Jun 12, 2009


Hi. This is Tahri Ali, an MA student at the faculty of Sfax and a teacher of English at one of the secondary schools in Sfax. In this research proposal, I'm trying to tackle one of the fundamental handicaps that has hampered the teaching-learning process since the implementation of 'the communicative independent- learning approach'- namely the inability to reconcile the demands of acquiring a native-like fluency with the needs of a full mastery of L2 grammatical structures.

  • For 17 years – as a teacher- I’ve come across several hardships in trying to implement the communicative approach in class. Having a strong belief that this approach would be a complete failure unless it were adapted to its specific environmental factors, I will try in my present research to make some contributions to the teaching domain so as to reach a compromise between conflicting concepts. L2 teachers have been bombarded for decades with so many 'NEW' methods, from the Direct Method, Grammar-Translation Method, Audiolingual Method and Cognitivism to the more recent Suggestopedia, Delayed Oral Response, Silent Way and the Communicative Independent-learning Approach. To make it worse for teachers, the literature is always full of contradictories such as integrative vs. instrumental motivation, deductive vs. inductive grammar, teacher-centered vs. learner-centered class, etc. Why is it so confusing? Who is right? Are linguists and teachers really just repeating themselves year after year, perhaps under a different name? Or is what they are doing really 'New' and different?
    Shifting from one 'Method' to another, teaching English as a second language has encountered various ups and downs. Over the past two decades, the most unresolved controversial issue has been whether to shift radically from the classical audio-lingual/ grammar methods in teaching English as a second language towards the idea of students' independence. Proponents of the 'learner-centered' approaches, such as Pit Corder and Stephen Krashen, claim that the old regime is totally teacher-centered and that students are no more than empty vessels filled with the magic 'competence' of their teachers. To make it clear, let's quote Pit Corder: "efficient language learning must work with rather than against natural processes, facilitate and expedite rather than impede learning." The idea of the 'learner-centered' approach seemed so great during the last two decades of the 20th century that classrooms almost all over the world turned into research labs for linguists, teaching pedagogues and syllabus designers.
    2/ The Dilemma
    I wonder whether it was for my best luck or a handicap to my career as a teacher that my first days in class co-existed with the launching of the modern 'Communicative Approach' in Tunisia. It was really amazing to monitor students via real-life activities, pair work and group work. All I needed to proceed my lessons was just motivation. So, it seemed easy to foster the principles of independent learning. Yet, the outcome has always been so confusing that all L2 teachers have been trapped in an extremely inevitable and 'incurable' dilemma. On one side, students could reach not only a native-level comprehension both in listening and reading but also an excellent accent. But, "this 'Independent Learning' did not seem to give them the firm grasp of grammatical structures that were necessary for the production of well-formed utterances and of texts at native-speaker level," (David Nunan). It was clear then that independent learning should have its restrictions and limits. Nunan, when asked about such borders, claimed that teaching-learning activities are very much context-dependent- "This really depends on the context. In some contexts, the degree to which we can foster independent learning is restricted by either cultural factors or the prior learning experiences of the students." Nunan has been well aware of the discrepancies of the new approach, that's why he has insisted in his studies on dealing with 'Learner-centeredness' as an aspect of teaching situation which can be applicable in class if and only if certain circumstances were available. Communicative approach proponents, however, have always objected to any kind of reconciliation. Stephen Krashen strongly claims that "Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill." He also puts forward that "The best methods are therefore those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production." Such a theory has been criticized, sometimes harshly, by the New Chomskian Grammar school advocates such as Wilga Rivers, who blames Krashen for minimizing the value of accuracy in the learning process. In a particularly rich metaphor, she compares a language programme without teaching grammar to a chicken walking around without bones.
    As a teacher of English, I feel ensnared in such a tricky maze that no solution seems possible other than being 'eclectic' even though the idea of 'eclecticism' seems to be a double-edged weapon. Within this confusing atmosphere, L2 teachers have several questions in mind.

3/ Research Questions

3.1- General Question
To what extent can we reconcile 'grammar' with 'natural communication' in an integrative model of teaching?
3.2- Sub-Questions
How can we evaluate the existing teaching methodologies?
Is it possible to integrate these methodologies in a systematic way?
To what extent is the teacher 'free' to make use of these methods without contradicting himself / herself?
What techniques and strategies are to be applied to carry out the 'New' model?
Does shifting from one model to another expedite or impede learning?

4/ Research Rationale

The main objective of my present research is to find out the best ways to implement a 'flexible melting pot theory'. Such a theory would always be tolerant enough to borrow any necessary element from all previous as well as existing teaching-learning methodologies. I wouldn't say that the target theory is primarily based on the common principles of Eclecticism, though the majority of L2 teachers today resort to eclecticism whenever they feel unable to cope with their lesson strategies according to the imposed approach. What I'm looking for is simply an approach in which all the participants in the teaching-learning process take part not to impose restrictions but to 'facilitate and expedite … learning'. It is undeniable that all teaching-learning methods have contributed in a way or in another to the modern perspectives vis-à-vis TEFL. Yet, the dogma of each method to regard its findings as absolute creeds to be followed blindly by L2 teachers and to consider opponent methodologies as real taboos- such dogma has certainly impeded the development of a free, independent and natural L2 learning class in which neither the teacher nor the learner feels obstructed by methodological constraints.
In fact, 'I HAVE A DREAM' - as a teacher and I'm absolutely sure it's the same case with all L2 teachers not only in Tunisia but all over the world – that one day:

  • Teachers set their own rules, proceed their own strategies, resort to any method they see appropriate to each lesson situation and above all these teachers would be able to rule out any Unitarian approach.
  • My students achieve a native-like proficiency in both 'competence' and 'performance' regardless of the methods followed.
  • NO ONE would say 'don't overload the students with lots of new vocabulary and grammar', 'don't teach grammar deductively' 'let students alone and give them more room to talk' etc.
  • Eclecticism is no longer an escape but rather an approach.

    5/ Definition of concepts

5.1- Grammar: According to Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia, grammar is 'the study of the formal properties of words and sentences. Traditionally, it includes morphology, which describes the ways in which words are formed from smaller units or other words, and syntax, which describes how words combine into sentences.' The Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it in other words saying that grammar is 'the art and science dealing with a language's inflexions or other means of showing relation between words as used in speech or writing.' A central branch of modern linguistics is generative grammar, settled by Noam Chomsky in his early publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957, 'which seeks to provide precise and explicit descriptions of the grammatical systems of languages'- (Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia). Being the backbone of any language, Pro-Grammar methodologies have always insisted on the necessity of teaching the rules and structures deductively in L2 classes to enable students to build up a perfect knowledge of the language system they are learning. In an interview with Wilga Rivers, a Professor at Harvard University, she partially agrees with Pienemann who 'has emphasized the importance of formal instruction to avoid fossilization of errors and pidginized versions of language' (Jane Arnold- 1989) and totally disagrees with Krashen and others who de-emphasize accuracy. She claims that 'grammar is there. It is the framework within which the language is operating. It is like saying that you can have a chicken walking around without bones.'
5.2- Natural Communication: Communication in language means the 'mutual exchange of information between individuals (Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia). The study of communication involves many disciplines, including linguistics. It is the focus on the message conveyed in an interpersonal and natural conversation. Stephen Krashen (an expert in the field of linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition and development) strongly opposes the idea of teaching grammar to L2 learners. Instead, he advocates the principles of L2 learning / acquisition on the basis of natural communication – "Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding." "In the real world, conversations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful." (Stephen Krashen)- According to this view, language is acquired just by understanding messages or by receiving comprehensible input in a 'natural order'. Learners are able to understand language containing unacquired grammar via context, extra-linguistic information, knowledge of the world, previously acquired linguistic competence, visual aids and discussion of familiar topics in class. In his Input Hypothesis, Krashen says that natural communication can't be taught but emerges on its own and that grammar is automatically understood via interaction.

6/ Literature Review
Apparently, there's no contrast between the two concepts of 'Grammar' and 'Natural Communication'. Moreover, they seem to intermingle and be mutually subordinate to each other while dealing with the language-teaching process. Yet, these notions have always been the crux matter of any 'New' methodology in teaching a second language. For many years there has been controversy in language-teaching literature on whether grammar should be deductively or inductively taught and whether speaking activities in L2 classrooms should have direct or indirect roles. A brief synopsis of the history of teaching methodologies during the twentieth century might pave the way to a new perspective towards building up our wished-for free teaching approach.
6.1- Grammar-Translation: The lessons consist of an explanation of grammar via some reading sections exemplifying the new grammatical rules and exercises to practice using the grammar and vocabulary. However, most of these classes are taught in the student's first language.
6.2- Audio-lingualism: An audio-lingual lesson usually begins with a dialogue which contains the grammar and vocabulary to be focused on in the lesson. The students mimic the dialogue and eventually memorize it. After the dialogue comes pattern drills, in which the grammatical structure introduced in the dialogue is reinforced, with these drills focusing on simple repetition, substitution, transformation, and translation.
6.3- Cognitive Code: Cognitive-code focuses on developing all four skills of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. In lessons, the main focus is on the communicative competence and learning the rules of grammar in its new Halliday's terms (phonology/ morphology/ semantics/ syntax) is overemphasized.
6.4- Direct Method: This method has been adopted by different approaches. The teacher, applying this method in class, uses examples of language through discussions in the target language so as to teach grammar inductively. Much space is provided by this method to Teacher-Student interaction. The teacher's role has shifted from the dominant participant to the monitor who interacts with his/her students a lot, asking them questions about familiar topics and trying to use the grammatical structure of the day in the conversation. Accuracy is sought and errors are corrected. This method is the pioneer to enhance speaking activities, though not in a natural way but rather previously planned by the teacher. But it still focuses too much on grammar.
6.5- Natural Approach: In the Natural Approach the teacher speaks only the target language. Students may use either the language being taught or their first language. The main objective of the approach is to provide a natural-like environment where students are encouraged to use the language, to talk about ideas, to perform tasks, and to solve problems. Errors in speech are not corrected; however homework may include grammar exercises that will be corrected. Its main weakness is that grammar is de-emphasized in class and dealt with as a marginal sub-task.
6.6- Total Physical Response: It involves the students listening and responding to commands given by the teacher such as "sit down" and "walk," with the complexity of the commands growing over time as the class acquires more language. Student speech is delayed, and once students indicate a willingness to talk, they initially give commands to other students. So the focus is neither on language content (vocabulary and grammar) nor on the immediate speech acts. Its content may not be always interesting for the students, but its results would come later in perfect ways though after a long time.
6.7- Suggestopedia: Focus here is on providing a very attractive environment with music and meditation in which acquisition can occur. Some of the students' first language is used at the beginning, but most in the target language. The role of the teacher is very important in creating the right atmosphere and in acting out the dialogues that form the core of the content. Suggestopedia doesn't give too much emphasis to grammar.
According to these different methods, L2 teaching concepts, strategies and techniques converge and diverge in different areas. Taking bits or chunks from each method at random has given rise to the notion of 'eclecticism' and 'eclectic language teachers'. Yet, this non-canonized approach is often utilized by language teachers to create an atmosphere full of anarchy, lawlessness and chaos. Such disorder is encountered by an absolute antagonism on the side of teachers' supervisors, applied linguists and pedagogues.

7/ Methodology

The research process and methodology are described as composed of "stages" (Ary et al. 1979). The timing of the research has two dimensions: short-term and long-term. But we can carry out this action research in ten-week time. Participants, as well, should be identified from the outset.
7.1- Participants
7.1.1- Teachers: Being an empirical research, it's necessary to ensure the co-operation of more than one teacher. As a responsible for this project, I will assume the responsibility of almost all the stages except the fifth one which necessitates the collaboration of other colleagues.
7.1.2- Students: As students represent the target of this research, I think it's undoubtedly essential to involve them in the proceedings of the project. N.B. It's not necessary to make them aware of what's going on to guarantee the truthfulness of results.

7.2- Stages

7.2.1- Defining the Problem: Defining the research problem depends to a large extent on our professional competence. As it is mentioned above (Section 2), the dilemma lies in the inability to reconcile Krashen's Model of natural communication in class with Rivers' concept of the inevitability of teaching grammar.
7.2.2- Analyzing Previous studies: This stage has already been done in Section 6 above (Literature Review). The rationale behind this analysis is to decide how to develop language teaching methods and materials. We can make use of all the theories mentioned previously in Section 6, second language acquisition theories, applied linguistics researches, as well as our professional experience in teaching. These resources should in fact support each other and lead to common conclusions. This research incorporates all theories, with a hope of reintroducing an emergent theory to language teachers.
7.2.3- Selecting Research Strategies: As a researcher, I have to select an adequate strategy to work towards the solution of the problem. The selected strategy should not be arbitrary because it represents the skeleton that supports and frames the study. Thus, it should take into account the participants involved, the quality and degree of the problem, the instruments to be used and of course the rationale behind such a study. There are many different research methodologies. In the educational field, we deal with human beings and events. So the research should not exclusively mean experimentation and apart from the experimental research we can employ data analysis, quantitative and qualitative research methods. Quantitative Method: This method includes the following two stages, namely selecting instruments and collecting data. The approach is purely experimental and statistical as it relies on numerical data to diagnose, describe and test a given hypothesis. Different techniques can be employed here:
A questionnaire to be filled out by teachers of 2nd grades in different schools concerning their attitudes towards the problem of our research and their insights of how to cope with that.
Diagnostic analysis of students' tests (comparing results/ detecting common errors and weaknesses).
Assigning experimental groups (following different teaching methodologies) in different classes and comparing results.
Remedial tasks based on the obtained results. It's possible to resort now to the blending theory and use the required strategies form different approaches. Qualitative Method: This method includes the last two stages, namely interpreting data and reporting research. It is conceptual rather than empirical and my own reflection on the problem will be necessary to interpret the collected data and to report the results of the research. I think that both methods can be carried out in tandem since observation would automatically follow each experimental stage. Observing students' reactions to the research techniques, the degree of their willingness to co-operate, their preferences to adopt any of the methodologies would all lead to get a thorough conclusion or decision concerning the final outcome. Qualitative method is necessary before, during and after achieving this research and it should eventually result in an approximate verdict telling whether the research has attained its goals or not.