Category Archives: foreign language pedagogy

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.

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.