10th Annual Conference of BAAL LLT SIG 2014

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The 10th Annual Conference of BAALSIG LLT 2014 (The British Association for Applied Linguistics, Special Interest Group: Language Learning and Teaching) will be held on July 3-4, 2014, hosted by The School of Education, University of Leeds, UK. The conference theme is: “Recognizing Complexity in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching”. Confirmed plenary speakers are:

Adrian Holliday, Canterbury Christ Church University
Sarah Mercer, Karl-Franzen University Graz, Austria
Pauline Foster, St Mary’s University College Twickenham

For more detailed information, please click here.

It is a great honor and pleasure for me to be invited to give a talk on the complexity of balancing structure and improvisation in everyday classroom interaction. This is my abstract:

Structure and Improvisation in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching

Imagination, creativity, and flexibility are of great importance in today’s knowledge age and economy. Thus, it is crucial to develop and strengthen these capacities in schools. Current education reforms, however, place primary emphasis on the ability to perform to fine-graded standards of competency and skill. Imagination, creativity, and flexibility are chiefly viewed from this perspective. Moreover, creativity is typically conceived of as an individual process or product, not as a collaborative or complex collective endeavor. Little attention is given to improvisation (spontaneous creativity in performance) and to the spontaneous und functional use of accumulated competencies and skills in everyday social interaction (so-called ‘little-c’ creativity). Generally speaking, current reform initiatives focus much more on accelerating measurable progress in certain subject areas of competency and skill than on fostering mental agility, communicative flexibility, resourceful spontaneity, social adaptability, and a commitment to lifelong learning across the curriculum.

Looking at recent education reforms in the U.S., the American education psychologist David Berliner (2012) cautions against placing too many expectations on standards-based reforms, on thinning down school curricula, and ultimately, on conceiving of education in terms of measurable outcome primarily. In his view, elevating competency-based instruction and the demonstration of knowledge and skills in systematic performance tests to an educational imperative may eventually have some undesirable ramifications. In sum, he refers to them as ‘creaticide by design’.

In order to prevent education in schools from being suffocated and, ultimately, from being pathologized by standards-based instruction and grading, it is necessary to place stronger emphasis on developing a culture of creativity, spontaneity, and originality in the classroom, establishing a learning atmosphere which is conducive to both enthusing and empowering students to think and act on their feet and, if necessary and appropriate, out of the box.

Based on more than ten years of qualitative classroom research, I would like to problematize improvisation from a foreign language learning and teaching perspective and examine its potential for flexible instruction.

Berliner, David (2012). Narrowing Curriculum, Assessments, and Conceptions of What It Means to Be Smart in the US Schools: Creaticide by Design. In: Don Ambrose & Robert J. Sternberg (Eds). How Dogmatic Beliefs Harm Creativity and Higher-Level Thinking. New York: Routledge, 79-93.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2011). Breaking Through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms. In: R. Keith Sawyer (Ed.). Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press, 133-161.

Inaugural CEFR Web Conference (28-29 March 2014)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The Inaugural Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) Web Conference was broadcast live on the web about two weeks ago. The two-day conference aimed to create a platform for policy-makers, test organisations, teachers and learners across and beyond Europe, in order to promote an exchange of ideas on this influential document, published more than a decade ago. For a comprehensive summary, including an impressive collection of video recordings (keynotes, workshops, panel discussions), click here.


The Role of the Textbook in the EFL Classroom (9)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

A new scholarly publication on textbook analysis, development, and use in the EFL/ESL classroom is out now. Edited by Nigel Harwood, it focuses on what I have referred to as the three pillars of textbook resesarch (see Kurtz 2010, 2011), i.e. on a) textbook content analysis, b) textbook development and production, and c) textbook use or ‘consumption’:

English Language Teaching Textbooks

Harwood, Nigel (ed.) (2013). English Language Teaching Textbooks: Content, Consumption, Production. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

I have read the book with great interest and wish to recommend it to anyone interested in textbook critique, development, and use. However, while going through this valuable collection of papers, written by an international cast of teachers and textbook writers, I noticed that references to research conducted in Germany over the last 125 years are (largely) missing. This is irritating, since the book addresses an international readership.

Furthermore, local EFL textbooks and accompanying teaching and learning aids produced in Germany (such as, for instance, Camden Town, Green Line or English G Access) are not taken into account at all. Why not? Is this, perhaps, because these textbooks are mainly produced by German publishers for EFL instruction in Germany? In view of the continuing international debate on the strenghts and weaknesses of global and local textbooks, I think textbook research needs to adopt a wider perspective.

In order to encourage  and support research in this direction, I would like to add the following bibliography to this post. Compiled by Carolin Borchardt at JLU Giessen last year, it comprises a considerable number of thematic articles which appeared in some of the most important TEFL journals in Germany, including DNS (Die Neueren Sprachen, first published in 1894). If this is of interest to you, please click here: JLU Giessen_EFL Textbook Research in Germany.


Kurtz, Jürgen (2010). Zum Umgang mit dem Lehrwerk im Englischunterricht. [Using a Textbook in the EFL Classroom]. In: Fuchs, Eckhardt; Kahlert, Joachim & Sandfuchs, Uwe (Hrsg.) (2010). Schulbuch konkret. Kontexte, Produktion, Unterricht. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt, 149-163.

Kurtz, Jürgen (Koord.) (2011). Lehrwerkkritik, Lehrwerkverwendung, Lehrwerkentwicklung. [Textbook Analysis, Textbook Use, and Textbook Development]. Tübingen: Narr. [Claus Gnutzmann, Lutz Küster & Frank G. Königs (Hg.) (2011). Fremdsprachen Lehren und Lernen, 40, Band 2].


ACTA 2014 International TESOL Conference

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The ACTA (Australian Council of TESOL Associations) International TESOL Conference will be held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) from September 30 to October 3, 2014. The conference theme is “Meeting the Challenge” (i.e. embracing pluralism in a globalized world). For detailed information, please click here.

I will be offering a 60-minute workshop on culture-sensitive foreign or second language learning and teaching.

Workshop description:

In the current age of globalization, developing intercultural communicative competence has become a priority aim in university and school education. Based on international research and personal teaching experience gathered both in Germany and in Canada, this video-enhanced, task-driven workshop focuses on integrating language and culture in the secondary school foreign language classroom. In terms of methodology, the workshop will combine brief presentations (including major theoretical concepts such as ICC and ICS) and task-driven, media-enhanced group work (analysing exemplary textbook pages and various online resources). At the end of the session, participants will have enhanced their knowledge and skills related to culture-sensitive instruction in the foreign language classroom. They will be able to critically evaluate major theoretical frameworks and will have gained a better understanding of the possibilities and limitations of ‘teaching culture’ in everyday practice.

If you are interested in this workshop, and like to get more information on the exact venue and date, please follow my blog. More to come in the near future.



Theoretical Approaches to Second/Foreign Language Acquisition and/or Learning

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In a recent paper published in the Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (Herschensohn & Young-Scholten 2013), Florence Myles looks at “the major theoretical families that currently exist in SLA research” (2013: 46). Comparing the most influential linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural frameworks and approaches to second language acquisition, she identifies a number of divergent trends and “a plethora of different and seemingly conflicting claims” (2013: 46), arguing that due to the complexity of language and language learning “a single SLA theory is currently beyond our reach” (2013: 70). I agree in principle but there remains the question as to “where all the different and sometimes conflicting approaches originate from” (2013: 70). According to Myles, most of the seemingly irreconcilable theoretical positions that are under discussion today originate from conflicting views of the nature of language and language acquisition, but she remains relatively vague in this respect (2013: 70). Here are my thoughts on this:

Theories of foreign or second language learning and teaching ultimately build on sets of ontological and epistemological assumptions about the very nature of reality and existence. Frequently, however, these core assumptions remain implicit and vague. There are two plausible reasons for this. (1) Basic philosophical assumptions about being and knowing may appear to be too abstract to be mentioned or discussed, because they go beyond falsification or verification. (2) Philosophical assumptions, orientations, or mindsets (see fn 1) may be viewed as being mutually exclusive, thus contributing to increasing, rather than resolving the many discrepancies inherent in contemporary research on learning and teaching foreign or second languages (often resulting in clashes between theoretical constructs such as nature versus nurture, mind versus body, the individual versus society, language as a system versus language in use, competence versus performance, acquisition versus learning, and focus on forms versus focus on meaning).

Generally, current theories of foreign or second language learning vary in the degree to which they specify their underlying ontological and epistemological foundations (for a more detailed discussion, see Kurtz, 2003). Nonetheless, since most theoretical approaches or models draw predominantly on concepts and propositions derived from or influenced by psychology and linguistics, they reflect the ontological and epistemological views and assumptions underlying theory-construction in these fields. As the history of research on learning and teaching foreign or second languages shows, this is, or can be, problematic. Mapping philosophical core assumptions, perspectives, or mindsets (e.g. empiricism) prevalent in one academic field of study (e.g. behaviorism and associationism in psychology) to another (e.g. audiolingualism and audiovisualism in foreign or second language pedagogy) can lead to serious theoretical ‘birth-defects’ and shortcomings, such as overemphasis of instructed language learning as habit formation and automatization. It can also cause serious problems in instructional design and practice, such as overemphasis of mimicry, memorization, repetition, and pattern drill.

This is largely undisputed today (see, e.g., Mitchell & Myles, 2004: 261). Yet, there are two competing orientations in foreign and second language learning research which dominate and (unnecessarily) polarize current international discussions: cognitivism and socioculturalism.

Grounded in a computation-representation paradigm, cognitive approaches to foreign language learning and teaching tend to place strong emphasis on the human being as a mental self. The overall focus is on aspects or factors such as the role and quality of linguistic input in instruction and learning, the mental processes involved in the conversion of input into intake, and the optimal conditions for the production of target language output in pedagogical interaction (for a brief overview, see, e.g., Mitchell & Myles, 2004: 95-130, 159-192).

However, in recent years, the underlying mind as machine-metaphor and the corresponding view that mental processes could be described in computational terms (input – output) have been criticized for over-theorizing and for exaggerating the importance of the cognitive processes involved in learning a foreign language, especially in instructed learning environments:

Cognitive metaphors of SLA have obviously been productive during the last 30 years. However, […], their intellectual scope is unnecessarily narrow. […] Cognition and learning are constructs that go beyond the individual. […] Individuals are members of larger ecosystems of contributing agents and technologies. This position contrasts sharply with the individualistic version of cognitive science that is still the norm in cognitive SLA. […] This individualistic perspective is excessively restrictive or, worse still, simply out of date (Markee & Seo, 2009: 40).

Sociocultural (or ecological) approaches to foreign language learning and teaching view the learner primarily as a social being and an interdependent self, placing much stronger emphasis on learning with and through others, and, ultimately, on learning as a transformation of participation (typically modeled in terms of Vygotskyan sociocultural theory and, interestingly, on former Soviet psychology):

The view of learning as changing participation is radically different from theories of second language acquisition that frame language learning as a cognitive process residing in the mind-brain of an individual learner […]. The view […] I wish to argue here for is, instead, of second language acquisition as a situated, co-constructed process, distributed among participants. This is a learning theory that takes social and ecological interaction as its starting point and develops detailed analyses of patterns of interaction in context. In this perspective, language learning is manifested as participants’ progress along trajectories of changing engagement in discursive practices, changes which lead from peripheral to fuller participation and growth of self-identity. (Young, 2007: 263).

However, a convincing theoretical framework which can serve as a basis for the design of sustainable curricular frameworks, for the creation of powerful language learning environments, and for the implementation of effective and efficient instructional procedures and techniques ultimately needs to integrate both, the internal (or mental) and the external (or social), modeling language and language learning from a code-focused as well as a usage-based perspective. Approaches to foreign language learning and instruction which set a sharp divide between the mental and the social, and between language form and function are, ultimately, too restrictive to account for their (seemingly) interdependent and complementary character.

It is perfectly clear that fundamental theoretical and methodological problems need to be overcome in order to develop such a unified theory of second and/or foreign language acquisition and/or learning. In terms of research methodology, we need more multi-perspective (classroom) research that is theory- as well as data-driven (i.e. top-down and bottom-up qualitative research). I terms of theorizing, we need to assume a pragmatic stance, without of course trying to pigeon-hole a domain-specific theory into a vague ontological and epistemological framework. Nor does it make sense to draw simplistic conclusions for domain-specific instructional design from such a domain-unspecific philosophical orientation. At any rate, in order to get to the core of things, we need to lay bare the central theoretical premises and priorities that guide our inquiries.

(Fn 1) Schuh & Barab (see 2007: 71-72) distinguish between objectivism, realism, empiricism, rationalism, idealism, relativism, and pragmatism, but not all of these broad philosophical orientations or mindsets have been or are of equal importance for theorizing about language and language learning.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2003): „Menschenbilder in der Theorie und Praxis des Fremdsprachenunterrichts: Konturen, Funktionen und Konsequenzen für das Lehren und Lernen“. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung, 14 (1), Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Verlag Hohengehren, 149-167.

Markee, Numa & Seo, Mi-Suk (2009): “Learning Talk Analysis.” IRAL, 47 (1), Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 37-63.

Mitchell, Rosamond & Miles, Florence (2004): Second Language Learning Theories. London: Hodder Education.

Myles, Florence (2013): “Theoretical Approaches”. In: Herschensohn, Julia & Young-Scholten, Martha (eds.) (2013). The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: CUP, 46-70.

Schuh, Kathy L. & Barab, Sasha A. (2007): “Philosophical perspectives.” In: J. Michael Spector, M. David Merrill, Jeroen van Merriënboer and Marcy P. Driscoll (eds.): Handbook of Research on Educational Communication and Technology. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Young, Richard F. (2007): “Language learning and teaching as discursive practice”. In: Zhu Hua; Seedhouse, Paul; Wei, Li & Cook, Vivian (eds.): Language Learning and Teaching as Social InterAction. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 251–271.

Jack C. Richards Video Casts

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In this series of professional development videos, Jack C. Richards discusses an array of topics ranging from observing classes to the Noticing Hypothesis and everything in between. The level is introductory, quite useful for interested viewers with little to no prior knowledge.

Technology: A Sea Change in Language Instruction

posted by Peter Smith, OpenExam

Economic success needs to be founded on an up-to-date education system.  Nowadays, this means keeping pace with the onward march of technology. With technology now at the forefront of education and economic development, what does this mean for language learning?


As shown in this illustration (c) schoolshape.com, the history of technology for language learning dates back to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. Since then, teachers and learners have made use of a variety of audio and video technologies for building language skills.

The most complex of these is the language laboratory. In the 20th century, these tended to be expensive, under-used accessories behind heavy doors at the end of long corridors. Today’s ‘software only’ labs, in conjunction with ‘1:1’ policies, offer constant, unlimited access on the latest online devices and are unrestricted by classroom, school or geographical boundaries. They deliver all the bells and whistles of their hardware-based predecessors. In addition, they offer the full gambit of tools for resource creation and assignment. These allow for differentiated learning through synchronous and asychronous student/teacher interaction.

This development heralds a major sea change in language teaching which is having a beneficial effect not only on the quality and frequency of student usage, but also on language teaching methodology. Language labs have always been suited to behaviourist procedures, reinforcement through repetition, instructional cues and practice routines assigned by the teacher. Nowadays there are more and more opportunities for activities orchestrated by the teacher but controlled by students in collaboration with peers and exchange partners. This is providing a cognitive style of language learning alongside the traditional drills.

Online labs are beginning to allow new language lab activities, such as structured collaboration with partners abroad, which are more natural vehicles for developing mutual understanding than traditional classroom exercises. Students’ a priori knowledge of social networking let teachers to use lab tools to set up real-life scenarios for more meaningful learning. By routinely bringing students together across borders, teachers can provide opportunities for helpful exposure to the language. As with conventional language lab activities, the level of difficulty can be geared from a basic vocabulary swap through to daily bains de langues. There are many obvious benefits of this controlled linguistic immersion, not least the likely osmotic intake of all-important cultural information, highlighted by Juergen Kurtz on this blog.