teach communicatively, but also to test language ability as an interactive command of language, we may well have found new ways of exploring the ability of test takers to understand and use communicative function. Yet at the same time the techniques and formats of assessment that are used (e.g. open-ended, constructed responses versus closed, multiple choice formats) may be the same as for tests with a much narrower perspective on what comprises language ability. Though in communicative tests function will have the emphasis over form, therefore, the format of the assessment may hark back to an existing one. As I have observed elsewhere (Weideman 2013d), the incremental gains we have made in the design of newer assessments are not revolutionary, but link strongly to past procedures. The adaptations of cloze procedure (Van Dyk and Weideman 2004), as in the following (Weideman and Van Dyk 2014: 95), provide a good example of the blending of the existing with the new:

In the following, you have to indicate the possible place where a word may have been

deleted, and which word belongs there. Here are two examples:

Charles Goodyear (1800-1860) invented the vulcanization of rubber when he was experimenting by heating a mixture of rubber and sulphur. The Goodyear story is one of either pure luck or careful research, but both are debatable. Goodyear insisted that it was (i) the (ii), though (iii) many (iv) contemporaneous (i) accounts (ii) indicate (iii) the (iv).

Where has the word been deleted? Which word has been left out here?

A. At position (i). A. indeed

B. At position (ii). B. very

C. At position (iii). C. former

D. At position (iv). D. historically

Where has the word been deleted? Which word has been left out here?

A. At position (i). A. historical

B. At position (ii). B. latter

C. At position (iii). C. now

D. At position (iv). D. incontrovertibly

Such an adaptation has all the advantages of objective scoring and ease of arriving at a result, yet it tests newly identified components of language ability such as textuality (specifically cohesion and coherence), grammatical relations not only in but also beyond the sentence, and even, potentially, communicative function.

Other examples of new content being tested as a result of a new perspective on what language is include the assessment of the ability to use metaphor and idiom, comparing text with text, or to notice and understand sequence and order (cf. Patterson and Weideman 2013a, b). Again, an available format of assessment that is logistically and administratively more efficient, a multiple choice task type, had to be imaginatively reconceived in order to test the ability to handle these (cf. ICELDA 2014: Sample test).

Even when, in line with postmodernist calls, we seek to become accountable in public for our designs of language assessment (Rambiritch 2012; Weideman 2003), we find that we have to rely on what already exists. If we wish to examine test consequences, the impact of the results of language testing, we may for example use conventional means like questionnaires to gather information on these consequences. If one of the undesirable consequences of administering a test of academic literacy, i.e. of a test that assesses the ability to handle academic discourse, is that test takers may be stigmatized by the results, we might well employ some conventional empirical analyses, such as varying reliability measures of a test, to counter such consequences (Van der Slik and Weideman 2007). In the study referred to here, the determination of the reliability levels of an academic literacy test, calculated by means of various measures (Cronbach alpha and Greatest Lower Bound or GLB) and for a pair of different scenarios (same test or similar test), enabled the test designers to make available second chance tests to potential borderline cases in a manner that was empirically justifiable. A further imaginative redesign in the publication of the results of these tests was that it was decided to make them available in five risk bands (from very high risk to little to no risk) associated with academic literacy levels. Incidentally, the other design gain in this case was that the bands proved to be more informative, and easier to interpret, than the pass/fail mark that was used before. Once again, the innovation rests on the existing, but takes it a small step further.

Continuity in design therefore appears to be pervasive, not only across time and across different styles of design, but also across different applied linguistic artefacts (language courses and tests of language abilityi in the cases examined here). This continuity across the designs of functionally different artefacts is a point that I shall return to below, after examining the nature of innovation from another angle.

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