Category Archives: foreign language pedagogy

Complexity Thinking in German Englischdidaktik

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

In a recent publication, Sarah Mercer (2013: 376) states that at present “SLA is undergoing what could be termed a ‚complexity turn’ as researchers become increasingly aware of and sensitive to the inherent complexity and dynamism in learning and teaching foreign languages”. While this may be true for SLA research, it is difficult to generalize across all academic disciplines concerned with foreign language learning and teaching in Europe and elsewhere in the world. I come from a different background – referred to as Englischdidaktik in Germany (English ‘Didactics’).

As an academic discipline, Englischdidaktik is by no means restricted to teaching, and it is not at all to be confused with a didactic, i.e. schoolmasterely chalk-and-talk approach to foreign language instruction built upon simplified assumptions of cause and effect. Rather, Englischdidaktik is a tradition of thinking about and studying teaching and learning that has always been sensitive and fully aware of the complexities, the richness, and the dynamic and emergent character of language pedagogical encounters, as well as the messy nature of foreign language learning. This does not mean, of course, that teachers and teaching should be messy, too. Teaching is more than setting the conditions for learning, because this would be a teaching strategy that is largely based on hope, not more than that. At its core, teaching is highly complex, professional decision-making, before, during, and after instruction, in order to increase the probability of learning.

One traditional heuristic for modeling complexity in general pedagogy and in foreign language learning and teaching in Germany is the ‘Extended Didactic Triangle’ (see below). Developed in the mid 19th century its origins are unclear, but the model nevertheless identifies three core components of any instructional system: student, teacher, and content (see the three corners of the triangle and the three vertices as well). Each of these components is immensely complex itself (various learner and teacher variables, etc.), and all components are interrelated in a complex, nonlinear, and dynamic way. Furthermore, they are embedded in a multi-layered societal and cultural context:

Kurtz_Complexity 1_Didactic triangle

This diagram depicts the beginnings of complexity thinking in Germany. A more recent approach to complexity is, for instance, Andreas Helmke’s ‘Affordance-Utilization-Model of Instruction and Learning’ (2009; my translation) which illustrates how many interconnected factors can actually play a role in the classroom:

Kurtz_Complexity 2_Helmke

However, in current research conducted in the field of Englischdidaktik in Germany a further, pragmatically motivated distinction is typically being made between classroom-based and classroom-oriented research, i.e. between studies that focus primarily on aspects of big C-complexity or small-c complexity, depending on the specific interests and questions of the individual researcher. Studies that focus on small-c complexity are typically conducted in the foreign language classroom (i.e. in many different ways, ranging from qualitative to quantitative, from ethnographic to experimental, employing different research methods, including participatory action research, design experiments, etc.). Studies dedicated to big-C complexity are usually representative of theoretical, rather than empirical research. However, this does not mean that conceptual (‘armchair-‘) research is less complex and important.

Kurtz_Complexity 4_Big C

I think that in the present age of competency-oriented and standards-based foreign language instruction, increasing attention needs to be given to big-C complexity (not only in Englischdidaktik-research) and how it influences or even shapes everyday classroom practices  (in terms of backwash effect):

Kurtz_Complexity 5_exogeneous

I also think that the delicate balance between big-C issues (outcome orientation) and small-c issues (process orientation) is at risk currently, not only in Germany:

Kurtz_Complexity 6_Imbalance

This is why researchers working in the field of Englischdidaktik and in its international sister disciplines need to step up their efforts to further investigate the complex relation between outcome-orientation (focusing on predictability, this way reducing complexity) and the highly complex processes involved in target language learning and teaching (which are difficult to anticipate).


Helmke, Andreas (2009). Unterrichtsqualität und Lehrerprofessionalität. Diagnose, Evaluation und Verbesserung des Unterrichts (3rd ed.). Seelze-Velber: Klett-Kallmeyer.

Mercer, Sarah (2013). “Towards a Complexity-Informed Pedagogy for Language Learning. Uma proposta de pedagogia para aprendizagem de línguas na perspectiva da complexidade”. RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v. 13, n. 2, p. 375-398, 2013.


How to Improve Foreign Language Teaching Significantly

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In my view, the theory and practice of teaching beginners is stagnating. One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The four areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the imitative principle,  the bilingual principle, and the generative principle. They are all based on our knowledge of how humans learn languages naturally, irrespective of educational arrangements.

(1) We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures. And they bring these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face-to-face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

(2) Imitation is our “motor for culture” (Gopnik); it forges the neuronal link between hearing and speaking. Language learning and teaching is at the very beginning strikingly physical: ear-training, articulatory training and body language combined. Listening plus imitating is therefore our most basic form of practice. It must first and foremost begin with short utterances in the context of the mimicry-memorization of dialogues. To achieve this, precision techniques have been developed. However, repeated intensive and noisefree imitation is often neglected. But without ears and articulatory organs attuned to the foreign language we cannot take much pleasure in it.

(3) Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. All languages help us to make sense of the world, so they all dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc. In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

(4) In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This combinatorial infinity is according to Chomsky the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance – and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. If constructions are fully understood, they can take root and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign and second language learners and observing them in and outside classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.

FFF Conference 2014 on Early Foreign Language Learning

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Germany

The 4th German FFF Conference 2014 (FFF = Fortschritte im Frühen  Fremdsprachenlernen; Advances in Early Foreign Language Learning) will be held October 2-4, 2014 at Leipzig University, Germany. The conference will serve as a meeting place for everyone professionally interested and involved in the theory and/or practice of foreign language education in elementary schools and at kindergarten level. This year, it will focus in particular (not exclusively) on language learning research conducted in the pre-school sector, addressing fundamental questions related to adequate and efficient instruction and the transition from pre-school to elementary school. The conference will take place over three days, featuring one plenary lecture, a total of 40 presentations, and five themed workshops. For more detailed information (in German), please click here.



Infographic: Many Languages, One America

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

Many languages,one america
an infographic from


The Sandwich Technique and the Give-and-Go Pass in Language Teaching

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

The bilingual sandwich technique (see Wikipedia) has a bilingual counterpart initiated by the learner. When the learner slips in a mother tongue word or asks for a foreign language equivalent, the teacher gives it to him right away and expects the pupil to use it and continue in the foreign language. This is a bit like the give-and-go pass in soccer or basketball. The player (= learner) passes the ball (= mother tongue word or phrase) to a team-mate (= teacher) who passes the ball ( = foreign language equivalent) back to the player that had the ball. Here is an example from my primary school children who I teach once a week. We were practising how to introduce ourselves and say something about ourselves. There was also a phrase about brothers and sisters:

Gustav: I have no brother, and I have one little sister.
Teacher: Say: But I have a little sister.
Gustav: Was heißt: Die ist nervig? [What does it mean: She’s unnerving?]
Teacher: Say: She gets on my nerves. Sie geht mir auf die Nerven. She gets on my nerves. Please come here and say it all: I have no brother, but I have a little sister, and she gets on my nerves.

And Gustav managed to repeat it nicely. Remember: The mother tongue is an immediate solution, not a last resort. Seemingly paradoxically, pupils will become less dependent on their first language, if the sandwich technique and the give-and-go pass are used in a systematic and well targeted way.

Historical TEFL Research: Toward a Data-Informed Approach

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

Research on how foreign languages were taught in the past is very important; mainly, perhaps, because it can help us avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. More specifically, it is of crucial interest to avoid black and white-thinking which can easily result in misinterpretations or an unjustified depreciation of formerly wide-spread, generally accepted, and (arguably) successful classroom practices.

In a number of research papers I have read recently, the past is depicted as being in conflict with the present (and the future?) of foreign language teaching and learning, as if former conceptualizations of instruction were clashing with present-day approaches. While this may be justifiable from a purely theoretical (or administrative) perspective, it does not adequately reflect foreign language education in praxis, simply because teachers and learners are not ahistorical beings. They all have their specific (learning) biographies, values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations they bring with them, and these are shaped and reshaped in daily school life, depending on a large number of classroom internal and external factors. This is, of course, also true for the many other stakeholders that (want to) play a role in education (see also Bonny Norton’s highly interesting research on Language and Identity (2010), or the documentation of the 33rd Annual German Spring Conference on Foreign Language Education which focuses on the issue of ‘Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen” [Identity and Foreign Language Learning, my translation]; see Burwitz-Melzer, Königs & Riemer 2013).

‘Historically-sensitive’ TEFL studies often refer to A.P.R Howatt’s brilliant book on the history of English language teaching (1984, second edition 2004 with H.G. Widdowson), but Friederike Klippel’s “Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Die Geschichte der Lehrbücher und Unterrichtsmethoden” (1994) [English Language Learning in the 18th and 19th Century. The History of Textbooks and Instructional Methods; my translation) and Werner Hüllen’s “Kleine Geschichte des Fremdsprachenlernens” (2005) [Brief History of Foreign Language Learning; my translation] (2005) are equally important and valuable (not only, perhaps, from a German perspective).

At any rate, till now there is little – if any – historical research based on empirical data gathered in EFL classrooms decades ago. In two previous posts, I have already referred to the Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) (Kurtz 2013) and to the Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC) (Jäkel 2010). I am glad to let you know that both corpora – there are almost 40 years of EFL classroom practice in Germany between them – are now available online as open access data for further, evidence-based historical and, perhaps, transcultural FL/SL classroom research. Both corpara are too small in size to be representative, and they do not fully meet current standards of corpus-based research, but they are nevertheless quite interesting and important for comparative and diachronic qualitative case research. As Hunston (2008: 155) points out, “(…) there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ corpus, because how a corpus is designed depends on what kind of corpus it is and how it is going to be used”.

If you are interested in taking a look at the DOHCCE, click here (this is a large file, 608 pages). Both corpora, the DOHCCE and the FLECC are also stored and available on the Flensburg University webserver (please follow this link).


Burwitz-Melzer, Eva; Königs, Frank G. & Riemer, Claudia (eds.) (2013). Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen. Anmerkungen zu einer komplexen Beziehung. Tübingen, Narr. [Giessener Beiträge zur Fremdsprachendidaktik – Giessen Contributions to Foreign Language Education, edited by Eva Burwitz-Melzer, Wolfgang Hallet, Jürgen Kurtz, Michael Legutke, Helene Martinez, Franz-Joseph Meißner and Dietmar Rösler]

Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Hüllen, Werner (2005). Kleine Geschichte des Fremdsprachenlernens. Berlin: Schmidt.

Hunston, Susan (2008). “Collection strategies and design decisions”. In Anke Lüdeling & Marja Kytö (eds.). Corpus Linguistics. An International Handbook: Vol.1. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, 154-167.

Jäkel, Olaf (2010). The Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC): Sammlung authentischer Unterrichtsgespräche aus dem aktuellen Englischunterricht auf verschiedenen Stufen an Grund-, Haupt-, Real- und Gesamtschulen Norddeutschlands. Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Klippel, Friederike (1994). Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Die Geschichte der Lehrbücher und Unterrichtsmethoden. Münster: Nodus.

Kurtz, Jürgen (ed.). (2013) The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE). Flensburg: Flensburg University Press.

Norton, Bonny (2010). “Language and Identity.” In: Hornberger, Nancy H./McKay, Sandra Lee (eds.) (2010). Sociolingistics and Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 349-369.

Issues and Options in Textbook Development, Selection and Consumption

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

Textbooks play an important role in foreign and second language learning and teaching. In many instructional contexts, they constitute the syllabus teachers are inclined (or even expected) to follow. Furthermore, exams are often based on textbook content (see Harwood 2013: 2). Viewed from this perspective, I think that textbooks need to be given much more attention in research, in pre-service and in-service teacher education.

The following presentation builds on textbook research conducted in many countries, including Germany (click on image to open). Please feel free to use it in your professional context, but consider it as work in progress.


More to come on this, stay tuned …

Harwood, Nigel (ed.) (2013). English Language Teaching Textbooks. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.