Category Archives: teaching

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: New Companion Volume

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

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), published almost 20 years ago, is currently under revision. In the context of the 38th Annual German Spring Conference for Research on Foreign and Second Language Learning and Teaching, held again at Castle Rauischholzhausen (February 15-17), Giessen University’s most beautiful venue for conferencing, roundabout 20 EFL/GFL/GSL professors from all over Germany will discuss the new CEFR companion volume with new descriptors and its implications for learning and teaching foreign and second language education in Germany and in Europe in more detail (a preliminary version of the companion volume is available here).

However, the major focus of this year’s Spring Conference will be on foreign and second language teacher education. In this particular context, the revision of the CEFR is just one of many other developments and aspects that need to be taken into consideration (e.g. the theory-practice divide, the interdisciplinary character of foreign and/or second language teacher education, the role of teacher identity and ethos, the functions of physical learning place and digital learning space, the question of teaching expertise, the significance of teachers’ language proficiency and skill, etc.).

26th Biennial DGFF Conference 2015

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

The 26th Biennial Conference of the German Association of Foreign Language Research (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Fremdsprachenforschung, DGFF) will be held at Ludwigsburg University of Education, Germany, September 30 – October 3, 2015. The conference theme is “Teaching Languages“.

2015 DGFF Poster

Research into the practice and development of teaching and teaching procedures is a fundamental concern of second and foreign language education studies. Quality has always been a precondition for successful teaching, and remains so. What actually constitutes good teaching, however, is a question that is under constant review. Teachers are called upon to perform in the most diverse contexts, both within school domains and outside them, whether in the instruction of foreign languages or of second languages. Teaching staff are obliged – especially in the light of general political and educational demands for new learning cultures – to deal with an increasing number of responsibilities and challenges. Their qualifications, competence, and professional involvement are decisive factors in the successful implementation of educational reform. The 26th DGFF Conference will place teaching in the focus of its attention, enquiring into its practical procedures and parameters as well as its theoretical and scientific principles.

  • How can various theoretical perspectives in FL research contribute to the issues of the teacher?
  • What, in the light of large-scale studies on general features of classroom interaction, are the particular characteristics of teaching and learning a foreign language?
  • How can the professionalization of teaching staff be successfully accomplished?
  • What experience and insights have we gained from the history of foreign language teaching?
  • How does the teaching task present itself in various contexts and with regard to heterogeneous groups of participants?
  • What advances have been made in conveying particular content aspects of foreign language education?
  • What are the potentialities and limitations of teaching? What innovative instructional strategies and materials do we have at our disposal today? What goals can be realized through the use of these? How is their practical efficacy and reliability to be judged?

These are among the many questions to be addressed in 12 sections, as well as in numerous discussion fora and plenary sessions. For further information, please click here.

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.

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.

Unity in Diversity – For Foreign Language Learners, the Mother Tongue is the Mother of all Languages

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

Ethnographers and anthropologists have entertained us with amusing stories of cultural practices. These practices, which may seem quaint to some of us, are real nonetheless, as real as the differences between languages. For instance, we are interested in the rites, simple or elaborate, developed in many of the world’s cultures, to predict the future. Ways, basically, of asking the gods. As we marvel at these strikingly different practices and beliefs we ignore what is common to them. I mean of course, the apparently universal human need to see into the future, to decipher what is ahead of us, what is to come, in order to help us make the right decisions. We tend to overlook that there is a common ground here, same as we overlook the core concepts behind the various expressive devices of different languages. Essentially, all languages dance the same dance.  All of them have evolved ways of stating, negating, asking for information etc., they have developed means of expressing ideas such as possession, location in place and time,  amount, agent or doer, instrument, possibility, causality etc.

By the time they go to school, children have heard thousands of if-clauses, so popular with parents. So they know quite a lot about setting conditions and negotiating them. Or watch a mother and a child with a picture book: “And where’s the girl who… Can you see the car which…” Relative clauses over and over again, used to identify people and things. Okay, not all languages have relative clauses, but they certainly have ways of clearly identifying persons and objects in speech. And not all languages have a word for “if”, but can nevertheless express the idea of conditionality. And because of these core concepts and functions common to all languages, because of this unity in diversity we can map languages onto each other, no matter how differently they express these ideas.

Here are three easy examples from beginners’ classes of a bilingual technique which can be extremely helpful but is never used in English-only teaching contexts. I have called it mother tongue mirroring. It is a kind of literal translation adapted for teaching purposes, a way of unpacking opaque phrases and unravelling the puzzle of FL expressions.

(1) The teacher, going round the class, strikes out a word or sentence and says “Once more”. The pupils have figured out that they are expected to correct the word or phrase, but have no clear idea of what the teacher has actually said. It could be wrong, not correct, do it again etc. Unless the kids see it in writing, once more might very well be one word.  Noch einmal would be the idiomatic German translation (= functional comprehension), but the teacher could have added  “*Einmal mehr”, this is what we say in English”  (= formal / structural comprehension).

(2) A teacher regularly takes leave of her children using the formula: “See you tomorrow”. In German this would be “Bis morgen” (= *Till tomorrow), and this is what the children quite naturally assume their teacher is saying. But only if they understand that the English literally say *Seh euch morgen” would they be able to produce sentences of their own like See you at the gym.

(3)  German                              English                                    French

The German phrase, mirrored in English, is *It gives two solutions, *it gave three lectures, *it gave two popes, and the French equivalent, mirrored in English, is *it there has two solutions, and so on. We need this kind of double comprehension – the idiomatic translation plus the mirrored version –  to create our own sentences along the same lines, for instance in order to go smoothly, and with full understanding,  from present tense to past tense forms.

Mother tongue mirroring is a time-honoured technique, and is useful to various degrees for different language pairs. It provides an analysis of foreign language structures without having recourse to abstract grammatical terminology.

And now a final example from a beautiful language unrelated to English. Let us suppose you’ve come across the following questions in Chinese and know what they mean:

nán bù nán?        难不难?   Is it difficult?
hǎo bù hǎo?        好不好?    Is is good?

Is knowing what it means really enough? For a tourist, perhaps, but not for a language learner. For them, making a global form-meaning connection is necessary, but not sufficient. Learners must connect particular forms with particular meanings. They must know how this idea is expressed in Mandarin. A double comprehension is both necessary and sufficient: a functional or situational understanding of the phrase and a formal, operational understanding. The latter can be smoothly provided by mirroring the phrase in English: Difficult, not difficult? Good, not good? This is the way the Chinese say it. It goes without saying that if the construction is transparent to the learners, the teacher need not provide a mirrored version. In this case the teacher could also point out that English has a similar construction: Good or not? Only then can we make our own questions even if we have never heard them before:

guì bù buì?            贵不贵?  Is it expensive? *Expensive, not expensive?
yuǎn bù yuǎn?     远不远?   Is it far? *Far, not far?

By making the MT dovetail with the FL construction, we achieve an uncomplicated clarity which grammatical explanations seldom have.

So we can make correspondences, and we can mirror the foreign construction in the familiar idiom. In the final analysis, the perspectival flex­ibility of a naturally acquired language to clarify the form-meaning constructions of a foreign language is without equal. Only an acquired language is rich, nuanced and supple enough to explain another language, to capture its fleeting dynamism that often defies analytic categories. That’s why we need a new methodology for foreign language teaching where foreign language and mother tongue enter into a powerful alliance. The book by Butzkamm & Caldwell on The bilingual reform is about this new methodology, its theory and practice. If teachers can handle sophisticated bilingual techniques alongside monolingual techniques, of course, FLT can make a huge step forward. Films illustrating bilingual teaching techniques can be downloaded here.

Managing Diversity in the EFL Classroom

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

In one of my classes last week I presented an authentic, anonymized piece of writing to my students here in Giessen, produced by a 13 year-old learner in grade 7 a few years ago (in his/her third year of learning English as a Foreign Language in a secondary school in Germany). After providing all the necessary bits and pieces of background information (type of secondary school attended by this particular learner, his/her heritage language/language spoken in the family [i.e. Turkish], the textbook used at the time, etc. pp.), I asked them to evaluate and grade this learner text which I chose because it is full of target language anomalies (misspellings, grammar problems, etc.), for instance:

signs = singns; languages = langeses; Wales = Wahls; castles = carsels, carstels, casels; climb a mountain = climb a monten; with = wiht; table = tabel; making = makeing; having = haveing, etc.

However, this beginning learner of English also produced text passages such as: “In South Wales you can go to a pit museum, a casel [ = castle], a beach, cycle a bike. I would like to go to the bache [= beach] and swim.”

It was very interesting to see how my students reacted to this. While a few of them immediately conceived of this as a clear case of dyslexia (without any substantial knowledge of research in this area), arguing that this learner needed professional help by a specialist (i.e. a psychologist, or even a psychiatrist), others were less certain. They pointed out that they were quite confused by the inconsistencies in error  and text production.

In the following, we discussed a wide spectrum of possible causes for learning difficulties in the EFL classroom (including, among many other things, lack of motivation and effort, absent-mindedness, carelessness, distractibility, linguistic interference, teacher-fronted instruction, teaching as transmission of skills, as well as dyslexia, ADD and ADHD), and potential options for dealing with these issues in everyday classroom practice in adequate ways.

I am very interested to hear what you have to say about this, and about diversity in foreign/second language instructional contexts in general. Please feel free to comment on all other facets of diversity relevant to foreign language instruction in the 21st century.