Full version of review of Larsen-Freeman

Full version:

Diane Larsen-Freemen wrote an article titled Teaching and Testing Grammar for The Handbook of Language Teaching by Long & Doughty. I thought there were some quotes that would interest the group. I will comment only to provide context and highlight what I think the quote demonstrates. I will put this on my blog with further comments.

{and here they are, in braces}

p. 520 Usage-based is opposed to what I suppose our friend, Terry would call legacy methods in this way: legacy methods see linguistic rules as algebraic procedures for combining words and morphemes that [the rules] do not themselves contribute to meaning….. Usage-based methods propose that the rules arise from language……… you guessed it, use. The reason for the divisions in theories and practices lies in the fact that  no processing account yet exists of how speakers comprehend and express meaning. She is saying language acquisition is a black box; see how this relates to what Krashen says: http://Ideas.Lang-Learn.org/barrett.php

{the black box in language acquisition is called the Language Acquisition Device and is a construct by Noam Chomsky that acts as a place-holder for whatever it is that goes on in the brain of every brain-normal human that propels him/her to acquire language; even deaf people invent their own language if necessary. Scientists are working on how the brain processes language in a physical way, but the fact that we do not know just how the brain does this does not prevent us from realizing that it does. For an interesting exposition on the way linguists peer into these processes by looking at what comes out in the form of language, read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, the chapter Words, Words, Words.}


For Larsen-Freeman (L-F), learners need to know the meaning, know how to form the structure and to use these 3 things. In order to accomplish this, teachers have used several approaches ;see Shrum & Glisan The Teacher’s Handbook, p. 444: approach a set of theoretical principles or basic assumptions that are the foundations of a method (Anthony, E. M. ( 1963) Approach, Method, and Technique English Language Teaching 17, 63-67).

PPP = present, practice, produce, with the idea that declarative knowledge becomes procedural knowledge which encodes behavior. Continued practice automatizes production Here’s the kicker: “Countless generations of students have been taught grammar in this way and many have succeeded with this form of instruction.” To support this contention that flies in the face of my over 55 years of casually checking out people’s language abilities, she cites……. well, to save space, I’ll dispense with attribution: “L2 instruction of particular language forms induces substantial target-oriented change” However, it is also true that the traditional approach [her term] has had its detractors, One of the most trenchant criticisms of this approach is that students fail to apply their knowledge of grammar when they are communicating. Appropriating Alfred North Whitehead’s term L-F has referred to this as the “inert knowledge problem.” Student know the grammar, at least they know the grammar rules explicitly but they fail to apply them in communication. This problem has been discussed by others as the “non-interface problem,” in that there is no apparent connection between explicit knowledge of the rules and implicit control of the system, and the “learnability problem,” following from the observation that grammar is not learned in a linear and atomistic fashion. Moreover, what learners do produce bears no resemblance to what has been presented to them or has been practiced.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, what I call the “I understand the concept, I just can’t work the problems” issue. L-F is saying this herself, yet watch her go on to defend the doomed attempt to get abstract rules into the learner’s head in such a way that he has any level of proficiency whatsoever, something beyond “no resemblance” to L2.

{To me, the outstanding facet of Larsen-Freeman’s presentation of all this is her apparent – and I stress ’apparent’ – continued faith in conscious, cognitive handling of abstract grammatical feature like forming the passive, distinguishing between the simple present and the progressive, between the simple past and the perfect, inserting do-support in questions and negatives, and so on and on. It is almost as if she pictures a gifted teacher explaining very carefully, with lots of examples, the way indirect objects are handled in the TL and then, with lots of practice, sees the students – at least some of them – reach some level of proficiency. She may wish I could see the students at X, who routinely come out of four years of study at a high-intermediate level, just as I wish she could witness a well-run tprs classroom and its results. Neither one will get his/her wish, but for very different reasons.}

I’m debating whether to put in all she says in a paragraph about Krashen; I’ll put it in the blog entry {see the end of this entry}. She does a good job of summing up Krashen’s contribution. The following paragraph presents charges against Krashen’s show-piece, the French immersion schools in Canada, where students just don’t get enough “positive evidence” to analyze complex grammatical features in French. Lack of feedback {read: error correction} hampers this analytic process, but one wonders when in the history of natural FL acquisition did people analyze anything. L-F (quoting herself, which she does throughout the article) says “the right kind of formal instruction should accelerate natural acquisition, not imitate it. “ Does anyone else find this enigmatic? Should accelerate it? Since when do scientists use should like that? And how natural is an acquisition that can be accelerated? Maybe that’s possible, but it doesn’t sound very natural to me. Feeding chickens hormones accelerates the growth of their breasts to a monstrous size but it’s not natural. And then why not imitate the natural process? I thought that’s what learning another language was, a process that mankind has been engaged in, without school books and school marms, since the first old lady sold her potatoes in the town square and needed five languages to do it. Larry Josephson said the old immigrant ladies were “illiterate in five languages”. {To me, this is a prime example of the scholar who cannot let go of the notion that languages should be learned like linguistics, mathematics, history, computer science, metallurgy, oceanography, etc., all those highly academic subjects. Just letting a Language Acquisition Device take over and watching the student become proficient with use of the TL just goes against the grain for those who picture language study as arduous, tedious, really, really hard, and boring. If it’s not those things, it just isn’t worth doing, they seem to be saying. Shouldn’t everyone have to sweat over the rules for forming the passe compose in French with reflexive verbs? I mean, what IS language study if it is not ball-busting work like that?

Moreover, the idea of accelerating learning is so American, so striver in mentality; we were just saying this evening that one reason for the success of the GERM people, the Reformers, is that Americans think their kids are smarter and, if pushed hard enough, can meet major milestones before other children. More worksheets, more memorization, more tests, more homework….. it’s the way we do everything in this country.}


Another example of unexamined assumptions: “Presumably, however, with information about differences in Spanish and with enough of this input-processing practice, students will learn to discern the difference in meaning, and that distinguishing subjects from objects requires paying attention to the ends of words and to small differences in the function words themselves.” If I’m not mistaken, that’s what FL teachers have been praying for all these generations: all that discerning or, as my daughter said of her French class: “You have to change something.” Presumably, indeed. {Further indication of the faith in ratiocination: you can think your way to fluency – just concentrate and remember all the rules.}


Another gallop into the unknown: “Noting that some aspects of an L2 require awareness and/or attention to language form, and further, that implicit learning is not sufficient for SLA mastery….” Really? “Noting….”? Let’s assume, speaking of assumptions, that the citation (of Long, Michael) will take us to a research article, how many research articles have you read that would bear the weight of dismissing implicit learning and demanding attention to form? If they existed, the legacy teachers would be cramming them down our throats instead of making appeals to authority, tradition, and legacy. “Long hypothesizes that….” is fine, but when Krashen hypothesizes, we dismiss him. Supposedly, Krashen’s hypotheses are not testable, but are Long’s? One study cited said grammatical accuracy increased when exact repetition and speech rate reduction were utilized. Gee, what does that sound like? {For the out-of-touch, it’s tprs.}

Another example of qualification-filled language: A second means of calling attention to form is flooding meaningful input with the target form. For example, talking about historical events would give learners abundant opportunities to notice the past tense. One possible function of input flooding, besides making certain features in the input more frequent and thus salient, is that it might prime the production of a particular structure. “Syntactic priming is a speaker’s tendency to produce a previously spoken or heard structure.” “ Would give? Possible? Might? Qualifications are expected of cautious academics, but are we to throw in the towel and go back to explicit grammar instruction based on weasel words like these? And, BTW, who says frequency = saliency?

“Believing CI alone…. Swain advocated the use of output production….” Are we faith-based now, believing? And does an SLA researcher advocate methods or investigate them? I’m confused.

“Swain says comprehensible output forces learners to….” What’s this about forced output? Here it is, in living color.

L-F introduces her own neologism: “grammaring”, the practice of meaningful use of grammar. It automates control of patterned sequences. Would it be fair to add: “aka ALM”? Output practice is further legitimated by its leading to a restructuring of the underlying system, and here she references McLaughlin, one of Krashen’s early critics. The whole notion is that the learner has conscious control of a coherent system, the one laid out in the textbooks the SLA people memorized back in school and take as the basis of language learning, what Terry Waltz calls legacy teaching. I’ll put this paragraph into my blog as well b/c it lays out L-F’s call for grammar teaching and illustrates the high level of abstraction she believes to be part of the language learning process. Note, I said ‘learning’.

I love this one: “Although Norris and Ortega found evidence to support the value of explicit teaching , the outcomes of instruction that their meta-analysis included tended to be ones where learners had to demonstrate explicit knowledge or perform on discrete/decontextualized test items, measures that would presumably favor explicit knowledge.” Exactly what legacy teachers do: they teach grammar, give a grammar test, and then point to a high score to say that the student in proficient. Damn those meta-analyses!

At the emotional heart of these arguments we see this: “L-F makes the case for guiding the students to understand the reason [italics hers] why things are the way they are.” Don’t we grammar nerds LOVE to know the reason you use the subjunctive with a particular conjunction? (“It’s because it implies unreality” Wow!) The last paragraph on that page is very revealing:

“Significantly, although the general assumption behind the non-interface stance, that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit knowledge, may be technically true [italics mine], it may be overstated.” Wow! What an admission. She goes on to invoke the Alzheimer’s— I mean Old Timers’ disease, that us older folks just might need help…. we just don’t got it any more, that conscious involvement just might be necessary. I can see myself on a cruise ship now, teaching lots of old farts like myself the intricacies of the future indefinite or some such.

It’s interesting that she quotes N. Ellis that consciousness is necessary to change behavior; well, if we call speaking a language behavior, then speaking a second language is behavior and how often have people who learned another language been conscious of the learning? Did Vikings settling in Ye Olde England consciously plod through OE case endings?

The notion that explicit knowledge can change into implicit knowledge is labeled a claim, another admission of very uncertain ground. She invokes the blend, that students will be well served with a blend; always the compromise. How about a blend of modern and medieval medical practices the next time you get sick? Penicillin and leeches. Hey, we have to be eclectic. It is said on that page that teachers have always made implicit knowledge explicit to their students, but is that so? or were they just parroting what they had heard their teachers say?

“While developmental sequences may indeed be impervious to instruction [thanks for that], it is likely the case that instruction accelerates the overall rate of acquisition.” Evidence? Or have you just granted permission to Madame to keep drilling her victims on the passe historique or whatever? Remember my story of the teacher with mounds of worksheets saying, “They have to learn the grammar somehow.” “Do they?” I asked. “No”, with a sheepish grin.

Finally, using a checklist [L-F’s concession to the natural order: just have a list of grammar features but not ordered…. OK] also prompts teachers to work on certain structures that do not naturally arise during classroom activities[going through customs?], perhaps because students avoid them.” Ya think?

Error correction is treated in much the same way, with reasons to continue doing it.

Testing is dealt with and the issue of the standard we should be aiming for. I’ll close with a personal example: in my French class, two of us were selected to visit a newly arrived French family, me and the best student: the best student because she was the best student and me because the teacher knew I would talk to the people in my fractured French.

My blog will have more stuff tomorrow.

{OK, it’s later than “tomorrow”, but I’ve finished my comments above and am here adding to sections, one on Krashen and on L-F’s view of how languages should be taught and learned.

p. 524

“Such observations led one influential researcher, Krashen (1981, 1982) to claim that explicit grammar instruction has very little impact on the natural acquisition process because, he argued, studying grammar rules can never lead to their unconscious deployment in fluent communication. According to Krashen, the only way for students to acquire grammar is to get exposure to comprehensible input in the target language in an affectively non-threatening situation, where the input is finely tuned to students” level of proficiency. Krashen believes that if the input is understood and there is enough of it, the necessary grammar will automatically be acquired. At best, students can use their grammar knowledge to monitor and revise their spoken and written products after they have been produced. Other non-interventionist positions have been adopted as well. “While differing considerably,.. each has claimed that the best way to learn a language … is not by treating it as an object of study, but by experiencing it as a medium of communication” (Long, 1991, p. 41)”

{Here is L-F’s position: (p. 527)

“Of course, what is practiced and the way it is practiced will depend on the nature of the learning challenge. Some structures may need little, if any, pedagogical focus. With others, when the learning challenge is how to form the construction, it is important that learners get to practice the target item over and over again meaningfully, for example by using it in a task-essential way (citations….)When the challenge is meaning, students need practice in associating form and meaning, such as associating various spatial and temporal meaning with prepositions. Finally, when the challenge is use, students need to be given situations where they are forced to decide between the use of two or more different forms with roughly the same meaning, but which are not equally appropriate in a given context. Use would be a challenge for learners, for example, in choosing between the active and passive voices or between English present perfect and past tenses.

Larsen-Freeman [sic – quoting herself] underscores the importance of output practice in addition to consciousness-raising activities; however, she goes a step further in suggesting that output practice is not only useful for the purpose of rehearsal and automatizing, but that it also leads to restructuring of the underlying system and to linguistic innovation or morphogenesis.”


And that is the end of the quote. I am glad she quoted from her 2003 work because it gives us a clear picture of just how conservative, traditional, or, my favorite word, “legacy” she really is. These are all the grammar-focused and communicative activities that teachers have been using for years to produce students who pretty much are stymied by Hola, even after three or four years of study.

Now is the time, I guess, for me to lay out my own idea of how teachers could conduct their classes. I can put that in another blog entry……. soon.

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