XKCD Creative commons
“freedom of speech” and “innocent until proven guilty” are two of the most misunderstood and misused phrases around (after the exception that proves the rule). Freedom of speech basically means the government will not imprison people for expressing opinions (an attempt to stop tyranny) and even this freedom is not absolute. Nowadays some people seem to think it means ‘I have a right to say anything I want, and not suffer any consequences.’ (This often goes hand-in-hand with the silly ‘I’m entitled to my opinion‘ defence). Sure, you can say what you like but you may lose friends, be ignored, get fired or be banned from facebook because of it.
‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is similarly misused. If I catch you trying to steal my car you’re not innocent, -you’re guilty. I know you’re guilty and you know it too. The phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ simply means that a court, (not me or you or anyone else) has to assume a person is innocent and then work towards establishing his guilt.

Definitional issues 

The first step in critical thinking is proper definition. It’s hard trying to discuss something if definitions are at odds* Terms get confused and become misused all the time. So in order to do my bit towards clarity and better understanding in ELT I’m starting this page which I will try to update regularly. Please feel free to suggest terms that you think should be added here or if you think any of these are wrong please let me know. If you volunteer a definition I’ll even add your name! (wow, right?)

The list

Affective filter (thanks to Mike Griffin for this one)

Krashen’s INPUT hypothesis includes the notion of the affective filter. Wikipedia describes the filter thus:

According to the affective filter hypothesis, certain emotions, such as anxiety, self-doubt, and mere boredom interfere with the process of acquiring a second language. They function as a filter between the speaker and the listener that reduces the amount of language input the listener is able to understand
Note the emphasis on ‘input’. Yet, some seem to think it applies to output as well. For instance, in a paper on using music in EAP discussion classes, Cunningham writes:

Students sometimes complain of feeling intimidated by the ‘serious’ nature of the content, and the focus on reading and writing may curb their willingness to speak freely when that opportunity is given. This paper aims to discuss the potential benefits of using music in the EAP classroom to lower students’ ‘affective filter’

The implication here being that a lower affective filter would lead to more willingness to speak.

Brain-based learning

Anyone using this should be asked ‘Where else can learning occur?’ The term is often used by those promoting humanism and affect in teaching. It should perhaps more properly be called ’emotion based learning.’

Deductive/Inductive teaching (Thanks to TEFL commute)

Possibly the least useful terms ever designed for anything ever (though focus on form/forms comes very close). Explaining to new teachers that it’s ‘the opposite way to what you would think it is’ is a constant reminder of how useless these terms are. And when woudld you use them? I can only imagine using them in a talk or a paper and then hoping that the audience knows that they mean ‘the opposite to what you would think’. Apparently the terms stem from deductive and inductive reasoning whereby in the former you have a theory and then you try to collect data to support, and the latter, in which you have data and then try to construct a theory.

Emergent language

Ever since I participated in a workshop on emergent language I’ve been searching for a definition of ’emergent language’. Some seem to suggest it is language that ‘comes up’ in the lesson. So, anything that students say? Or mistakes? Or good usage? Here are a few examples of it’s use:

Emergent language doesn’t just emerge on its own; the teacher needs to know how to exploit language opportunities in the classroom (ref)

We can’t underestimate the importance of knowing what ’emergent language’ is and what it means to deal with. (ref)

It is stated that, after language emerges during Dogme style lessons, teachers should engage students with this material to reinforce learning (Sasidharan, 2014) (ref)

Thus, according to these writers, it is important, it needs to be ‘dealt with’ and it’s requires encouragement. But what is it?
Anthony Gaughan turns his (ever critical) eye to this question in this post. I think he makes a great attempt to describe it. He settles for something like interlanguage, or language at the edges of students knowledge, noting:

So emergent language is not a synonym for “any language that comes up in a lesson”; rather, it is that language which raises above the profile of the learner’s general language use. It is language sticking its head above the trenches – it is language use above and beyond the call of duty.

I think this is as good a definition as we can expect, but it still leaves me wondering how a teacher is supposed to spot emergent language. a student may be, for instance, straining at the edges of the ability, creating a wholly novel construction and yet, producing it perfectly. Would a teacher be able to spot what would seem to be just a well-formed sentence? Perhaps. Certainly if the teacher knew the students reasonably well this could be possible.
But putting this aside, despite Gaughan’s post, I’m not sure everyone who uses this phrase has quite the same understanding of the it, -something his disclaimer “emergent language is not a synonym for…” is testament to. On a final note, we shouldn’t confuse emergent, with emergentism, though both are related to language use.

Learner/student centred (thanks to Carol Goodey for this one)

I’m told that learner centric teaching is a good thing. What learner centric teaching is, is less clear. It seems to have something to do with reducing the amount of time a teacher is talking (TTT) and increasing the amount students talk (STT). I’ve often wondered if there is some kind of magic number. TTT 40:STT 60 = OLC (Optimum Learner Centredness). Or is the learner centredness of a class inversely proportional to TTT? (The Silent Way wins!)
Learner Centric, I think also includes making the classes more related to the students and taking their interests into account. Whether or not these things make any difference to how well they learn English I couldn’t tell you.

learning style

Means so many things to so many people. Whenever you find yourself discussing learning styles always be sure to check what exactly the other person means. Often it will be good old VAK but sometimes they might be talking about something more exotic like plungers and pragmatists, existential learners or whether you work better at night or in the morning.

Focus on form/ focus on formS

Never in the history of any subject has such a poor naming decision been made. If I was of conspiratorial bent I would argue that academics were purposefully trying to make papers inaccessible to teachers. So bad are these terms that
Betty azar defines provides quite a neat definition:

Focus on FormS (which I call Grammar-Based Teaching) essentially refers to working from a structural syllabus and weaving in content-based, task-based, skill-based communicative activities designed to give a lot of exposure to target structures and opportunities to practice using them.
Focus on Form essentially means slotting in grammar to content-based, task-based, skill-based communicative teaching, with the grammar designed to help students perform the activity at hand.
I like this quote because it’s one of the only ones I could find where the person writing attempted to define FoF. Most writers (EllisSheen, doughty, Gass, Cook) I looked at just quote Mike Long, who writes:

“Focus-on-form… overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication”.

That so few people gloss the definition makes me suspicious as to whether they understand it either. Though perhaps I’m just projecting here. The terms come up lot in research such as Long stating that focus on form is one of the ten principles in effective language teaching. Long makes the claim that these are founded on research. But what is Focus on Form, exactly? Both Thornbury and Ellis note that the definition has problems. Things like ‘how overt’ the focus has to be or whether it could be planned focus or not. I would add, that for me these questions remain:
  • how often do you bring students attention to language?
  • For how long?
  • What kind of ‘linguistic elements’? (grammar, vocab?)
  • How many linguistic elements?
  • What exactly does ‘draw attention to’ mean in practice? Write it on the board? Discuss it?
  • Do they need to practice?

Anyway, that’s it for now…I will try to add more in the future.

*(just because a term is hard to define doesn’t mean it’s useless. Try defining words like ‘love’ and ‘bald’ and you’ll see what I mean.) 

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