Five Working (but out-of-date) Hypotheses by Carol Gaab

Recently, a teacher posted the Five Working Hypotheses by Alice Omaggio-Hadley on one of the ACTFL listservs. (Omaggio, 1986, pp. 44-53; and Omaggio-Hadley, 2001, pp. 89-105)

The teacher posted:

Alice Omaggio-Hadley familiarizes us with “five working hypotheses, which have been the building blocks of proficiency-oriented language curricula for nearly two decades.

Another teacher swiftly replied, “Twenty years later, they still apply.” As I reviewed the Hypotheses, I wondered when they ever applied. Although Omaggio-Hadley influenced the course of language instruction, many of these hypotheses have certainly been challenged by current research and findings about SLA. The wonderful aspects of learning and time are the new discoveries that we make along the way.

As I looked at the pile of to-dos on my desk (i.e.: Brandon Brown will einen Hund, El Ekeko and Brandon Brown dice la verdad Teacher’s Guides, editing and formatting two new level 3 Spanish novels and new German Houdini, etc.), I chastised myself severely for even considering deviating from my workload to reply…Then I wrote a brief response, (knowing that all of you who are waiting for these materials would understand).

Below you’ll find the Hypotheses, and my response:

Hypothesis 1. Opportunities must be provided for students to practice using language in a range of contexts likely to be encountered in the target culture.

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The underlying purpose of “practice” is learning, which is a conscious process. However, SLA is an unconscious process, which is reliant on an implicit linguistic system, and as such, it renders “practice” useless for the purpose of developing proficiency.

In recent conversations with Drs. Bill VanPatten & Stephen Krashen, both stressed the importance of defining the terms we are using as we discuss SLA (second language acquisition) and implications for the classroom to ensure that we are all clearly communicating about the same topics and processes. In response to (yet) another misunderstanding among colleagues, Dr. Krashen suggested the following definition for ‘Practice’: The attempt to convert consciously learned (explicit) linguistic knowledge into subconsciously acquired (implicit) linguist knowledge via output (oral or written production).” 

Corollary 1. Students should be encouraged to express their own meaning as early as possible after productive skills have been introduced in the course of instruction.

 In theory, this sounds logical, but in practice, it takes far too long to acquire language to expect students to produce after a few minutes of “practice.”

Corollary 2. A proficiency-oriented approach promotes active communicative interaction among students.

This is true, but contrived practice done in pair work does not really constitute a “communicative” activity, unless there is a purpose for the activity. I’m not as extreme as BVP on this point, as in you have to have a “task” for the partner exchange. I’m just saying if you don’t do anything with the exchange or with the information gathered, it is not communicative, is transparently contrived and won’t lead to SLA. In other words, you can have partners ask each other (in the Target Language) “What’s your name?”, but the whole exchange would be completely contrived and meaningless because the sole purpose would be to ‘practice.’ There really would be no communicative point to the exchange.

Corollary 3. Creative language practice (as opposed to exclusively manipulative or convergent practice) must be encouraged in the proficiency-oriented classroom.

Story-asking is creative interaction in its most powerful and efficient state.

 

Corollary 4. Authentic language should be used in instruction wherever and whenever possible.

Did we really have to even say that out loud?

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-5-59-40-pm

 

Hypothesis 2. Opportunities should be provided for students to practice carrying out a range of functions (tasks) likely to be necessary in dealing with others in the target culture.

BVP addresses the perception that we can (not) create authentic context in the classroom, rationalizing that the classroom itself is a context. He indicates that we cannot create a ‘false context’ as part of instruction. In my opinion, it is difficult to create a ‘contrived context’ that is realistic enough to replicate an authentic experience, but I’m not convinced that it has no value. Creating context through stories is powerful, and although one can ever replace real-life experiences and exchanges, I believe that the power of imagination and the art of story-asking are the next best thing!

I encourage teachers to search for multiple contexts in which language structures commonly are used, including snip-its from authentic resources, short sound bytes from various songs, speeches, news stories, etc., relevant class discussions about various topics, and of course, through reading! The are many real-life contexts that we can bring into the classroom, thanks to books, technology, Youtube, Skype, and live guests who are willing to visit the classroom.

Hypothesis 3. There should be concern for the development of linguistic accuracy from the beginning of instruction in a proficiency-oriented approach.

Linguistic accuracy from the beginning (or the middle and sometimes even the end) is an unrealistic expectation. Learners can only communicate with the language they have in their heads, and in the beginning stages of SLA, there isn’t a lot there [language, that is]. “Errors” (inaccuracies) are a natural part of the SLA process and generally only occur when we (teachers) expect learners to communicate beyond their current level of comprehension/acquisition. In fact, SLA experts like Dr. Bill VanPatten would argue that in terms of language development, there is no such thing as an ‘error.’

Dr. Krashen has cited more than a few studies which indicated that error correction is of no value:

The following excerpt is taken from Principles and Practice in SLA, Dr. Stephen Krashen (available at sdkrashen.com):

According to the second language acquisition theory presented here, when error correction “works”, it does so by helping the learner change his or her conscious mental representation of a rule. In other words, it affects learned competence by informing the learner that his or her current version of a conscious rule is wrong. Thus, second language acquisition theory implies that when the goal is learning, errors should indeed be corrected (but not at all times; see below; and not all rules, even if the goal is learning). The theory maintains however, that error correction is not of use for acquisition. Acquisition occurs, according to the input hypothesis, when acquirers understand input for its meaning, not when they produce output and focus on form.

Error correction and explicit teaching of rules are not relevant to language acquisition (Brown and Hanlon, 1970; Brown, Cazden, and Bellugi, 1973)

Segal (1997) describes the case of L., a seventeen-year-old eleventh-grade student in Israel. L. speaks English at home with her parents, who are from South Africa, but had serious problems in English writing, especially in spelling, vocabulary, and writing style. Segal, L.’s teacher in grade 10, tried a variety of approaches: Error correction proved a total failure.

For more specific information on error correction, see:

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46 (2), 327-69.

Truscott, J. (1999). What’s wrong with oral grammar correction? The Canadian Modern Language Review, 55(4), 437-56.

Hypothesis 4. Proficiency oriented approaches should respond to both the affective and cognitive needs of students. Students should feel motivated to learn and must be given opportunities to express their own meanings in a non-threatening environment.

This hypothesis is contrary to Hypothesis 3, which stresses the importance of accuracy. The affective result of focusing on form is a raised ‘Affective Filter’, which inhibits learning/acquisition. In addition, students don’t need to be motivated to learn in order to acquire language. They need interesting and comprehensible messages that compel (or motivate) them to listen (or pay attention) and ultimately communicate. (Communication: the expression, interpretation and negotiation of meaning in a given social and situational context.)

Hypothesis 5. Cultural understanding must be promoted in various ways so that students are sensitive to other cultures and are prepared to live more harmoniously in the target-language community.

My original response was: Love and respect for mankind, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, personal (dis)likes or cognitive ability will never become out-of-date. However, I should have also said that love and respect for mankind will never go out of style regardless of your teaching philosophy / approach.

There is a tendency in our profession to be harsh, judgmental and self-righteous with those who may disagree with (or do not understand) TPRS / CI-based teaching practices. The older I get, the more open I become; and the more I learn, the more I discover just how much I don’t know! No one has all the answers or an exclusive magic answer to facilitating SLA.  Even experts, who have spent decades intensely studying and researching SLA, don’t claim to have all the answers…And I actually find solace in that.

2 Comments

  1. maestraibrahim

    Thank you for so clearly responding to these hypotheses!

    Like

  2. Thanks for writing this, Carol.

    Corollary 4 (Authentic language should be used in instruction wherever and whenever possible) raises an issue that, to me, remains utterly unresolved and generally ignored, and that is the definition of “authentic”. As originally expressed, authentic texts are those “by native speakers for native speakers”. That means that I, as a native English speaker, can never produce an “authentic” text in German, no matter how fluent or proficient I might be and no matter how many times native German speakers have mistaken me for another native speaker. That means that my students can never have an “authentic” conversation in my classroom because neither they nor I are native speakers.

    Whenever I have brought this up at conferences, workshops, and among leaders in the world languages community, I have received two responses:

    1. The definition has been changed to “members of the language community”. That may solve part of the problem by including me as a “member of the language community” but it raises the problem of definition. When does someone become a member of a language community? Are my students members because they are in my class? What minimum level of proficiency is required? Will my students never have an “authentic” conversation in German during high school, because they likely don’t fit the definition of “members of the language community”?

    2. The definition applies only to written texts, so a teacher can have an “authentic conversation” with learners, even though neither of them is a native speaker, and one of them is not even a “member of the language community”.. Now I have a serious problem. Why do we have two different definitions of “authentic”? There should be a single definition of “authentic” that applies to both oral and written communication – and I propose that “by members of the language community for members of the language community” is not it.

    Is simplified language somehow inauthentic? Then I grew up reading inauthentic texts in my native language, texts such as a Children’s Bible (of course the Bible itself is generally read in translation; an inauthentic text?), a children’s edition of myths and legends from around the world (many also in translation), children’s versions of fairy tales (the entire Disney corpus is inauthentic?), and “Classic Comics” (comic book versions of great literature). Somehow all of those inauthentic texts do not seem to have prevented me from acquiring English. Why, then, are simplified texts in the language classroom condemned? Why is the mantra “change the task, not the text”? Are we unwilling to provide second language learners with the same support that we provide first language learners? Why?

    I will also point out that the statements that I have read concerning “authentic resources” (#authres) encourage the use of authentic texts but neither state nor imply the use of authentic texts **exclusively**.

    Like

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