Category Archives: oral communication

MIDTESOL 2016 Conference: Innovation and Improvisation

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

Midtesol 2016 Conference Kansas City

The MIDTESOL Annual Conference 2016 will be held September 30 to October 1 at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown in Kansas City, MO. The conference theme is “Innovation and Improvisation“.  I have been doing qualitative research on improvisation and improvised speaking for about twenty years now, so I am very glad to say that my proposal for a paper entitled “Structure and Improvisation in the EFL Classroom” has been accepted for presentation. This is what I am planning to talk about:

Improvisation is a complex phenomenon that has attracted little attention in foreign language learning and teaching research until now. Since improvisation is not only related to cognition and competence, but to goal-directed and spontaneous behavior and performance as well, it is difficult to bring in line with the traditional view of teaching as transmission of knowledge and skills, i.e. of delivering a prescribed curriculum, attending to a particular methodology, following a specific procedure, actuating a lesson plan, and interacting in pre-arranged ways. Moreover, since it encompasses attunement to a situational context (including attunement to others, also referred to as ‘tact’ or ‘tactfulness’ in scholarly discussions), spontaneous decision-making, and problem-solving, improvisation also contrasts with current educational ideologies and trends that place extreme emphasis on standardization, outcome-orientation, and testing.

In my video supported talk, I am going to illustrate and discuss the potential of improvisation for flexible (or ‘adaptive’) instruction in the EFL classroom. I will also present an instructional framework for enhancing oral proficiency which is based on the assumption that increasing the improvisational demands on EFL learners by confronting them with progressively less predictable communicative settings and scripts can contribute substantially to the gradual transformation and expansion of their participatory repertoires in the target language English.

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.

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.

Now Available: The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE)

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


The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE) is a digitally reconstructed duplicate of a hitherto unpublished collection of classroom transcripts compiled by a small research team at the former Ruhr University of Education, Dortmund in the early 1970s. It comprises a total of 36 originally typewritten and carefully annotated paper transcripts of English as a Foreign Language lessons conducted in several comprehensive schools in the federal German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Since all lessons were held before the inception and widespread uptake of the communicative approach in Germany, the transcripts provide a unique glimpse into an era of instructed language learning that still echoes today.

Brief extract:

Grade 9 (February 15, 1974; Transcript #22 in the Pre-Digital EFL Corpus)

16562 L. Our topic at the moment is Canada. So we have heard
16563 a little bit about the history of Canada already. Now,
16564 when you compare the history of Canada and the
16565 history of Germany … yes, please?
16567 S. The or no [ähm] the people are not [äh] so long in Canada.
16568 L. Hmm.
16569 S. The state is not so long … old.
16570 L. The state, the country as such is not
16571 very old. Anything that you can tell me about how old
16572 Canada as a nation is?
16573 S. [äh] 1967 they had had the … 100th birthday.
16574 L. Could you give the date again?
16575 S. [äh] 1967.

Previous research on the history of foreign language teaching and learning in Europe (and, perhaps, elsewhere in the world) has largely been based on cultural artefacts such as formerly used textbooks, workbooks, old school curricula, etc. Historical corpora of spoken classroom English such as the DOHCCE may help to shed some more light on instruction and learning in the past.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2013). The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE). Flensburg: Flensburg University Press (608 pgs.)

The book is now available as a print on demand-publication. For further information, please click here.

The Dortmund Historical Corpus of Classroom English (DOHCCE)

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

Dortmunder Corpus Titelblatt Scan
(S = student; L = teacher)

About a decade ago, my extremely influential academic teacher and esteemed mentor, the late Helmut Heuer (1932-2011), asked me to drop by his office at the University of Dortmund, on short notice, when I happened to be in town. I had just received my first professorship in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at Karlsruhe University of Education at that time, after about ten years of working as a high school teacher in Dortmund, one of Germany’s largest cities. Since he had left me completely in the dark why he wanted to see me, I thought he was simply going to wish me good luck, and provide me with some further valuable advice, as he had done so often in previous years.

When I arrived in his office two weeks later, he immediately drew my attention to a pile of three old cardboard file folders, presented in a rather ceremonious fashion on the tiny table where he used to invite students to sit with him during his office hours. I must admit that the three folders did not look particularly interesting to me. They were stuffed to their limits and covered with dust. One of them had almost fallen apart. When he urged me to open them, I recognized that they were filled with English as a Foreign Language (EFL) lesson transcripts, written on a typewriter, dating back to the early 1970s, with hand-written remarks scribbled here and there. The paper on which the approximately forty transcripts were written had turned yellow with age so that some parts were difficult to read.

“It may not be obvious, but this is a treasure trove for research on learning and teaching English as a foreign language,” I remember him saying to me in German, referring to the pile as the unpublished ‘Dortmund Corpus of Classroom English’. “I would very much like you to have it”, he continued, adding that “there might be a time when you wish to take a closer look at it”. In the following conversation, he gave me some very general information about this apparently dated collection of classroom data, emphasizing that all lessons had been conducted in comprehensive schools (i.e. in non-selective lower secondary schools for children of all backgrounds and abilities) in the federal (West-) German state of North Rhein-Westphalia between 1971 and 1974.

Since our meeting was crammed between two of his classes, we did not have sufficient time to talk about the origins and the genesis of the corpus material in all the necessary details. So I sincerely thanked him and took the material with me to Karlsruhe. Mainly, perhaps, because this was my first professorship and everything was excitingly new and challenging, I somehow lost sight of the folders, keeping them stashed away in a safe place in my office.

In March 2011, I was appointed Professor of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at Justus-Liebig-University (JLU) Giessen. While thinking about ways to enhance evidence-based or data-driven research in the field of foreign/second language education in the widest sense, I came across Olaf Jäkel’s work at the University of Flensburg. As a linguist interested in how English as a Foreign Language is actually taught in classrooms in Germany nowadays, he had just published the Flensburg English Classroom Corpus (FLECC) (see also Jäkel 2010) which comprises a total of 39 transcripts of English lessons given by pre-service student teachers in primary and lower secondary schools in Northern Germany, most of them in parts of the federal German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

This reminded me of the ‘treasure trove’ I was still sitting on, the unpublished lesson transcripts Helmut Heuer had so generously passed on to me so many years ago. I contacted Olaf Jäkel on this and was pleased to hear his positive and encouraging feedback to my initial thoughts about creating a digital version of the old documents. We agreed that making this historical collection of classroom data available to the international research community in a computer-readable format, publishing it as downloadable open access material on the Internet as well as a print-on-demand corpus, would be of considerable interest and value to anyone interested in or involved in researching authentic foreign or second language classroom interaction and discourse world-wide, both from a diachronic and synchronic perspective. I am grateful to him for co-funding the digitization of the classroom data, and for his generous support with publishing the book online and in print.

Scanning the original corpus material and converting the images into more easily searchable text turned out to be no longer possible. So the entire corpus material (more than 400 pages) had to be retyped again manually.

Reconstructing the setting in which the initial ‘Dortmund Corpus of Classroom English’ was assembled turned out to be both fascinating and difficult. Based on evidence from a variety of sources, including personal correspondence with participants directly or indirectly involved in the project, it soon became clear that the corpus project was launched in turbulent times, i.e. in the context of the ubiquitous school and education reform controversy which had been raging in former West Germany since the mid-1960s. At the heart of the controversy lay the polarizing issue of what constitutes equality of opportunity and effectiveness in education. Fierce political battles and scholarly conflicts over the crucial need to restructure the school and education system of the time eventually led to a large-scale, funded experiment with comprehensive schools which has come to be known as the (West) German Gesamtschulversuch. The complex process of setting up and implementing the first experimental comprehensive schools was accompanied with extended research (Wissenschaftliche Begleitung). The pre-digital corpus project represents a remarkable example of such accompanying research.

There is a sizable body of literature available (in German) today documenting and examining the large-scale school experiment which began in 1968 and ended in 1982. However, much of the published material focuses on general issues related to the definition and interpretation of comprehensiveness in secondary school education, the general and specific structure, aims, and objectives of comprehensive schooling, the link between structural and curricular innovations and reforms, the development and implementation of adequate curricula and instructional designs, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the newly established comprehensive schools as compared with traditional German secondary schools. Comparably little has been published to date illustrating and examining how (subject matter-) learning was actually organized and promoted in those new experimental schools, as for instance in the EFL classroom.

The DOHCCE (Kurtz 2013) contains a total of 36 annotated transcripts of English as a Foreign Language lessons conducted in German comprehensive schools prior to the communicative turn. Currently in print, it will be available in fall, both as open access data on the Flensburg University server and as a book on demand, published by Flensburg University Press. More on this in a few weeks. Please stay tuned.

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.

A Paradigm Shift in Language Teaching – at long last!

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

Goodbye Berlitz, goodbye Helen Doron, goodbye Rosetta Stone…
The fact that small children grow into their native language without the help of another one, has inspired countless reformers. Charles Berlitz proclaimed himself the inventor of the direct method (which he wasn’t), and in his schools any use of the learners’ native language was taboo. In our times Helen Doron schools similarly claim to be using „the only internationally acclaimed early English learning method that allows children to absorb English in exactly the same way they learn their mother tongue”, i.e. without translation of any kind. The central idea, the exclusion of the children’s own language, has also been adopted by many public school systems and official guidelines for teachers, although in a less strict and dogmatic manner. A methodological monolingualism became the mainstream philosophy, as evidenced in many textbooks. The use of the mother tongue was invariably cautioned against, generally downplayed and rarely recommended. English-only became almost a badge of honour.

However, commercial self-instructional courses today are curiously divided. There are computer courses which make “no translation” their central selling proposition (e.g. Rosetta Stone: “It essentially means that you learn German in German, without translations – like you picked up your mother tongue”), and there are others which make regular and systematic use of their learners’ native language in various ways (Assimil; Birkenbihl; Michel Thomas…), making the very opposite their central selling proposition.

For more than a century this most vexing issue has been discussed and has often generated more heat than light, and it has certainly generated an immense literature by now.  Although in many countries monolingual teaching with some modifications carried the day, a number of researchers continued to radically question the monolingual assumption. Interestingly, some of them started out as „monolingual“ practitioners (the students’ native language being only a last resort), but changed their minds over time. This is also my own case. As early as 1976 I pressed for a „paradigm shift“, building on C.J. Dodson’s Bilingual Method, a book which opened my eyes when I was a young teacher of modern languages. On reading Dodson I could put the new bilingual techniques immediately into practice, and thus came to understand them by experimenting and observing their effects in the classroom (for more on this, please click here).

In many ways what is now happening fits Thomas Kuhn’s description of a paradigm shift (in The structure of scientific revolutions), a significant change away from the monolingual doctrine in favour of a modern bilingual approach. Over the years, more and more researchers have challenged the settled view of their predecessors, and it seems that a paradigm shift is just around the corner:

„Die Zeit ist reif für eine neue Synthese … die bilinguale Revolution findet statt.“ [„The time is ripe for a new synthesis…the bilingual revolution is taking place“] (W. Butzkamm, Lust zum Lehren, Lust zum Lernen, 12004, p. 2)

“Making the mother tongue the corner stone in the architecture of FLT is a true paradigm shift.” (W. Butzkamm & J. A. W. Caldwell, The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching, p. 15)

“We live in interesting times: having lived through one paradigm shift, I now have the feeling this book marks the start of another.” A. Maley, Review of Translation in Language Teaching: an argument for reassessment by G. Cook. ELT Journal 65.2, 192–193.

„If their proposals are implemented, it will be a true paradigm shift.“  P. Scheffler, Review of The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching by W. Butzkamm  &  J. A. W. Caldwell.  ELT Journal 66/1, 2012, p. 119).

In the influential journal  Language Teaching  – (listed both in  the Arts & Humanities Citation Index and in the Social Sciences Citation Index) authors G. Hall & G. Cook come to the conclusion: „The way is open for a major paradigm shift in language teaching and learning“ (state-of- the-art article „Own language use in language teaching and learning“ , in Language Teaching, 45/2012, pp 271-308). With this authoritative review one can safely say that a century old tenet has been overturned. A dogma has been toppled.

According to Butzkamm & Caldwell the learners’ native language is ‘the greatest pedagogical resource’ that they bring to foreign language learning, as it ‘lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn’. While language teaching in many countries had to be officially monolingual with small concessions, it is now accepted that language learning is, and has always been, a fundamentally bilingual endeavour, as modern brain research has shown. Thus it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is advocated today, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the diagnostic potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom. What is now needed is the knowledge and dissemination of those highly effective techniques in which the L1 is essential – techniques which are yet to filter into mainstream pedagogy.

Caution: A sophisticated bilingual approach does not give licence for the lax, unthinking or indifferent use of L1.  It is a highly purposeful, focused tool to promote L2 learning and communicative use in the classroom. We must at long last resolve the apparent paradox that with systematic mother tongue support an authentic foreign language classroom atmosphere can be created much more easily than in classes with a mother tongue taboo.

Elevating Increased Monitoring and Testing to an Educational Imperative – Does this really make sense?

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

On Monday this week I gave a talk to a small group of teacher advisors on the pros and cons of integrated skills development in EFL classroom environments near the city of Berlin. The focus was on developing oral skills in primary and secondary schools, more specifically, on fundamental issues related to the transition from primary to secondary EFL classrooms. In this context, I voiced my concerns about the current trend to think about (efficient?) foreign language education in terms of competence- and standards-based measurable outcome in Germany, arguing that this approach is difficult to bring in line with traditional conceptualizations of Bildung (foreign language education as a time-consuming process of self-formation; in the age of globalization, mobility and migration, cultural diversity and hybridity, etc.). This was followed by a lively discussion.  Since we did not have enough time to discuss all this in detail, especially the potential problems associated with conceiving of oral target language proficiency in terms of neatly defined, measurable sub-skills (or so-called competences and levels of oral competence), especially perhaps with regard to primary schools, I would like to add the following:

In my view, improving foreign language education in everyday classroom practice is complex and subject to the interplay of a wide spectrum of interacting factors. By importing and adapting reform strategies and measures that are largely based on values, goals and concepts which (arguably) have been proven successful in business, commerce, finance and industry, complexity may appear to be manageable. However, the price to be paid for injecting market pressure into secondary (primary?) school education, for turning foreign language classrooms into arenas of competition for the best test results, for coating instruction with more and more layers of assessment, for reducing educational ‘quality’ to a limited number of measurable performance indicators, and for conceiving of output or outcome as the linchpin of quality development, may be hefty and unacceptable. In many countries, concerns are continuing to grow that standards- and test-driven compliance pressures on teachers are likely to rise, and that, in consequence, foreign language classroom instruction may increasingly and largely be condensed, redesigned and repackaged toward improving isolated skills performance in standardized tests (see, for instance, Böttcher, Bos, Döbert & Holtappels 2008; Kurtz 2005, O’Day 2008).

Today I stumbled upon two highly interesting, and perhaps, highly controversial  articles (mentioned/written) in the New York Times that I would like to share with you. Please click here and there. :-)


Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.) (2008). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrolling in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann. [Education Monitoring and Control – Viewed from an international perspective; my translation].

Kurtz, Jürgen (2005). „Bildungsstandards als Instrumente der Qualitätsentwicklung im Fremdsprachenunterricht: Towards a Checklist Approach to Foreign Language Learning and Teaching? In: Bausch, Karl-Richard; Burwitz-Melzer; Eva; Königs, Frank G.; Krumm, Hans-Jürgen (eds.). Bildungsstandards auf dem Prüfstand. Arbeitspapiere der 25. Frühjahrskonferenz zur Erforschung des Fremdsprachenunterrichts. Tübingen: Narr, 159-167.

O’Day, Jennifer (2008). “Standards-based reform: promises, pitfalls, and potential lessons from the U.S.” In: Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrollingt in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann, 107-157.