LINGUIST List 16.844

Sat Mar 19 2005

Disc: Re: 16.713, Disc: Controversies in AL

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        1.    Ronald Sheen, Re: 16.713, Disc: Controversies in AL

Message 1: Re: 16.713, Disc: Controversies in AL

Date: 18-Mar-2005
From: Ronald Sheen <>
Subject: Re: 16.713, Disc: Controversies in AL

This is response to Noah Silbert's (NS) stimulating post
( but unjustified argument.

>Although I don't disagree with the main thrust of Ronald Sheen's claims
>about the state of Applied Linguistics, I find it more than a little ironic
>that in his offer to defend his position, he falls prey to the same
>intellectual pitfalls he is so eager to criticize."

Let's establish what these ''intellectual pitfalls are'' in order to test
whether I have fallen prey to them. In fact, in my original post
(, I implied that there was
but a general one. That was to first propose that classroom second and
foreign language learning (SFLL) occurred in a certain manner and to (and
here comes the pitfall) then propose that the educational system be so
modified (_revolutionised, in fact_) to render classroom activity
conducive to allowing learners to experience language in that manner
_without_ carrying out long-term sample implementation to discover what
classroom learners actually acquire.

Put more succinctly, the pitfall entails theorising on the nature of
classroom learning and to then implement it on a grand scale without
discovering whether it actually works.

So the question to answer is the following: What in what I have previously
written provides support for his argument that I have fallen prey to this

Note that the following does not provide such support:

>Since we're on the subject of the end state of SLA, Sheen's claim that

>''there is empirical evidence to demonstrate that such an application is more
>a recipe for fossilisation'' is his most glaring example of acceptance of a
>dubious theoretical construct, exactly what he takes as the field's worst

The point that has been missed is the following: I _do not_ use the
assumed validity of such constructs as a platform for the advocacy for
some new teaching option resulting in yet one further disruptive revolution
in language teaching.

A verifiable example of actually falling prey to the pitfall is the
implementation of SCLT (strong CLT - see Howatt 1984:287-288) banning
all systematic teaching of grammar in the Province of Quebec, Canada, in
1984 (see Sheen 2003 for an account of this). Notable applied linguists
who had a hand in this are Lightbown and Spada who have also argued for
the validity of ''incidental learning'' and developmental sequences.
Lightbown (2002:533), for example, argues that ''Classroom research has
provided additional support for the conclusion that some features are
acquired incidentally - without intentional effort or pedagogical
guidance''. She has also stated that in using ''acquire'' she is
referring to the various incorrect forms which characterise the path towards
acquisition. In addition, and in implicit support of the validity of
developmental sequences, she (2002:533) suggests that the
developmental process may be quite prolonged and that, therefore,
teachers need to ''exercise patience'' in waiting for it to occur. Her
response, however, is problematic for, she provides no classroom-derived
evidence demonstrating learners progressing from some initially
inaccurate form.

More specifically, it needs to be emphasised, that there is nowhere in the
literature empirical evidence derived from long term classroom studies
demonstrating classes of students progressing from some initially
incidentally-acquired incorrect form to a more correct form. One case
where such a study should have revealed such evidence is Lightbown et al.
(2002). This was a six-year study of students' learning assumed to be
totally incidental. Yet, the findings provided neither evidence as support
for incidental learning enabling learners to produce correct forms nor for
passage through developmental stages.

A specific example of the assumption of the validity of incidental learning
leading to the passage through developmental sequences is Spada and
Lightbown (2002:125). They take third-person Wh-questions and argue
that learners initially produce forms such as ''What the dog playing'' (ie
with no fronted auxiliary) and later pass on to a stage in which they
produce correct forms. Surprisingly, given the introductory nature of the
book, the two authors provide no supportive empirical evidence derived
from actual classroom oral production resulting solely from incidental
learning. They further omit to refer to comparative research they both
carried out on the acquisition of third-person interrogatives (Spada and
Lightbown 1993) which did not produce any evidence to support their

On the other hand, a cross-linguistic study covering the eight years of
Quebec ESL (Sheen 2005) demonstrates that Spada and Lightbown are
correct in the initially acquired form. However, during the following eight
years, students continue to produce those same forms thus providing data
to support the plausible conclusion that to all intents and purposes these
incorrect forms have become fossilized. Now, in purely theoretical terms,
NS is quite correct in doubting the permanency of the putative
fossilisation. However, in terms of assessing the efficacy of a teaching
option, it is legitimate to consider the fact that students failed for eight
years to progress from an intially acquired form to later ones (in spite of
being continually exposed to them) as evidence of the failure of the
teaching option.

Finally, here are some specific points which deserve more specific

>My claim here is simply that the idea of 'applying' developmental
>sequences in the L2 classroom is, as far as I can tell, incoherent. On the
>other hand, it makes good sense to attempt to test whether or not they
>play a role in SLA and, if indeed they do, designing curricula to
>accommodate them.

This is surely a recipe for unethical conduct. That is, using students as
guinea pigs.

For what ''classroom application'' of developmental sequences means, see
Lightbown's advising (above) patience on the part of teachers as DSs occur
and Lightbown (1998, 2000 and 2002).

>Sheen's claim that the application of developmental sequences
>has ''NOWHERE been demonstrated to result in an ability to produce
>accurate grammatical language'' is also problematic. I may be
>misinterpreting this statement, but if by 'grammatical language' he means
>native-like in every respect,

Yes, NS is misinterpreting the statement. I am referring to examples such
as the interrogatives described above and the correct use of the ''usual
suspects'' in terms of erroneous verbal forms.


Howatt, A.P.R. (1984) A History of English LanguageTeaching. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, M. P. (1998). ''The importance of timing in focus on form.'' In C.
Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.) Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language
Acquisition, (pp, 177-196) Cambridge: CUP

Lightbown, P. (2000). ''Anniversary article: Classroom SLA research and
second language teaching''. Applied Lingustics, 21: 431-462.

Lightbown, P.M. (2002) ''The role of SLA research in L2 teaching: Reply to
Sheen''. Applied Linguistics, 23-4: 530-536.

Lightbown, M. P., Halter, H. R., White, J. L. & Horst, M. (2002)
''Comprehension-Based Learning: The Limits of 'Do It Yourself' ''. CMLR, 58:

Sheen, R. (2005) ''Developmental sequences under the microscope''.
Proceedings of The IATEFL Annual Conference 2004 in Liverpool, UK.

Spada, N., & Lighbown, P. M. (2002). ''Instruction and the development of
questions in the L2 classroom'' Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15:

Spada, N., & Lighbown, P. M. (1993). "Instruction and the development
of questions in the L2 classroom" Studies in Second Language Acquisition
15: 205-221.

Sheen, R. (2003) ''Focus in form - a myth-in-the-making'' English
Language Teaching Journal, 57: 225-233.

For previous messages in this discussion, see:

Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
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