Category Archives: pedagogy

Life Skills-based Education in the EFL Classroom: Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision

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

Life skills-based education: a (very) brief outline
In its landmark report to UNESCO on the role of education in the future, the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (Delors et al.1996) underlined the growing importance of learning throughout life and the need to focus on four pillars of education, in particular: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be – ‘learning to be’ including ‘learning to learn’. In accordance with this vision, the United Nations Educational Framework for Action (UNESCO 2000: 36) obliged governments to ensure “that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes” within the first decade of the twenty-first century.

However, even though the main goals of life skills-based education are largely agreed upon world-wide (i.e. enabling young people to lead a fulfilling and healthful life and to take control of their destiny, as well as empowering them to fully, responsibly and creatively participate in their societies, which increasingly entails being familiar with and tolerant of other societies and cultures), a generally accepted definition as to what exactly is meant by ‘life skills’ is still missing. In view of the diverse and continuously changing cultural contexts in which children and adolescents are growing up today and the changing demands of life they need to be able to cope with, this is completely understandable. In her background paper for the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2003/4, Singh drew the following important conclusion: “It is not enough to ask how life skills are defined in general; rather it is essential to ask how they exist in diverse life situations and how they affect the empowerment of people.” (UIE 2003a: 2). This needs to be kept in mind when taking life-skills based education into the foreign language classroom.

Nevertheless, in order to capture the essence of what life skills-based education is and to outline the scope of it roughly, two general, largely complementary definitions are particularly interesting in this context. According to UNICEF (2007), life skills-based education refers to a number of psycho-social and interpersonal skills which can help people make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and develop coping and self-management skills. The overall focus is on empowering young people to deal with challenging life situations and critical incidents successfully and, ultimately, to lead healthy and productive lives. As such, life skills-based education is associated with relevant and engaging learning content as well as with contextualized interactive and participatory learning and teaching aimed at enabling all learners to acquire knowledge and to develop skills and attitudes which allow them to cope with a wide range of intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts and challenges.

Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO 1999) points out: “Life skills education is designed to facilitate the practice and reinforcement of psychosocial skills in a culturally and developmentally appropriate way; it contributes to the promotion of personal and social development, the prevention of health and social problems, and the protection of human rights.” More concretely, the following life skills are considered to be the most essential: the capacity to think creatively and critically, the ability to make decisions and to solve problems, the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to establish and maintain interpersonal relations, knowledge of self and others, the capacity to feel empathy, and the ability to handle emotions, including the ability to handle tension and stress (see PAHO 2000; 2001: 29-32).

Taking both of these definitions together, life-skills based education calls attention to a continuum of intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of coping with life in the global media, information and knowledge society, seeking to develop an action-oriented competence in relevant life contexts in an integrated way. As Singh points out, the overall approach implies success in private as well as in professional life, which means that “the idea of success is not only the accomplishment of a happy working life, but also the creation of a self-fulfilling life outside the world of work and wealth creation.” (UIE 2003a: 4).

In sum, the international discussion of life-skills based education with its focus on human independence and interdependence, on knowledge, skills and understanding, as well as on beliefs, attitudes and values clearly indicates that current standards-driven reforms of foreign language education, in their unfortunate combination of simplistic and bureaucratic views of accountability and accountability assessment, and their tendency to exclude long-term sustainable aspects of education and educational assessment, have to be reconsidered. It is time to counteract the continuing withdrawal from general educational objectives and human needs in foreign language classrooms, without of course losing sight of the essence of foreign language teaching, i.e. of ensuring that learners achieve a good command of the target language.

Taking life skills based-education into the EFL classroom
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) (Council of Europe 2001) is based on a holistic concept of foreign language learning which is slightly but decisively different from that underlying life skills-based education. ‘Existential competence’, to begin with, is considered to be the “sum of individual characteristics, personality traits and attitudes which concern, for example, self-image and one’s view of others and willingness to engage with other people in social interaction” (2001: 11-12). Furthermore, personal identity is described in terms of “selfhood factors” referring to attitudes, motivations, values, beliefs, cognitive styles, etc. (2001: 105-106). However, by explicitly stating that existential competence and personal identity are thought of as the sum of various parts, the CEFR has, probably unintentionally, opened up a Pandora’s box of theoretical and practical problems and contributed to the growing obsession with assessment and accountability which we are witnessing in educational politics in many countries today. One fundamental insight of Gestalt theory should have been given more careful attention in this context: the whole is not simply the sum of its parts, and not just more than the sum of its parts, but significantly different in quality from the sum of its parts (see Wertheimer 1922, 1923). In all probability, the educational whole in terms of existential competence and personal identity which is meant here will be almost impossible to measure and fully account for in standardized tests. But this does not automatically mean that is it less precious and important for life in the twenty-first century – on the contrary.

In order to meet the growing challenges and demands of childhood and youth in foreign language instruction, the selfhood factors referred to in the CEFR, which are thought of as being mutable through learning need to be seen as far more than just “parameters which have to be taken into account in foreign language learning and teaching” (2001: 11-12). Since these factors or parameters are of utmost importance in improving individual chances in life, pushing forward social change and bringing about more integrated and participatory societies (see UIE 2003b: 7), foreign language learning in secondary schools should more directly address the educational questions and challenges that arise out of these, and, consequently, provide appropriate content- and context-based learning environments.

From this perspective, shaping what is taught in foreign language classrooms in terms of thematic content and outlining some of the key issues for communication is as important as the promotion of “methods of modern language teaching which will strengthen independence of thought, judgement and action, combined with social skills and responsibility” (Council of Europe 2001: 4). It needs to be remembered that foreign language learners will hardly engage in message-oriented and ‘form-sensitive’ classroom activities geared at mobilizing and improving their target language as well as their personal (intellectual, emotional and social) skills and abilities, as long as the thematic contents offered and the situational contexts created are felt to be uninteresting or irrelevant to them. Foreign language instruction based on thematic content which is unrealistically and artificially ‘designed away’ from everyday problems of growing up today contributes too little to helping learners become “thinking social actors” (Breen 1985: 144), even if learning is embedded in experience-, task- and activity-based communicative classroom environments. It rather leads to what Legutke & Thomas (1999) have appositely referred to as ‘dead bodies and talking heads’ in the foreign language classroom, with the learners more or less simply working out how to say correctly what they are told or expected to say by the teacher (see also Thompson 1996).

As has already been indicated above, four fundamental, highly interrelated thematic areas are currently of particular interest and importance to education in secondary schools from a life skills-based educational perspective – not only in Germany: health, ecology, citizenship and peace. However, since these thematic categories are far too abstract and too distant from the learners’ personal experiences to deal with them in the foreign language classroom as such, they need to be broken down to more specific thematic and contextual units which are flexible enough to spontaneously address concrete problems of life and respond to critical incidents as they come up almost naturally day by day. Distinguishing between macro-, meso- and micro-thematic content level considerations is one way of approaching this problem in theory, but in any case, more empirical research will be required to ferret out and understand contemporary learners’ needs in more detail in the coming years. Only on the basis of this will it ultimately be possible to make foreign language learning in secondary schools more authentic and meaningful – in particular with regard to the purposes for which the learners are expected to acquire the target language, the anticipated communicative settings in which the target language will probably be used by them, the intercultural events in which they will be required and willing to participate, the content topics they will be exchanging views about, the language functions involved in these events, the grammatical structures and lexical material that will be needed, etc.

Focussing on foreign language learning and teaching as an educational enterprise, i.e. as a cognitively, affectively and socially challenging long-term process of intercultural initiation, some suggestions for infusing life skills-based education into secondary school foreign language classrooms are given below:

Macro-level (concerning goal-setting and the selection of thematic content):
• Bring together the key elements of life skills-based education, of global education (see Cates 2002) and of intercultural education (see Byram 1997; Byram & Fleming 1998; Alred, Byram & Fleming 2002, 2006) with current approaches to content-based instruction (see Met 2002; Stoller 2004) and communicative language teaching in foreign language classrooms (see Richards 2005), including, but not overestimating the potential of task-based instruction in institutionalized secondary school settings.
• Step up systematic, empirically grounded foreign language and intercultural communicative needs analysis (see Long 2005) to identify thematic learning content and communicative substance which is of relevance to growing up and living in the twenty-first century.
• In order to avoid oversimplification and trivialization and to make foreign language education more learner-centred, authentic, and motivating, place more emphasis on the (cross-culturally pervasive) tensions, contradictions and pressures children and youth are confronted with in their daily lives (e.g. the surface-Westernization of juvenile lifestyles in terms of fashion, music, behavioural patterns, etc.).

Meso-level (concerning curriculum development and design):
• Integrate real-life thematic content into existing foreign language curricula; be aware of the possible mismatch between views of what is existentially important as seen by those who are growing up and as seen by researchers, curriculum advisors, coursebook designers and teachers.
• More specifically, try to identify thematic content areas and topics which can trigger lively classroom interaction in the target language, and can help to increase the learners’ willingness to communicate in the classroom and beyond.
• To facilitate better cross-curricular education, look for complementarity and interface between schools subjects.
• Example: ‘youth at risk’ (as a macro-level curriculum unit); meso-level topics: (a) ‘drug prevention’ (e.g. consuming premixed alcoholic beverages and/or over-the-counter drugs; smoking habits), (b) ‘healthy nutrition’ (e.g. food and eating habits inside and outside school; school meals; fast food), (c) ‘sexuality and sexual health’ (e.g. the emotional dimension of sex for men and women; Internet pornography; sexism; HIV/AIDS prevention), (d) ‘social and civic responsibility’ (e.g. vandalism and violence inside and outside schools; political or religious extremism or fundamentalism; racial discrimination), (e) ‘consumer behaviour and use of mass media’ (e.g. telemarketing; online shopping; phone-in television; mobile phone addiction and juvenile debt), (f) ‘sustainability’ (e.g. energy efficiency inside and outside schools; reduction of waste; recycling), etc. Central objectives: enhance target language communicative ability, explore/modify attitudes and values, increase knowledge, raise intercultural awareness, develop core skills towards effective use of knowledge in intra- and intercultural encounters (especially: critical thinking skills, negotiation skills, empathy skills, advocacy skills, refusal skills, decision-making skills, self-monitoring skills, counselling skills, skills for managing stress).

Micro-level (concerning learning environments and classroom practices):
• Upscale language and content integrated learning in regular foreign language classrooms by providing appropriate learning materials, by creating relevant and stimulating contexts and scenarios, by encouraging learners to share their everyday life experiences and to speak about critical life incidents, etc.
• Create experience-based, decision-oriented classroom environments in which learners can exchange ideas and views with children and youth from other cultures (e.g. in virtual communities in which learners collaborate trans-culturally and discuss their own values and attitudes towards concrete issues).

Alred, Geof; Byram, Michael & Fleming, Michael (Eds.) (2002), Intercultural Experience and Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Alred, Geof; Byram, Michael and Fleming, Micheal (Eds.) (2006), Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Concepts and Comparisons. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Breen, Michael P. (1985), “The social context for language learning – a ne­glected situ­a­tion?” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7 (2), 135-158.
Byram, Michael & Fleming, Michael (Eds.) (1998), Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective. Approaches through Drama and Ethnography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cates, Kip (2002), “Global Education.” In: Byram, Michael (Ed.) (2002), The Routledge Encyclopledia of Language Learning and Teaching. Routledge, 241-243.
Council of Europe (2001), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Delors, Jacques et al. (1996), Learning: The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.
Legutke, Michael & Thomas, Howard (1999), Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. London: Longman.
Long, Michael (Ed.) (2005), Second Language Needs Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Met, Myriam (2002), “Content-based instruction.” In: Carter, Ronald & Nunan, David (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language, 137-140.
PAHO (2000), Tobacco-free Youth: A ‘Life Skills’ Primer. Washington: Pan American Health Organization (PAHO Scientific and Technical Publications No. 579).
PAHO (2001), Life Skills Approach to Child and Adolescent Healthy Human Development. Available here.
Stoller, Fredericka L. (2004), “Content-based instruction: perspectives on curriculum planning.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 261-283.
Thompson, Geoff (1996), “Some misconceptions about communicative lan­guage teaching.” English Language Teaching Journal, 50 (1), 9-15.
UNESCO (2000), World Education Forum. Final Report. Available here.
UIE (UNESCO Institute for Education) (2003a), “Understanding life skills.” Background paper for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003/4: Gender and Education for All, the Leap to Equality; prepared by Madhu Singh. Available here.
UIE (UNESCO Institute for Education) (2003b), Nurturing the Treasure. Vision and Strategy 2002-2007. Available here.
UNICEF (2007), Life Skills. Online. please click here.
WHO (1999), Partners in Life Skills Education. Conclusions from a United Nations inter-agency meeting. Geneva: Department of Mental Health. Available here.
Wertheimer, Max (1922), „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. Reihe I.“ Psychologische Forschung 1, 47-58.
Wertheimer, Max (1923), „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. Reihe II.“ Psychologische Forschung 2, 301-350.

The post is based on:
Kurtz, Jürgen (2008), Life Skills-based Education in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms – Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision. In: Doff, Sabine; Hüllen, Werner & Klippel, Friederike (Hrsg.) (2008). Visions of Languages in Education. München: Langenscheidt ELT, 87-100.

Denial of Assistance: Language lessons for migrants come too late and could be more effective

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In Europe, asylum seekers are taken care of by state agencies. They get accommodation and food, but that’s about it. Some of them have been living here in Germany for almost a year and they are still waiting for a final decision about whether they can stay or will be sent back. When I first met some of them, I found that even after several months of being in my country some knew only about a dozen German words and phrases. That means, there had been only very little contact with their German neighbours.

However, church communities and other people are now becoming aware of the problem and people like me who are retired and have some time on their hands have arranged regular meetings where they try to talk to them and teach them some German.

But here lies another problem. What is the most effective way of teaching real beginners who often come to us with mother tongues which nobody knows, for instance Tigrinya? There is absolutely no doubt about it that, for beginners, a bilingual approach where the teacher can use the learner’s mother tongue (or another language the learner is somewhat familiar with) is much more effective than a monolingual teaching-learning situation where only the target language can be used. Unfortunately the latter situation is often the case as present-day immigrants often speak only one of the lesser known “little” languages of Africa. So it seems that a monolingual German-only approach (also: direct method, Berlitz method) is the only possible way. So far as I can see, this has been the policy of the German courses sponsored by the government for those migrants who were granted asylum.  Learning German this way is an arduous task and painstakingly slow. It is a sink or swim method, leaving many learners frustrated in spite of coursebooks peppered with colourful pictures.

However, the situation could be effectively remedied, even in multilingual classes. Experts would simply have to agree upon, let’s say 30 dialogues of the type found in almost every coursebook and create an internet site for each of the European languages concerned. Then an appeal should be launched to those bilinguals well integrated in their respective host countries and ready to provide the same texts in their home language, perhaps even free of charge. Teachers, voluntary or professional, could study the dialogues with their classes and act them out in groups. This would be comparatively easy, because every client could fully understand what he is doing and saying. With our social brains and our emotional expertise we are naturally born performers. Learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences. Moreover, reference to the learners’ mother tongues implies an appreciation of indigenous languages and cultures.

Comprehensible input is precisely the basic condition for language acquisition. But the outmoded pedagogic approach à la Berlitz, which is still the rule in many language courses worldwide, is an outright denial of assistance. See Butzkamm & Caldwell, The bilingual reform.  A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching (2009) and



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.

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.

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), 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.



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.

Call for Papers: 25th DGFF Conference, Session 7: Textbooks and Classroom Interaction

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

The 25th Biennial Conference of the German Association of Foreign Language Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Fremdsprachenforschung, DGFF) will be held at the University of Augsburg, Germany, September 25-28, 2013. The conference theme is: SPRACHENAUSBILDUNG – SPRACHEN BILDEN AUS – BILDUNG AUS SPRACHEN. The main thrust of the conference lies in looking both at the training side of language instruction ( “Ausbildung” = making people competent in languages for further study and jobs) and the idea that learning a new or additional language leads to self-formation (“Bildung” in German).

The conference program is now almost complete and available in English here. Session 7, chaired by Hermann Funk (University of Jena, Germany) and me, will be devoted to FL/SL textbook research, more specifically, to FL/SL textbook analysis, critique, and development, focusing in particular on the role of the textbook in orchestrating classroom interaction. This is our session abstract (in its English translation):

“If quantity and quality of classroom interaction are crucial factors for successful language teaching and learning, the factors surrounding and influencing classroom interaction, then, deserve our attention. In this regard, classroom management by the foreign language instructor is at the center of interest in today’s research. Textbooks, however, have not received much attention in recent classroom-oriented research in terms of analyzing their relevance for interaction. For this section, papers investigating the ways in which textbooks affect classroom interaction, both positively and negatively, are welcome. The following questions could be addressed:

• In what way does the textbook, with its numerous additional print and digital teaching resources, impact foreign language classroom interaction?
• In which ways can textbooks as a whole or particular additional teaching material be used to facilitate learning-centered classroom interaction? Which textbook-related competences (concerning lesson planning, instruction and reflective evaluation) should be taught and developed in academic teacher training?
• How do future textbooks need to be designed in order to be up-to-date with the current standards of foreign language teaching and modern technology? In addition to this, how can this design meet the conditions of learning-centered classroom interaction in the age of increasing linguistic and cultural diversity and the hybridity of language learners?
• Which qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods can help systematically illuminate the complex relationship between what textbooks have to offer (in this case e.g. types and sequencing of tasks and exercises), the usage of textbooks in the classroom and the textbook-related classroom interaction?”

The call for papers is still open. For further details, please don’t hesitate to contact us.