The typical claim is that teachers cite Krashen—and only Krashen—when talking about, or defending, comprehension-based teaching practices. In the past decade or so, that’s also expanded to include Bill VanPatten. One reason teachers might do this is that they have day jobs, and that day job certainly isn’t researching Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories. Seriously. The fact that anyone demands evidence from comprehension-based teachers to justify their practices is insulting. Furthermore, the fact that language teachers have *any* awareness of research is amazing when you compare the state of teacher preparation programs/licensing paths with the responsibilities of a classroom teacher. Sometimes I think how INSANE it is that I even blog about teaching in addition to teaching!
Now, time—alone—doesn’t invalidate research, but bad research certainly invalidates bad research. When it comes to science, Krashen hasn’t been all that technical, but you know what? Who cares?! Eric Herman brought up that bad research could have very good implications for teaching, while at the same time good research could have very bad implications for teaching. His example was that if it were replicated study after study that 100% error-correction all the time were effective, just imagine a classroom in which the teacher corrected every utterance/writing of the students! That’d be a messed up, top-down, authoritarian, walking-on-eggshells kind of class for most kids in the room.
If a theory has very good implications for the classroom, that’s a win. It turns out that Krashen skipped out on some things like having clear definitions for language, acquisition, and key parts of his 5-part monitor model. Scientists don’t like this. It’s really hard to research things that haven’t been defined in a researchable way. However, teachers don’t care, and they shouldn’t have to. Krashen wrote in a very teacher-friendly way that got down to the nuts and bolts of having the most positive effects on classroom teaching. Are we really surprised he’s quoted by teachers? Krashen has presented at many conferences and Facebook Live events, doing a TON of advocacy for a comprehension-based approach to language teaching. Therefore, he’s in the spotlight, and teachers cite him. The same is true of Bill VanPatten, with his ground-breaking Tea with BVP, from 2015-18, follow-up Talkin’ L2 (2019-20), and While We’re On The Topic. Since teachers aren’t researchers, these guys have brought SLA big ideas with very good implications for teaching to the profession. But the haters…in a nutshell, this has been their playbook:
- Demand support for comprehension-based practices
- Get Krashen quotes
- Dismiss Krashen’s research with support from just-as-not-super-scientific research of Swain (output) and Schmidt (noticing)
- Demand more support for comprehension-based practices
- Get VanPatten quotes
- Demand more support for comprehension-based practices N.B. I haven’t heard nearly as much criticism of VanPatten’s work, which could show that demand for support is the main line of the critic’s defense—per se—rather than seeking convincing evidence for comprehension-based teaching. In other words, the critics are placing the burden of proof onto others, relying on their standing as the dominant teaching paradigm, only. Were the burden of proof reversed, the critics wouldn’t have as much solid footing. I’m not saying there’s zero counter evidence, but I am saying it’s not as convincing or as replicated as that in support of comprehension-based teaching.
When’s the circus gonna end?! It’s quite simple. The critics just have to pony up with *more* research in support of something other than a comprehension-based approach, or *more-scientific* research (i.e. not based on just-as-wonky theories as they’re criticizing). That’s what the critics can to do, but what about everyone quoting Krashen and VanPatten?
What Can “CI Teachers” Do?
The first thing teachers can do is send Eric Herman like $50 a year, and/or get the Research Talks quote book. You’ll have more researchers to quote, because if we’re talking about a comprehension-based approach, we can cite a lot of people other than Krashen, even those who *pre-date* him! For example, Leonard Newmark was a new name for me until I got the Acquisition Classroom Memo #40 in my inbox back in May. These are my favorite quotes from that memo, to give you a glimpse of what Eric shares with members:
“… the whole question of the utility of
grammatical analysis for language teaching
needs to be reopened (Newmark, 1964, p. 217).”
“We believe that the necessary and sufficient
conditions for a human being to learn a
language are already known: a language will
be learned by a normal human being if and
only if particular, whole instances of language
use are modeled for him and if his own
particular acts using the language are
selectively reinforced… he will not need to
have analysis and generalizations about those
wholes made for him (Newmark & Reibel,
1968, p. 149-150).”
“Against the common view that students learn
language best when they spend a lot of time
speaking it, the comprehension approach takes
advantage of the logical realization that a
student who is talking cannot be learning,
since his performance cannot exceed his
competence: All he can say at any moment is
what he has already learned before. Learning
cannot be by [overtly] doing (Newmark, 1981,
Newmark was definitely more of a common sense guy, but that’s fine. After all, since teachers are not researchers, bad theories with very good implications for the classroom are more useful than complete theories with very bad implications. This is why the classroom context is so important. In fact, many critics aren’t even classroom teachers themselves. What good is quoting Newmark, Krashen, VanPatten, or any comprehension-based advocate when someone’s teaching or learning context suggests grammar-translation is an effective, or even acceptable method?! But the critics won’t go away. So, teachers have some options…
- Ignore critics
- Quoting Krashen (and VanPatten) less
- Quote more researchers than Krashen (and VanPatten)
- Demand that critics give counter evidence/support
#1 is generally a good idea to improve one’s quality of life. Just disengage when you can. Oh, and based on my experience, don’t ever enter an SLA discussion on Twitter. That platform moves too fast. People hardly have time to sit with ideas before replying, which often splinters a longer coherent thought. As more people join, they each bring a different aspect to the discussion, getting further and further from the original focus. In my opinion, SLA is complex, and just too big for Twitter. Then again, you might not have the luxury of #1. Still, expect critics to hold their ground. In my experience, most critics of comprehension-based teaching aren’t willing to listen. This might be true for critics of other teaching practices. For example, just this week in a workshop I’ve observed how boat loads of evidence cannot change someone’s mind on how inequitable certain grading practices are. Boat loads. It’s the ole’ “I would do anything for my students…but I won’t do that.” Sad. Regarding #2 and #3, if you’re already in the fray, or taking heat from admin/colleagues in power, both options are good if you have the time (and a little cash to throw Eric’s way) to stay current, or get up to speed with the last 60 years of SLA and what pre-dated it. The way that works out would be to imagine reaching for that handy Krashen quote, then quickly searching for someone else’s similar idea. After all, if the first line of a critic’s defense is to dismiss Krashen, skip it by not quoting Krashen. EZPZ. #4 is a more aggressive stance, and perhaps uncomfortable…impossible even in some contexts. In that case, at least try to agree on equal burdens of proof. Right now the power dynamic has critics at the top making the demands. We need to disrupt that. Although ideally it would be the other way around (i.e. “what support do you have for continuing to teach your way?”), having equal accountability to produce evidence is leagues ahead of the current situation.
Krashen, Latin Teachers & Textbook Grammar
The scientificity of Krashen’s theory aside, his ideas really did get SLA moving quickly, and his original theory has been updated with mostly slightly different concepts that have more-researchable definitions. The 5-part monitor model hasn’t been completely rejected or abandoned. It’s been modified. Lichtman and VanPatten just published this article days ago. Give that a quick read on some Krashen-inspired updates. For example, the original learning vs. acquisition distinction has been researched under concepts such as explicit vs. implicit knowledge, and also has been characterized as textbook grammar vs. mental grammar. This is much clearer to research than the original, and that’s fine. Teacher-friendly interpretations of all three concept pairs could come down to the difference between observing one student slowly speaking with great effort (i.e. thinking, perhaps applying textbook rules, aware of each word, etc.), and observing language fall from another student’s mouth effortlessly. Whatever researchers end up calling it, teachers know there are some approaches and methods that result in the former, and others that result in the latter.
The idea of textbook grammar vs. mental grammar should also hit home with Latin teachers. Latin teachers are masters of textbook grammar, and in some cases, literally (i.e. MA in Latin). For most of us, our experience was with one of the popular Latin textbooks, each with nearly the same sources of grammar rules (e.g. Allen & Greenough, Bennett). For most of us, too, we ended up with little to no speaking/writing proficiency, and hardly sufficient reading proficiency. In fact, a common definition of “read” for Latin teachers is translating into English using commentary, a grammar reference, and a dictionary nearby. Even though we had that solid grasp of textbook grammar, our minds/brains had almost no mental representation of the Latin language in-use. Many still don’t, and it’s only from significant extensive reading with at-level adapted texts, and now below-level novellas, and/or immersion experiences that have given us teachers a mental grammar of Latin, which results in being able to speak and write Latin without thinking, as well as read level-appropriate texts.